W. E. B. Du Bois’s Color Line

#forebears #racism #black_atlantic #visualization

12 November 2018


“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” The sociologist and black rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois meant that both literally, with the collection of infographics about the lives of black Americans he designed for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and figuratively by drawing them as radical and colorful works of art. The complete set of graphics has been collected in full color for the first time in the forthcoming book W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits, from which the following text is excerpted.

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The Georgia Negro: A Social Study
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, 1900 (Library of Congress).

The Cartography of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Color Line (excerpt)

by Mabel O. Wilson, professor of architecture at Columbia University

The first plate of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Georgia Negro: A Social Study depicts two circles of a globe split in half. In one circle appears Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia, and in the other North and South America. The plate, hand drawn on a twenty-two-by-twenty-eight-inch sheet of heavy paper, also includes an introductory statement written in neat script: “This case is devoted to a series of charts, maps and other devices designed to illustrate the development of the American Negro in a single typical state of the United States.” That state, Georgia, is located on the map with a star. A gradient of black and brown hues connects the east coasts of North and South America to the west coastline of Africa to demarcate the distribution of the Negro race across the territory of two continents. Five vectors, labeled “routes of the African slave trade,” link ports in West Africa to the coasts of Brazil, Santo Domingo, the American South, and Portugal.

This introductory plate (…) mapped what has come to be called the “Black Atlantic world.” It geographically rendered the extent of the African diaspora in the wake of the four-centuries-long transatlantic slave trade that transported an estimated twelve to seventeen million Africans to Europe’s colonial holdings in the Americas. Presenting to the primarily white European and American audience visiting Paris’s Exposition Universelle (1900), Du Bois gave a visual history lesson on the Atlantic slave trade. With this drawing he promised a scientifically documented report on the current state of black life in Georgia, and speculated on the future of race relations in the United States, announcing at the bottom of the image, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”

In argument with commonly held beliefs among white Europeans and Americans, Du Bois made a compelling case that it was historically constituted racial inequalities—not the Negro’s innate moral failings—that would prove a central impediment to black Americans achieving social equality with their fellow white citizens. For Du Bois the legacy of racial castes would stall social, political, and economic advancement in the United States in the new century.

While in Europe to see the exhibit installed in situ at the Paris Exposition, Du Bois joined other American activists (…) at the First Pan-African Conference hosted at London’s Westminster Town Hall. (…) Thirty-five years after Emancipation had legally granted black Americans freedom and citizenship, racism was a wound in the body politic that continued to fester amid widespread racial segregation. (…)

Throughout the grounds of the nineteenth-century world’s fairs, Europeans and Americans put the metropolitan and colonial world on view. Those stories about colonial conquests and magical foreign lands featured in books and newspapers could now be seen firsthand by people strolling through the carefully curated exposition halls, compounds, and grounds. According to scholar Tim Mitchell, “It was not always easy in Paris to tell where the exhibition ended and the world began.” [1] Living displays of so-called primitive peoples from the African continent, jungles of South America, and islands of the Pacific could be found at many of the world’s fairs. Fair organizers positioned these ethnographic displays in stark contrast to modern progress evident in the myriad of steam engines and industrial goods on view in the machine halls and pavilions. (…) The representation of “savage” black and brown peoples affirmed that they lived in a state of nature outside of history, which in turn rationalized the extraction of resources and expropriation of labor from their colonized territories. According to these ethnographic displays, if black Americans had advanced beyond a savage state it was only because of white benevolence and the black adoption of white culture.

It is within this charged context that the infographics debuted in the American Negro Exhibit. The exhibit, which was arranged in an orderly fashion in wooden vitrines that included a system of wing frames displaying multiple formats of information, was located just to the right when visitors entered the pavilion of Social Economy. The two previous Negro Buildings at world’s fairs in Atlanta and Charleston, which hosted much larger displays of African American racial progress, had been segregated into separate pavilions, whereas in Paris the American Negro Exhibit was integrated into the larger American display. [2] The contributions to the American exhibit showed maps, diagrams, lantern slides, models, and photographs to demonstrate how new methods in the social sciences were being used to discipline and improve the lives of immigrants, the indigent, children, and African Americans. (…)

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Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes
W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900 (Library of Congress).

