W.E.B. Du Bois
Chapter One Known for
Pioneering empirical sociological theory, research and data visualizations that illustrate and quantify the forces and effects of racial oppression in the decades following emancipation
(The color line)
In 1903, Du Bois opens The Souls of Black Folk, a foundational piece of Black protest literature, with the following diagnosis: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Borrowed from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the idea of the color line — a reference to the racial segregation that existed in the “separate-but-equal” United States after the abolition of slavery in 1865 — was central to much of Du Bois’ work as a civil rights activist. But it was in his earlier work as a pioneering sociologist that he first sought to measure, delineate and represent the color line through rigorous field work and visionary information design. In 1900, as head of the school of sociology at Atlanta University he founded, DuBois and a team of current and former students put together a series of 63 ground-breaking charts, graphs and maps designed to illustrate the evolution of Black life in the 35 years since emancipation for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. They formed two distinct studies meant to be viewed as a whole: one focused on Georgia, the state with the highest population of Black people; the second was national and international in scope. In her 2018 essay “The Cartography of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Color Line,” renowned architect and scholar Mabel O. Wilson writes that “these visualizations offer a prototype of design practices that were not widely utilized until more than a century later, anticipating the trends — now vital in our contemporary world — of design for social innovation, data visualization in service to social justice, and the decolonization of pedagogy.”
Data visualization expert Elijah Meeks calls this the “Du Bois spiral.” When dealing with wildly out-of-balance ratios that wouldn’t be able to fit on a page using traditional methods, Du Bois would often coil the longest bar — here, Black people living in rural areas — around itself.
Aware that the reader wouldn’t be able to directly compare the lengths of the various segments, Du Bois writes the exact number of people living in the different classifications of areas.
Whereas most charts and graphs of the day were rendered in pastels, Du Bois’ are saturated with vibrant primary colors. Printing wasn’t an option — he only had four months to get the exhibit together — so the data portraits were hand painted on thick card stock. (And according to design scholar Jason Forrest, Du Bois likely used watercolors by George C. Osborne.)
Du Bois and his team developed a strict set of letterform measurements to ensure consistency across the graphs and among team members. The letters were first outlined in pencil using a ruler, then filled in with ink. They only used capital letters and reduced any curves in the letterforms to a series of angles (see the “R” in “Rural”).
Chapter Six Perception
How Du Bois’ data visualization has been seen by the press, his colleagues and contemporary artists and scholars
(“It’s impossible to do justice to this exhibit in a few lines of descriptive matter”)
“The Exhibit of the American Negro” was tucked away in a corner of the multinational Pavilion of Social Economy—an entirely different building than the one that housed the main United States national building of the Paris Exhibition. Nevertheless, the exhibit was a critical and popular success, receiving thousands of visitors as well as two Grand Prix and more than a dozen other prizes, including a special gold medal for Du Bois. According to the official Exposition report, “there was no better example of the Exposition idea that exhibits must be made attractive and interesting.”
(“Proof that all classes of the American population are valuable citizens”)
Coverage in the wider press, however, depended entirely on the publication’s demographic. In the US, the Black press reported on the exhibit extensively and enthusiastically, recognizing it as a milestone in the fight for equal rights. The Appeal, one of the most successful Black newspapers of the turn of the century, wrote in October of 1900 that “this is the first time in the history of exposition abroad that the Afro-American has ever taken so important and successful a part,” proving “that all classes of [the American] population are prosperous, progressive and valuable citizens.”
(“Du Bois explored a subject that white America just didn’t care about”)
On the other hand, the white press in the US completely ignored the exhibit. Jason Forrest, a design scholar and the editor-in-chief of data visualization journal Nightingale, writes that in studying Black Americans, “Du Bois simply explored a subject that white America just didn’t care about — especially at the dawn of the 20th century.”
(“The scholar denied”)
But it wasn’t just the press that ignored Du Bois’ work — his own colleagues did too. Despite being a founding father of American sociology — leading cutting-edge empirical research decades ahead of his counterparts at the Chicago school of sociology — his contributions to his field have never been properly recognized. Renowned sociologist and scholar Aldon Morris, who wrote The Scholar Denied, an intricately researched book on Du Bois’ academic legacy, has said that through his methodology, his field work and his visionary theory of the self, “Du Bois was the first sociologist to articulate the agency of the oppressed.”
(“These were bold Black nationalist sentiments”)
In 2018, the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Princeton Architectural Press published Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. The book collected all of Du Bois’ infographics together for the first time alongside academic essays and rich captions for each chart, graph and map by noted contemporary scholars. In her essay “The Cartography of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Color Line,” architect and scholar Mabel O. Wilson notes the self-examination and self-determination inherent to the exhibit. “These were bold Black nationalist sentiments,” she writes. “The Black consciousness of a people who understood themselves in a particular time and place strongly refuted the notion that the African had no history, no civilization, and hence no culture.”
Chapter Seven Influences
Discover Du Bois' place in the history.