PRINT December 2019


Zeynep Çelik Alexander

How to speak when misinformation threatens the legitimacy of speech itself? W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press) is an account of how the great American sociologist provided an answer to that question when he prepared the “Exhibit of American Negroes” for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. With the help of students and alumni from Atlanta University, Du Bois set aside contemplative prose, his usual weapon, and instead produced a series of colorful infographics that relayed his message to contemporaneous audiences with the force and directness of a bullet: African Americans were not outside of history, as so many since Hegel had claimed, but firmly within it. Over and against the misinformation campaigns spearheaded by turn-of-the-century social Darwinists, who forecast the extinction of African Americans after Emancipation, Du Bois’s graphics demonstrated with naked clarity that this population was growing and progressing—against all odds—in such areas as education, income, and land ownership. The metaphorical “color line” that separated white and black in the United States was literally drawn. In these beautiful diagrams, these lines do not project forward predictably but turn around and around on themselves—as is the case in the chart regarding household assets owned by African Americans between 1875 and 1899. This remarkable volume leaves the reader wondering what the trajectory of such color lines would look like in today’s America.

Zeynep Çelik Alexander is an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.