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Du Bois’s graphics challenged racism

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Issue 2691
WEB Duboiss hand-drawn posters aimed to show black Americans were flourishing
WEB Dubois’s hand-drawn posters aimed to show black Americans were flourishing

US black radical thinker WEB Du Bois set out to shock the 1900 Paris Exposition with a display of colour infographics.

His posters showed that black Americans—and their art, culture and education—were flourishing in just four decades after the civil war that ended slavery.

Upper class Europeans had for years debated whether free black people were as capable as whites. Many, but not all, thought of Africa and its descendants in the US as a human “subspecies” with a different morality and aptitude, and undoubtedly inferior.

In Paris, various colonialist enterprises erected fake African villages and paid people from the continent to act as “savages”.

Du Bois wanted to smash the racists and their prejudices with facts.

His posters were a set of beautifully crafted and carefully hand drawn graphs that took on the myths of the day.

A cone graph called American Negro newspapers and periodicals sits alongside others showing a steep rise in black literacy rates since the abolition of slavery.

His posters tried to tell those in Paris everything you could measure about black life in the US. It captured a living community in numbers.

How many black children were enrolled in public schools, how far family budgets extended, what people did for work, even the value of people’s kitchen furniture.

His graphical techniques, combined with his rigorous research, won over many who were not impressed with the rest of the exhibition. Even the organisers were forced to concede this truth and awarded him the exhibition’s gold medal.

In the decades that followed Du Bois grew ever more radical as it became clear that racism was built into the system, and those that ruled did not respond to his logical arguments.

WEB Du Bois—Charting Black Lives. House of Illustration, 2 Granary Sqr, London N1C 4BH. Until 1 March 2020, £8


This exhibition brings together historic, modern and contemporary works to examine how utopian societies have been imagined and represented.

In his seminal book Utopia, in 1516, Thomas More came up with an idea that captured the human imagination. That of aspiring to an ideal future, an improved world, a better society.

More imagined it as an island community—independent, insular and able to prescribe its own ways of living.

This exhibition crosses genres, media and eras.

It says it provides “a playful and provocative” look at how Britain’s literary and visual culture has perpetuated an idea of a utopian society.

The Whitworth Collection, The University Of Manchester, Oxford Rd, Manchester M15 6ER. Free

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