W.E.B. Du Bois Creates Revolutionary, Artistic Data Visualizations Showing the Economic Plight of African-Americans (1900)


Few peo­ple have done more to accu­rate­ly fore­see and help shape the cen­tu­ry ahead of them as W.E.B. Du Bois. And per­haps few intel­lec­tu­als from the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry still have as much crit­i­cal rel­e­vance to our con­tem­po­rary glob­al crises. Du Bois’ inci­sive soci­ol­o­gy of racism in The Souls of Black Folk, Black Recon­struc­tion in Amer­i­ca, and his arti­cles for the NAACP’s jour­nal, The Cri­sis, remained root­ed in a transcon­ti­nen­tal aware­ness that antic­i­pat­ed glob­al­ism as it cri­tiqued trib­al­ism. Du Bois, who stud­ied in Berlin and trav­eled wide­ly in Europe, Africa, and Latin Amer­i­ca, also became one of the most influ­en­tial of Pan-African­ist thinkers, unit­ing the anti-colo­nial con­cerns of African and Caribbean nations with the post-Recon­struc­tion issues of Black Amer­i­cans.


In 1900, Du Bois attend­ed the First Pan-African Con­fer­ence, held in Lon­don at West­min­ster Hall just pri­or to the Paris Exhi­bi­tion. Atten­dees pre­sent­ed papers on “the African ori­gins of human civ­i­liza­tion,” writes Ram­la Ban­dele at Northwestern’s Glob­al Map­pings, on African self-gov­ern­ment, and on the impe­r­i­al aggres­sion of Euro­pean coun­tries (includ­ing the host coun­try). Du Bois arrived armed with what might have seemed like a dull offer­ing to some: a col­lec­tion of sta­tis­tics. But not just any col­lec­tion of sta­tis­tics. Though they’re now an often banal sta­ple of our every­day work­ing lives, his pre­sen­ta­tion used then-inno­v­a­tive charts and graphs to con­dense his data into a pow­er­ful set of images.


Once again antic­i­pat­ing glob­al trends of over a cen­tu­ry hence, the activist and soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Atlanta Uni­ver­si­ty cre­at­ed around 60 eye-catch­ing data visu­al­iza­tions, “charts and maps,” writes the blog All My Eyes, “hand drawn and col­ored at the turn of the 19th cen­tu­ry” by Du Bois and his stu­dents.

For audi­ences at the time, these must have packed the evi­den­tiary punch that Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Repa­ra­tions” have recent­ly. Du Bois and his stu­dents’ charts show us—as the first “slide” at the top of the post notes—“the con­di­tion of the descen­dants of for­mer African slaves now res­i­dent in the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca.”


The col­lec­tion of info­graph­ics, Dan­ny Lewis argues at The Smith­son­ian, “is just as rev­o­lu­tion­ary now as it was when it was first cre­at­ed,” for an exhib­it Du Bois orga­nized with a lawyer named Thomas J. Cal­loway and his occa­sion­al rival Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton. “This was less than half a cen­tu­ry after the end of Amer­i­can slav­ery,” writes Alli­son Meier at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “and at a time when human zoos dis­play­ing peo­ple from col­o­nized coun­tries in repli­cas of their homes were still com­mon.” In the U.S., the grotesque stereo­types of black­face min­strels pro­vid­ed the pri­ma­ry depic­tion of African-Amer­i­can life.


“Du Bois’ stu­dents,” writes data blog See­ing Com­plex­i­ty, “made a rad­i­cal deci­sion when they visu­al­ized the eco­nom­ic plight of a group explic­it­ly exclud­ed from sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis and thus hid­den from inter­na­tion­al atten­tion.” The lev­el of detail—for Du Bois’ time and ours—is over­whelm­ing, remind­ing us that “the sim­ple act of dis­sem­i­nat­ing infor­ma­tion can, in itself, be a rad­i­cal­ly and poten­tial­ly trans­for­ma­tive act.” In one of Du Bois’ graph­ic stud­ies, “The Geor­gia Negro,” he quotes his key line from The Souls of Black Folk, “The prob­lem of the 20th cen­tu­ry is the prob­lem of the col­or-line.” Far too much cur­rent data demon­strates that the state­ment still holds true in the 21st cen­tu­ry, as gross dis­par­i­ties in wealth and in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem grim­ly per­sist, or wors­en, along racial lines.


Data may not be as trans­for­ma­tive as Du Bois had hoped, but it forces us to con­front the real­i­ty of the situation—and either ratio­nal­ize the sta­tus quo or seek to change it. One of three parts of the exhib­it, The Geor­gia Negro study was Du Bois’ “most impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the project,” writes Pro­fes­sor Eugene Proven­zo in his book on the sub­ject. The charts are tru­ly impres­sive for their dis­til­la­tion of “an enor­mous amount of sta­tis­ti­cal data,” drawn from “sources such as the Unit­ed States Cen­sus, the Atlanta Uni­ver­si­ty Reports, and var­i­ous gov­ern­men­tal reports that had been com­piled by Du Bois for groups such as the Unit­ed States Bureau of Labor.” (Much of the data would have gone uncol­lect­ed were it not for Du Bois’ tire­less efforts.)


The charts are also, Proven­zo notes, “remark­able in terms of their design,” as you can see for your­self. Du Bois and his stu­dents com­mit­ted to “exam­in­ing every­thing,” Meier writes, quot­ing Slate’s Rebec­ca Onion, “from the val­ue of house­hold and kitchen fur­ni­ture to the ‘rise of the negroes from slav­ery to free­dom in one gen­er­a­tion.’” And they did so in a way that still looks “strik­ing­ly vibrant and mod­ern, almost antic­i­pat­ing the cross­ing lines of Piet Mon­dri­an or the inter­sect­ing shapes of Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky.” How­ev­er much their cre­ators had explic­it­ly mod­ernist inten­tions, these designs also draw from his­tor­i­cal tech­niques in data visu­al­iza­tion—from 17th cen­tu­ry sci­en­tif­ic texts to Flo­rence Nightingale’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary 19th cen­tu­ry epi­demi­o­log­i­cal maps.


You can view and down­load scans of all the hand-drawn Du Bois’ Pan-African Con­fer­ence charts and graphs at the Library of Con­gress. There, you’ll also find oth­er fea­tures of the Du Bois/Calloway/Washington Exhib­it, includ­ing pho­tographs of sev­er­al African-Amer­i­can men who had “received appoint­ment as clerks in civ­il ser­vice depart­ments… through com­pet­i­tive exam­i­na­tions” and a “hand-let­tered descrip­tion of Hamp­ton Nor­mal and Agri­cul­tur­al Insti­tute” in Vir­ginia. Du Bois’ descrip­tion of his project says as much about his sense of Black Nation­al­ism as it does about pride in the progress made a gen­er­a­tion after slav­ery: “an hon­est straight­for­ward exhib­it of a small nation of peo­ple, pic­tur­ing their life and devel­op­ment with­out apol­o­gy or gloss, and above all made by them­selves.”


via Hyper­al­ler­gic/All My Eyes/See­ing Com­plex­i­ty/Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

Flo­rence Nightin­gale Saved Lives by Cre­at­ing Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Visu­al­iza­tions of Sta­tis­tics (1855)

The Art of Data Visu­al­iza­tion: How to Tell Com­plex Sto­ries Through Smart Design

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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