The House of Illustration is showing the pioneering and powerful infographics of black sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois
The use of infographics to market and explain everything from tourist offers to complex socioeconomic issues and politics might be at its height, but at the turn of the century the pioneering Black sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and author William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963) was a pioneer of the form.
WEB Du Bois used them to challenge pseudo-scientific racism and make visual arguments every bit as powerful as his textual ones and arguably more powerful and fascinating than the many infographics we encounter today.
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As co-founder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and author of the seminal book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois is celebrated for his profound and prolific writings, yet his grasp of the power of analytical data as a means of visually conveying ideas and arguments was ground-breaking.
For the first time in the UK, the complete set of the 63 pioneering graphics shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition, produced by Du Bois and a team of African American students from his sociology laboratory at Atlanta University, is on display at the House of Illustration.
A world’s fair celebrating the achievements of the past century and anticipating those of the next, the Exposition was visited by almost 50 million people. In stark contrast to many other exhibitors at the Exposition who viewed black people as colonial commodities, Du Bois had one goal: to prove to an international audience, the essential equality of African American people.
Not only did his visually innovative graphs, charts and maps form a radical new approach to refuting racism, by using strikingly presented facts and statistics to counter contemporary white supremacy, he effectively presented his own research on the achievements of African Americans in the few short years since Emancipation.
“these seminal data visualisation charts helped to put black lives at the centre of social debate”
As the fascinating infographics reveal, despite the Civil Rights movements of the 1860s and 1870s, 1900 America was a time of Jim Crow laws and discrimination in education and employment that shackled many black Americans to substandard lives well into the 20th century.
Urban theorist and interdisciplinary researcher Prof Paul Goodwin of the University of the Arts, London, who has co-curated this first comprehensive showing in the UK of these seminal data visualisation charts, says they “helped to put black lives at the centre of social debates while also helping to pioneer the emerging arts of data visualisation.”
“This exhibition enables audiences in the UK to gain a greater understanding of the incredible range of WEB Dubois’ scholarship and activism and inspire a new generation of scholar-activists across many fields of social and political intervention.”
In fin de siècle Paris, Du Bois demonstrated that black culture had flourished even within the extreme constraints of violently enforced racial segregation across the Southern states. Also in the Paris exhibition were a series of 363 photographs commemorating the lives of African Americans at the turn of the century that challenged the racist caricatures and stereotypes of the day.
But here it’s the innovative infographics that take centre stage, and alongside them are a series of original artworks by Mona Chalabi, Data Editor at The Guardian, repurposing Du Bois’ distinctively clean lines, arresting shapes and bold primary colours for the 21st century. Chalabi’s work demonstrates the enduring relevance of Du Bois’ data visualisation methods and the racial inequalities he fought against.
Back in 1900 Du Bois had already grasped the potential and power of his own brand of sociology, politics and history and was on the cusp of great things.
As well as writing and publishing the Souls of Black Folk he co-founded the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909 and edited its magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1924. By the time of his death in 1963, aged 96, he was acknowledged as one of the most important black protest leaders of the first half of the 20th century.
Just one year after his death, The United States enacted the Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms that Du Bois had campaigned for his entire life.
A sumptuous book, Black Lives 1900: W. E. B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition, edited by Julian Rothenstein, has been published by Redstone Press to coincide with the exhibition.
The exhibition W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives is at the House of Illustration until March 1 2020.
House of Illustration
House of Illustration's building in King's Cross is now permanently closed but we continue our work online and will reopen in 2022 as the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration in Islington.