Academic journal article African American Review

"Looking at One's Self through the Eyes of Others": W. E. B. Du Bois's Photographs for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Academic journal article African American Review

"Looking at One's Self through the Eyes of Others": W. E. B. Du Bois's Photographs for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Article excerpt

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois describes." Double-consciousness" as the "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" (8), and thereby situates a visual model of subjectivity at the center of what he calls "the strange meaning of being black" in the United States at the turn of the century (3). For Du Bois, the African American subject position is a psychological space mediated by a "white supremacist gaze" (hooks, "Glory" 50), and therefore divided by contending images of blackness--those images produced by a racist white American culture, and those images maintained by African American individuals, within African American communities. It is the negotiation of these violently disparate images of blackness that produces the "twoness" of Du Bois's double-consciousness, the psychological burden of attempting to propitiate "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals" (Souls 8-9).

Recognizing the visual paradigms that inform Du Bois's conception of double-consciousness can help us to understand a remarkable collection of photographs Du Bois assembled for the "American Negro" exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900. [1] These largely unknown images appear at first enigmatic, but when read against the turn-of-the-century "race" archives they originally engaged, we can see how the photographs emblematize the complicated visual dynamics of double-consciousness. I argue that Du Bois's "American Negro" photographs disrupt the images of African Americans produced "through the eyes of others" by simultaneously reproducing and supplanting these images with a different vision of the "American Negro." Specifically, I argue that Du Bois's photographs challenge the discourses and images that produced an imagined "negro criminality" and propelled the crime of lynching in turn-of-the-century U.S. culture. With this analysis I aim ultimately not only to restore a key text to antiracist visual archive s, but also to underscore the importance of W. E. B. Du Bois as a visual theorist of "race."

Du Bois's "American Negro" photographs include 363 images of African Americans made by unidentified photographers. Du Bois organized the photographs into four volumes, and presented them in three separate albums, entitled Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. (Volumes I-III) and Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A. (Volume I). [2] The albums comprised one of three displays Du Bois supervised for the American Negro exhibit, including a series of charts and graphs documenting the social and economic progress of African Americans since the Civil War, and a three-volume set containing the complete legal history of African Americans in Georgia. [3] These displays joined other exhibits celebrating work in African American education and African American literary production, which together were organized under the direction of Thomas J. Calloway for the Exposition (Du Bois, "Pairs"). The American Negro exhibit was housed in the Palace of Social Economy, and it won a 1900 Paris Exposition grand prize. [4]

The photograph albums that Du Bois assembled for the American Negro exhibit contain a variety of images, but by far the most numerous and notable are the hundreds of paired portraits that almost entirely fill volumes one and two of the albums. In examining these portraits, I would like to suggest that Du Bois was not simply offering images of African Americans up for perusal, but was critically engaging viewers in the visual and psychological dynamics of "race" at the turn of the century. That very year Du Bois would declare, "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line," [5] and with his "American Negro" photographs for the 1900 Paris Exposition, Du Bois asked viewers to consider their places in relation to that color line.

Du Bois's "American Negro" portraits are disturbing, even shocking, in the way they mirror turn-of-the-century criminal mugshots. …

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