Why W.E.B. Du Bois Remains Such an Inspiration

A new Smithsonian exhibition invites visitors to use his groundbreaking infographics as a lens into Black history

a colorful circular infographic
This Du Bois infographic charted the dramatic growth in the value of property held by Black Georgians between 1875 and 1899. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt Museum via Library of Congress

When I was in ninth grade, I asked my dad who I should write about for a book report, thinking he would suggest Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Instead, he gave me W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

At the time, I had no idea who or what that was—and neither did any of my classmates when I gave my report. Now, I realize that publication provided a North Star for my entire career. Du Bois, a prolific historian and sociologist, has long been an inspiration to me, and it was one of the great honors of my life to receive the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University in 2019. His scholarship on structural racism shaped my life’s work by giving me a way to use history as a weapon that forces America to confront its tortured racial past and challenges us to live up to our stated ideals.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum explores one instance of Du Bois’ efforts to prompt a racial reckoning in the new exhibition “Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair.” The exhibition juxtaposes data visualizations from a collection created by Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University—titled the “American Negro Exhibit”—with artworks that were displayed elsewhere at the same world’s fair. That event, held in Paris in 1900 at the height of the Jim Crow era, championed technological, aesthetic, social and economic progress to a global audience—all while avoiding the driving forces of nationalism, imperialism and the forced labor of people of color that made these celebrated achievements possible.

Both Du Bois’ original collection and Cooper Hewitt’s curatorial choices demonstrate that Black Americans have always been worthy of the full privileges of citizenship they are routinely denied. One section of the exhibition, “Designing a Nation,” calls attention to the unrecognized work of Black people in shaping America. There, two paired visualizations hang side by side. One is a map of the population distribution of enslaved Africans in Georgia in 1861 and a diagram documenting the history of slavery in the United States. The other is Du Bois’ technicolor map of property owned by Black Georgians at the time of the fair, accompanied by a diagram charting the accomplishments of Black Americans in just one generation since emancipation. A quote from Du Bois declares: “This advance was accomplished entirely without state aid, and in the face of proscriptive laws.”   

The exhibition prompts visitors to consider how design can fundamentally change our idea of progress. As a result, this collection is just as much about today and tomorrow as it is about a bygone age.

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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