Talking to Paul Goodwin about the exhibition 'W.E.B. Du Bois - Charting Black Lives'

Issue no4
aug - sep 2023
inkomen & eindexamens 2023

American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and prolific author W.E.B. Du Bois was commissioned to curate an exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, not even 40 years after slavery was officially abolished. The hand-drawn, colourful and visually seductive infographics presented at the time are now on show at the Meterhuis on the Westergasterrein in Amsterdam. Manuela Zammit aks its co-curator Professor Paul Goodwin more about it.

On a Wednesday afternoon, I sat down with Professor Paul Goodwin from University of the Arts London, to speak about the exhibition W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives, which he co-curated with The Black Archives and the Illustratie Ambassade. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and prolific author. He was the first African American to earn a doctorate, which he was awarded from Harvard. Although several of Du Bois’ written works and speeches about civil rights are considered to be seminal contributions to African American literature, his set of infographics presented at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris and now in Charting Black Lives, have only very recently been rediscovered and written about.

—Manuela Zammit W.E.B. Du Bois was commissioned to curate an exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition), but he did not work alone. How did he even manage to get commissioned at such a delicate time in the US, not even 40 years after slavery was officially abolished? Can you elaborate on the processes and people involved in the research and making of the infographics?

—Paul Goodwin ‘Yes, it's indeed amazing. Du Bois at that point was one of the best young researchers who was doing cutting-edge research in sociology, a fledgling academic discipline at the time. To be clear, Du Bois was not the first to invent data visualisations, but in terms of studying the Black community, he certainly was. The Philadelphia Negro is now widely considered to be the first major study in American sociology. After Philadelphia, he got a job at Atlanta University. He assembled a team of graduate students that were collecting data using surveys and other methods which were really just starting to be utilised in American sociology. There was the need to get a top researcher on board for this exhibition, so Thomas J. Callaway turned to Du Bois to organise the exhibit.

Callaway was an African American educator and researcher who petitioned the American government to try and get the African American experience represented in the American Pavilion in the World Exposition in Paris in 1900, a huge exhibition dedicated to showing ‘the best of’ Western civilisation. The Americans were given a large space in the social economy section, of which Du Bois’ exhibit occupied a relatively small portion. Callaway petitioned the government, President McKinley said yes, and allocated $15,000 for the exhibition to be organised. Du Bois had to work quickly to bring all the elements together in a very short amount of time - his students actually drew these charts by hand, he himself travelled to Paris to install the work.

To think that it was an all-Black team that assembled this in 1900, it’s quite incredible how that happened. But this is a testament to the fact that there were a number of really important and powerful Black intellectuals who were academically, socially and politically active at the time. There was also Daniel Murray, a Black assistant librarian at the Library of Congress who was himself a really important writer, activist and intellectual who was really keen to use resources from the Library of Congress. In fact a bibliography of over 1400 books written by African American authors, also female writers, was included in the exhibit too.’

'This is a testament to the fact that there were a number of really important and powerful Black intellectuals who were academically, socially and politically active at the time'

Overview of the exhibition 'W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives'

Infographics installed in the exhibition 'W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives'

—Manuela Zammit What is the specific power of W.E.B. Du Bois’ infographics as opposed to, say, text or painting, that ultimately led to their impactfulness?

—Paul Goodwin ‘This exhibit is the work of young Du Bois, a man of science and a pioneer of American sociology. It was a visual argument about Black people’s resilience and the progress in their social condition following the abolition of slavery, yet Du Bois saw it not just as a visual display, but as a mobilisation of sociology that also struck an interesting relation to the visual. It was imbued with a sense of hope that using scientifically proven methods and visual methods would somehow convince audiences at large of the merit of Black life. The graphics were visually seductive; colourful, hand-drawn and consisting of quite unusual shapes. Du Bois went beyond the standard means of data visualisation such as the bar chart and the pie chart. I think he took things to another level, for instance with some of the spirals - the famous spiral that everyone talks about. He wanted to do something that would catch your eye, visually seduce you into looking at it and spending time looking at it before looking into the numbers and understanding what lies behind the image.’

'Du Bois wanted to do something that would catch your eye, visually seduce you into looking at it and spending time looking at it before looking into the numbers and understanding what lies behind the image'

Left: Assessed – Value of Household and Kitchen Furniture Owned by Georgian Negroes. Right: Assessed Valuation of All Taxable Property Owned by Georgia Negroes, © W.E.B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

Left: Negro Property in Two Cities of Georgia. Right: Negro Teachers in Georgia Public Schools, © W.E.B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

—Manuela ZammitHow do you think that these infographics manage to visualise abstracted statistical information without flattening Black subjectivity and lived experience?

—Paul Goodwin ‘Abstraction is quite an important tool for Du Bois since some form of abstraction is necessary in order to be able to theorise, but that abstraction needs to be communicated and grounded again. At this point it is important to mention that the exhibit included quite a lot of photographs too and I think that that’s how Du Bois partly dealt with this. The photographs portray the lived experience of Black people in all its variety; both in terms of a whole range of skin colours - you could be African American and be anything between very dark-skinned and very light-skinned like Du Bois himself - and in terms of showing Black people in all spheres of life; as teachers, nurses and even in other jobs where Black people faced a lot of barriers to entry. I believe Du Bois was aware of the limitations of showing only data and wanted to balance it out.

