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W.E.B. Du Bois Art Work: Distribution of Negroes in the United States Distribution of Negroes in the United States © W.E.B. Du Bois

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W.E.B. Du Bois exhibition ‘Charting Black Lives’

The exhibition, at the House of Illustration in London, tells the story of the important and influential African American W.E.B. Du Bois and his crucial work at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Katie McCurrach, Co-Curator of W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives, tells us about the exhibition and some of the works on display

Published on November 25, 2019

The exhibition at House of Illustration shares a set of 63 charts and maps by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most important African American activists and intellectuals of the twentieth century.

In 1900, Du Bois was commissioned to create an exhibit for the Exposition Universelle in Paris – a huge world trade fair for the new century. The Exposition was a celebration of French imperialism, and included displays of ‘living villages’ where black people were shown derogatively as trophies of the empire. Du Bois’ display of scientific data was a direct challenge to this degrading presentation, and was a completely new approach to refuting racism.

With a group of students and alumni from historically black Atlanta University, he used his own research and data from the United States census to show how African Americans were contributing to society – flourishing in education, purchasing land, starting businesses and publications – despite their status as people under slavery just forty years before, and continued discrimination and oppression.

At House of Illustration we are showing reproductions of the full set of charts for the first time in the UK, alongside a selection of photographs that were shown in the original exhibition, and new work by Guardian US data editor Mona Chalabi. Chalabi has used Du Bois’ visualisation techniques with contemporary data, to invite visitors to consider the disparities between white and black populations today, as well as the power and limitations of data in communicating complex social phenomena.

Du Bois' Charts

Du Bois’ charts are divided into two sections – charts that focus on the state of Georgia, and charts that look at statistics from the USA as a whole. There are certain themes that cross over both of them. One of these is education – Du Bois saw education as vital to self-realisation and self-respect for black people.

Before emancipation the black literacy rate was 1%, as slaves were forbidden by law to read or write. Through his exhibition in 1900, Du Bois aimed to show that black people were capable of extraordinary academic achievement despite lack of education opportunities, and so he exhibited 200 books written by black authors and a list of hundreds more in the exhibition alongside the charts.

These two charts focus on illiteracy rates in particular:

Illiteracy Left: Illiteracy (from the Georgia section) © W.E.B. Du Bois. Right: Illiteracy (updated) © Mona Chalabi

Illiteracy (from the Georgia section)

Before emancipation, it had been illegal for slaves to read or write, and for others to teach them. The white bars on the chart (above left) show how despite being withheld from literacy and formal education for over two centuries, illiteracy rates among black Georgians had halved in 40 years.

One of Mona Chalabi’s new artworks (above right) updates the Georgia illiteracy chart to show contemporary USA statistics. It shows that black illiteracy has fallen to 1.6%. What this chart fails to show however, is that even as late as 1979, illiteracy rates for African Americans were still four times higher than for white Americans. Today, reading assessments indicate there is still a gap between black and white literacy because of differences in the quality of education provided to different racial groups.

Illiteracy Illiteracy of the American Negroes Compared with That of Other Nations © W.E.B. Du Bois

Illiteracy of the American Negroes Compared with That of Other Nations (from the USA section)

Comparing the illiteracy of African Americans with that of other countries at the Paris Exposition made it clear that the black population had made huge strides in education despite oppression – Russia, Serbia and Romania had higher illiteracy rates at the time. Du Bois was still advocating for change however, as illiteracy rates for African Americans remained seven times higher than that of white Americans.

W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives is available to view at the House of Illustration in London to March 1, 2020. Details and tickets available via www.houseofillustration.org.uk


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