Decoding Du Bois with the Curator of Charting Black Lives

The inside scoop on curating our exhibition W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives from co-curator Katie McCurrach.


  • Katie McCurrach, Assistant Curator
  • Exhibitions

Graphic art has the power to inform, challenge and empower, and the information design in W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives is a perfect example of this.

Du Bois' decisions about which information to include and how to present it at the 1900 Paris Exposition were based on how he thought he could best influence his audience. The Paris Exposition was essentially a celebration of French imperialism, and included displays of ‘living villages’ where Black people were shown derogatively as trophies of the French empire. Du Bois’ display of scientific data about African American life was a direct challenge to this degrading presentation, and was a completely new approach to refuting racism.

Curating the exhibition

Our London 2020 audience has very different frames of reference to Du Bois’ original Paris 1900 audience, and while all the pieces can be appreciated purely as visual objects, they require some interpretation to explain their purpose.

For this reason, we’ve included key historical information such as details about slavery laws and cultural expectations of the time. Du Bois’ charts tell the complex story of African Americans flourishing in educational attainment, land ownership, marital status and other signifiers of success at the turn of the century, despite the barriers of racist laws of the time.

These extraordinary infographics were not designed as standalone items. In Charting Black Lives, we’re showing the full set of 63 charts, as they work together in series to build up an argument, and we’ve used a flip frame system which allows us to show all of the work within the limited space of the gallery, and also echoes Du Bois’ 1900 exhibition design.

The exhibition, like the original, has the feel of a reference library, and includes some of the photographs and texts that were part of the original show as well. There is an additional element: original work by data journalist Mona Chalabi who has redrawn some of Du Bois’ charts using contemporary statistics, highlighting the continued relevance of the issues that Du Bois was addressing.

Decoding Du Bois’ infographics

Today, data visualisations have become fairly ubiquitous but people aren’t always aware of their long history. Over a century ago Du Bois was using techniques we’d still consider highly experimental now, like spiral shapes in place of straight bars to emphasise figures so large that they couldn’t fit onto the page. The charts were also very modern in their use of colour. We still get a sense of their vibrancy over a century later.

Valuation of Town and City Property Owned by Georgia Negroes

This chart shows the change in the value of property owned by Black Georgians, mapped against horrifying sociopolitical events such as ‘lynching’ and ‘Ku-Kluxism’ that indicate the violent context for Black attempts at owning property. The chart also shows the drop in value of property owned by African Americans as new laws discriminated against them.

The Amalgamation of the White and Black Elements of the Population in the United States

This shows how the population of the United States changed over the 19th century, particularly how the percentage and number of those with mixed heritage had increased. It challenged the white supremacist idea that racial categories were binary.

Race Amalgamation in Georgia

Given that interracial relationships were illegal in most states until 1967, this chart powerfully illustrates the effect of centuries of rape and largely unacknowledged fathering of dual-heritage children of enslaved Black women by white enslavers.

What happened next?

Even though Du Bois won a gold medal for the exhibition, it did not receive coverage in the white American press and had little impact in the U.S. He published The Souls of Black Folk three years later. Perhaps it was frustration at the lack of impact of his sociological approach that led him to appeal in a different way, one which resonated with people across the world.

Despite this limited impact at the time, Du Bois’ data visualisations represent a towering achievement in using facts to counter bigotry, and have renewed relevance today.

See W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives until 1 March 2020.