Book review: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits (Princeton Arch. Press)

The Library of Congress holds a collection of hand-drawn infographics about the life and progress of the African-American population. The series was prepared by the sociologist and civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois with a group of his students and alumni for the Paris World Fair in 1900.

A stunning new book from Princeton Architectural Press re-traces this project and shows images of all surviving sheets.

 

Plate 20 from “The Georgia Negro” (via Library of Congress)

So why is this interesting?

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a young sociologist and civil-rights activist brimming with ideas and energy when he was invited to contribute to an exhibition about the life and progress of the African-American population in the US, to be shown at the World Fair 1900 in Paris. For this show he devised a series of 63 large format infographics. The aim was to provide statistical proof of the progress that had been achieved by the African American population in the decades since the abolishing of slavery, and to counter Darwinist beliefs, rampant among white Americans and Europeans, of the inborn inferiority of black people.

The series consists of two complementary parts: the more detailed study The Georgia Negro, which analysed the conditions of life of the African American population in Georgia as a case study. This was complemented by A Series of Statistical Charts Illustrating the Condition of the Descendants of Former African Slaves Now in Residence in the United States of America.

Plate 58 from “A Series of Statistical Charts…” (via Library of Congress)

So why is this series unique?

It is unique for many reasons: because there are so many sheets, because they were all hand-drawn, because they convey a very particular aesthetics, because (to my knowledge) this is the first time that somebody used infographics extensively in an exhibition, BUT MOST OF ALL because it was innovative and unusual at the time to round-up sociological research and visualise it in charts in order to educate a large public and to make a political statement.

After the World Fair, the series went to the Library of Congress (as its creation had been financially supported by Congress) and sat there for decades. However, since its digitization a few years ago, it has become really popular within the data vis community and beyond—even more so with the publication of this book, which coincided with W.E.B. Du Bois’s 150th anniversary last year.

Plate 31 from “The Georgia Negro” (via Library of Congress)

 

So what’s in the book?

First of all, it shows the whole series in high-quality reproductions, each accompanied by a detailed caption. The editors Whitney Battle-Baptist and Britt Rusert—both scholars of W.E.B. Du Bois’s work—contributed an intro chapter. I specifically liked their opening, which introduces a wonderful vision of an all-encompassing, immersive dataviz super-installation:

“In his little-known speculative fiction “The Princess Steel” (ca. 1908-10), scholar, writer, and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois weaves a tale about a black sociologist who stages a magnificent experiment on the top floor of a a Manhattan skyscraper overlooking Broadway. At the center of this short story stands a megascope, a fictive technology that looks like a giant trumpet, … equipped with handles, eyepieces, and earpieces. When hooked up to the megascope, users are able to view the ‘Great Near’, Du Bois’s term for the always present but usually invisible structures of colonialism and racial capitalism that shape the organization of society.

The vision produced by the megascope…is generated in part by data contained in a massive set of volumes lining the wall of the laboratory, a vast set of demographic studies collected for over ‘200 years’… Dr. Hannibal Johnson, the sociologist and protagonist of the story, uses this data to plot what he calls ‘The Law of Life’ onto a ‘thin transparent film, covered with tiny rectangular lines, and pierced with many holes, and stretched over a large frame. He then goes on to plot what he calls ‘The Curve of Steel’ onto a glittering, crystal globe suspended in the air and upon which the megascope’s vision subsequently takes shape.”

In the following essay, sociologist Aldon Morris points out that the external conditions for the show were not only favourable, crouched into a corner of the Pavilion of Social Economy, which was located next to the Pont de l’Alma on the Northern bank of the Seine. He justly stresses that the “power of the American Negro Exhibit derived from its sociological imagination.” Du Bois was highly imaginative and innovative in that he appropriated the methods of statistical graphics and technical drawing to make sociological research VISIBLE. Furthermore, LA-based designer and educator Silas Munro contributes an introduction to the charts, stressing that “…Du Bois and his team used information design as a rhetorical device”.

Plate 50 from “A Series of Statistical Charts…” (via Library of Congress)

So what does that leave to be desired?

This book is beautiful, timely and necessary, as it explores the series in detail for the first time. Unfortunately, however, no effort has been made to place Du Bois within the broader history of data visualisation, and no references were made to the emerging culture of statistical graphics that preceded his work, apart from the unavoidable William Playfair and Florence Nightingale. By the end of the 19th century, a much more diverse and interesting community of statisticians and scholars from both sides of the Atlantic had firmly established the notion that data visualisation (or the “graphic method” as it was termed in France at the time) was a powerful tool for political, scholarly and public debate. Du Bois was clearly aware of and informed about this emerging data vis practice, and it only re-inforces our notion of his ingenuity that he appropriated and adapted these methods for his goals.

Secondly, and relatedly, it would have been great to place the in-depth technical investigation of some of the individual charts in a larger context. Unfortunately, we seem to be left with only sparse information about the process of their creation, about the technical means that were available to the creators, and about who the members of the team were. But looking at the charts, we can find a few clues such as the technical lettering and the colors that were used. For instance, the two series use two different fonts for the titles & the charts with the more refined font seem to have been composed of two or more parts (compare examples above).

Public authorities such as the US statistical office or private map publishers at the time had very skilled designers and cartographers working for them. From the technical details in Du Bois’s series we can derive an impression that Du Bois worked with a team that did NOT have available the technical devices and professional skills of the average cartographer in that period.

What has been interpreted (in the book and elsewhere) as a modernist (pre-Bauhaus) appeal, is in fact a lack of decoration and graphic refinement that the late 19th century trained cartographer would have included. From the technical evidence we have to imagine that the charts were drawn, composed, labelled and colored by students and alumni who had only a very basic graphical training in technical drawing and lettering.

And I think this even adds to Du Bois’s achievements. Considering the conditions under which these two series were produced—financial restraints, a tight schedule, the lack of graphical experience or printing facilities—it is even more astonishing just how W.E.B. Du Bois and his team pulled this off. I highly advise you to get a copy of the book as it allows you to browse the charts and compare how the data was “staged” to create a complex narrative.

 

An interview with Britt Rusert and Silas Munro is available in the PolicyViz podcast episode covering the project. The full series of charts is available online through the Library of Congress. Complement with this series of articles by Jason Forrest. Disclaimer: The publisher provided a complimentary copy for this review.  

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s