Daniel Murray was very important in terms of compiling some of the photographs. Du Bois and Murray assembled and then personally selected from over 500 photographs of African American life, many of them, quite significantly, taken by African American photographers. The ones in Georgia were taken by a Black photographer called Thomas Eskew, who documented African American people in domestic and work situations. Du Bois had a particular relationship with the visual and was quite interested in the politics of the visual. He was very concerned with how Black people saw themselves, and how others saw them. In The Souls of Black Folk, his most famous work which he wrote only a couple of years after the Paris exhibition, he speaks about the idea of the veil, or the idea that as a Black person in America, you have a kind of double consciousness; how you see yourself, but also how you are being seen by the white people. So there are two operative logics going on in the exhibit; the logic of statistical data in the infographics and the logic of the gaze in the photographs, both in terms of the self-reflexive gaze and the white gaze.’

‘Abstraction is quite an important tool for Du Bois since some form of abstraction is necessary in order to be able to theorise, but that abstraction needs to be communicated and grounded again'

Proportion of Freemen and Slaves Among American Negroes © W. E. B. Du Bois

Population © W. E. B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

—Manuela Zammit Mona Chalabi reproduces Du Bois’ infographics with contemporary data, clearly showing that Black people today are still facing some of the same issues as in the early 1900s. How do you see data collection and visualisation as a valuable tool for political representation and resistance, both in the time that W.E.B. Du Bois’ infographics were shown and in the present?

—Paul Goodwin ‘A quite successful period of reconstruction followed the abolishment of slavery, during which there was an attempt to give Black ex-slaves certain rights and opportunities. There were numerous Black people who made progress in various professions and were doing pretty considering, but what happened, particularly in the south, was a complete reaction to that; racists, ex-plantation and slave owners started to mobilise, the Klu Klux Klan was formed and started to terrorise Black communities. There was a huge push-back. The situation in the US was quite complex at the time and these were the conditions that Du Bois was faced with. It wasn't all racist but it was also very violent and gruesome. Earlier on you asked about how they managed to get commissioned. Well, in some respects, there was a sense that Black people should be represented because it showed America as a powerful modernising country and in a way it can be seen as propaganda in the sense that “We can show that we're treating our Black people well” particularly in the north, but in the south that wasn’t the case at all, so you had these conflicting views.

I think one of the reasons why it might resonate today is because data is so much part of everyday life that we couldn't even envisage life now without it. Over a hundred years ago Du Bois already considered data and as being central to the visibility of Black lives, and the representation of Black life through data, I think, is something which a lot of younger activists have taken up and are engaging with now. A number of other exhibitions are starting to show these charts, because I think people understand that data is not neutral but nonetheless it is seen as being just a fact of life. It's something that we can use to build a better society or to understand things better. Du Bois certainly showed that data is political and understanding data is something that you need to do particularly if you're struggling for civil rights and for validating Black lives.

In a way that exhibition was the first event to state that Black lives matter. It was actually stating that 120 years before the statement was ‘invented’ and became a huge movement following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. But how do you demonstrate that Black lives matter to a society based on rationalisation and scientific method? At that point in time, Du Bois was hopeful and really believed that his message could be effectively communicated using the same rational and scientific ‘language’, but that might have changed somehow through his later experiences.’

Occupations © W.E.B. Du Bois and Mona Chalabi

—Manuela Zammit If Du Bois had to redo this exhibit later on in his career, when he had a different outlook on how much more difficult it can be to change people’s views, and was maybe a bit less optimistic or hopeful, how do you think he would have done it differently?

—Paul Goodwin ‘I think the first panel, which is a map of the Americas and Africa and shows the relationships of the African diaspora - I think he might have emphasised that more. So it wouldn't just be about Black life in America, but about the Black experience more globally. To me that map shows that Du Bois was indeed always interested in the diaspora and in mapping global connections. He travelled quite a lot to several different places and corresponded with people from all those places. He went to Lisbon, to London a few times, to Manchester, to Africa, and saw a real chance of building a new society in Ghana. He even came here to lecture in Holland, so it’s great that the Black Archives co-curated this iteration of the exhibition. So yes, I think that if he was going to do this again, he would adopt a more global, internationalist perspective.’

The Georgia Negro © W.E.B. Du Bois 

Writer’s note: This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.


W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives runs until December 29, 2021 at the Meterhuis on the Westergasterrein in Amsterdam. Illustratie Ambassade is showing the exhibition in collaboration with The Black Archives. Alongside the exhibition a number of ancillary events are taking place.

7 December - Workshop Data Visualization. On the morning of December 7, artists, designers, data analysts and storytellers will collaboratively create infographics on social topics. As an introduction to this, Frédérik Ruys, data journalist and information designer, will give an insight into the pitfalls from data analysis to visual storytelling.

9 December - Round Table Discussion on W.E.B. Du Bois. Between 19:30 and 21:30, photographer and researcher Angela Tellier, researcher Isabelle Britto, artist Iris Kensmil and curator Paul Goodwin will speak about the life and meaning of W.E.B Du Bois.

10 December Round Table Discussion on Infographics. Between 19:30 and 21:30 with data editor Mona Chalabi, data journalist Winny de Jong and designer Sonja Kuipers.

Manuela Zammit
is a writer and researcher

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