Whoever controls the narrative has the power. In 1900, when the renowned sociologist, author, and Atlanta University professor W.E.B. Du Bois presented his groundbreaking The Exhibition of American Negroes at the Paris Exposition, he painted a revolutionary picture of what it meant to be Black in America.
Du Bois had worked with a group of Black students and alumni across the South to bring the show to life. The exhibition—intended to illustrate progress since slavery—included roughly 500 portraits of affluent Black Americans, curated to combat negative stereotypes. It also featured 60 handmade data visualizations that documented the progress Black Americans had made, despite the white supremacist systems standing in their way. The innovative graphics told the story of Black folks in a dynamic way that had never been done before, and on a global stage. At the time, people of color were often depicted in villages or jungles, legitimizing colonialism. Similarly, the Black American experience was defined by images of slavery, the Civil War, and continued oppression.
Du Bois’s data visualizations, recently on display at Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Musuem, are a reminder of the power of effective storytelling. And their origins at the AUC are a testament to the crucial role these institutions have played in holding society accountable.
This article appears in our October 2023 issue.