It is African American History Month, and this is a time where all of us reflect on black experience in our country, and the amazing contributions of African Americans to the American story. One of the most often bandied names during this time is obviously W.E.B. Du Bois, who reigns as a pure “A-lister” in regards to African American history. Most people know about his role founding the NAACP, and his famous book, The Souls of Black Folk. However, many people are unaware of W.E.B. Du Bois’ profound contributions to data visualization.
For while it is certainly true that Du Bois was a powerful advocate for Black Americans, there is also a side to Du Bois that is very wonky and technical While he was writing his poetic and philosophical works, Du Bois was also a simple professor of sociology, history and economics at Atlanta University, and advancing novel ways to do social science.
In today’s day and age, where the Excel graphing function is available to anyone, it is hard to remember that there was a time that looking at data was incredibly novel and rare. Those few who dared to try and use math for studying human society would not take the time and energy to draw out graphs of the data – because this was very hard to do, and most printing presses couldn’t even really show the information. As recently as the early 1900s, most scientific work was not displayed with graphs, but with tables and charts. Even when we think of the great founders of quantitative social science like Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) or Max Weber (1864 – 1920), their works were primarily presented through stacks of numbers that require a mathematical mind to decipher. It is in this context, in the mid-1890s, that W.E.B Du Bois began producing innovative visual displays of data meant to bring a numerical story to life.
Probably the most important and famous of his contributions to data visualization has been highlighted in many books, including Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert’s beautifully edited, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, The color line at the turn of the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2018). This book provides numerous essays, as well as beautiful lithographs, of a data exposition Du Bois organized for the 1900 “Exposition Universelle” in Paris, France. The purpose of the presentation was to “educate the patrons about the forms of education and uplift occurring at black institutions and in African American communities across the US South” (pg. 9). The exhibit featured all sorts of contributions from luminaries of the day, but it was Du Bois who took this opportunity to lead a team of researchers and graduate students in displaying data in ways never before seen.
I could literally go on and on about every single image in the exposition, but would like to here just highlight two of them. First, check out this display comparing the “Assessed Value of Household and Kitchen Furniture owned by Georgia Negroes.”
(Click to go to original article and you can see it bigger)
This displays a sum of the capital value of kitchen appliances recorded in public records of Georgia African Americans for the time period 1875 – 1899. Each 5-year interval gets its own bar, and you can see that in 1875 the value is very low ($21,186) and by 1899 it is much bigger ($1,434,975). However, these are not just straight bars that are in comparison to each other, but they progress in a curlicue transformation. This results in an effect that Battle-Baptiste and Rustert describe charmingly as “easy to read and hypnotic,” and I might also add is uplifting and inspiring. As I follow these lines through their twirl I see the old years left behind, and I am following the value of the progressing time to its farthest reaches. The success and progress of the African American middle class in the South is clearly showing itself, reaching up like a flower to the sun.
Another brilliant data display in this exposition is entitled “Income and Expenditure of 150 Negro Families in Atlanta, GA U.S.A” It is important to note here that Georgia is displayed prominently in the exhibit because both the size and importance of its African American community, but also because of Du Bois’ dedication to a “microhistory” approach, where small samples are studied with deep quantitative approaches, and show the universal structures underneath some of the more mundane aspects of life. For Du Bois, the story of African Americans in Georgia is representatives of much of the Reconstruction era African American experience. So let’s take some time with this “Data Portrait,” for there is a lot going on (not to mention that if you look on the bottom, it encourages you to flip a frame that would have revealed further data on subsequent pages to this exhibit!)
(Click to go to original article and you can see it bigger)
At the top are the main categories of sustenance: Rent, food, clothing, taxes, and “other expenses and savings.” The nature of these categories is then explained with images, words, or a few key numbers so people can get a sense for the nature of the category (note the simple dignity of the African American couple in their middle-class duds, and you can see the message Du Bois is sending about the importance of accounting for clothes as a discrete item). Then, he breaks up the African American families under review here into classes, and shows the percentage of their income spent on each of these necessities to compare to each other. As you go through and review this data, don’t you just feel the rush of history coming through you? Can’t you see the African American families struggling with their rent, griping about their taxes, or spending their time on ‘amusement’ and ‘travel’? With 150 families displayed thoroughly, we get a sense for a whole way of life at a certain time in history, and can imagine their struggles, successes, and how they would have understood their location in society.
In conclusion, it is important to note that Du Bois led a team, and certainly didn’t make all of the decisions for these “Data Portraits” himself. In fact, Du Bois would be the first to point out that he did this work as a part of a whole movement of African American sociology where all sorts of innovations were flourishing, and would go on to have vast impact on the way we look at data and social studies today (check out Aldon Morris’s The Scholar Denied: W.E.B Dubois and the Birth of Modern Sociology for details on this movement). But nonetheless, decades before Neurath (1882 – 1945) or Edward Tufte (1942 – and still kicking), Du Bois was revolutionizing the ways we bring data to real world experiences, and then translate it back for real world understanding. His work still has much to teach us today, as we move onward to bring about a more just and equitable America.