Through charts and photographs, Du Bois’s work provided an empirical study of the various conditions of black life, covering topics such as marriage, mortality, employment, property ownership, education, miscegenation, and various other categories of social progress. One method used for several of these subjects was cartography, which in both sets of infographics spatialized the scale and scope of the black diaspora from the local to the global. Historically, along with the creation of maps—critical tools in the European colonial project—there emerged a cartographic gaze that cultivated a way of seeing the world through evolving cartographic technologies and new modes of representing a world no longer ruled by God and monsters but guided by reason and science. Cartography had given Europeans not only a way of navigating the oceans but also a means of exploring, mapping, and claiming territories in Africa, Asia, and the New World. The desire to map the world brought Europeans in contact with peoples in diverse regions. These colonial encounters recorded in maps and noted in the diaries of explorers provided detailed narratives for natural historians and philosophers to study and invent the comparative physiognomic variations of the human species, leading to geographic-based theories of racial difference. This conceptualization of terrestrial space and time became a productive tool such that, in the words of geographer Denis Cosgrove, “global mapping of climate and physical environments and of biologically defined human groups underpinned geographical theories of race.” [3] By linking racial difference to geography and climate, Europeans conceived a teleology of human development that situated themselves as the vanguard of a civilization whose cultural and technological products would be placed on view at the nineteenth-century grand expositions. At the pavilion of Social Economy, conceived by sociologist Ferdinand Le Play, who masterminded the taxonomy of many of the nineteenth-century Paris fairs, the cartographic gaze was trained on the social landscapes of nations, where modern societies were categorized and subdivided on a hierarchy ranging from those deemed socially undesirable—such as orphans, people of color, and the poor—to those who defined the social norm, such as European and Anglo-American families capable of productively contributing to modern society. The core mission of Du Bois’s sociological research was to forcefully refute the widespread belief that black Americans were innately inferior and incapable of social advancement.

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Assessed valuation of all taxable property owned by Georgia Negroes.
W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900 (Library of Congress).

In both the Georgia study and the second series of infographics exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, Du Bois and his team redeployed the Western methods of cartography that had been used to marginalize and exploit black life by inscribing the black world back into history and geography. In an essay highlighting the contents of the American Negro Exhibit published in the American Monthly Review of Reviews, Du Bois wrote that the entire exhibit recorded black self-determination as a portrait of a “small nation of people” who were “shown to be studying, examining, and thinking of their own progress and prospects.” [4] (…)

When Du Bois rendered a geographic history of the African slave trade and mapped present conditions in Georgia, he (…) illustrated through evidence —black lines on white pages— how centuries of racial oppression and exploitation, not a lack of natural aptitude, had shaped the current abysmal conditions of black life worldwide. This was a bold message to broadcast in Paris to a white European and American audience who had been the agents and benefactors of centuries of ruthless black dispossession. Thus for Du Bois to map the black world was to boldly visualize a cartography refuting Hegel’s assertion that “what we understand as Africa proper is that unhistorical and undeveloped land which is still enmeshed in the natural spirit.” [5] The series launched a powerful counter-argument, stating that blacks had always been a part of world history and that “black spirit” was evident in the range of culture on view—from literature and poetry to patents and other works of independent black genius. As Du Bois observed, the American Negro Exhibit showed “the development of Negro thought” and revealed “a small nation of people, picturing their life and development, without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.”

↬ Mabel O. Wilson.

Mabel O. Wilson is an architectural designer and cultural historian. She is the author of “Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture” (Smithsonian, 2016) and “Negro Building: African Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums” (University of California, 2012). At Columbia University she is a professor of architecture, a co-director of Global Africa Lab, and associate director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies.