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W.E.B. Du Bois showed us the power of data viz more than a century ago

W. E. B. Du Bois created a set of gorgeous infographics for the 1900 Paris Exposition.Maura Intemann/W. E. B. Du Bois/Library of Congress

GREAT BARRINGTON — February in the Berkshires typically brings to mind an array of nature-centric, winter-wonderland pleasures like snowshoeing or skiing, and in the continuing drag of this long, long pandemic year, they’re a therapeutic salve unlike any other. This February brought a new feature to Great Barrington’s cold weather calendar: the first-ever William Edward Burghardt Du Bois Legacy Day on Feb. 23, made to honor the town’s most significant native son 58 years after his death in 1963.

W.E.B. Du Bois always had some presence in this mountain nook nestled in the southwest corner of the state. The farmstead owned by his grandfather, where he spent his youngest years, has an interpretive trail through the woods with details of his boyhood home. And the town’s Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, a homespun nonprofit museum and library devoted to Black culture and the civil rights ethos Du Bois played such a huge part in crafting, marks its 15th anniversary this month.


You’d never know that the center, the trail, and even the signs at either end of town marking the “birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois” were ever a point of contention. But as recently as 2005, opposition by some residents to naming one of the town’s public schools after Du Bois bled into the national media. It resolved with Du Bois’s name being held off the schools, until the school district relented just last year. But it also led to resurgent Du Bois-ism in Great Barrington, with the center and public markers established soon after.

All of these things were on my mind when the book “Black Lives: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition 1900” landed in my mailbox recently. It’s my job to write about museums and the Berkshires have plenty — Clark Art Institute, Mass MoCA, Norman Rockwell Museum — so I’m back and forth all the time. I’ve passed the sign and the center time and again, and often wondered about Du Bois’s journey from there to his influentially resonant here. Even though he died almost six decades ago, he lives on vividly in his work. His writing on Black American experience is simultaneously among the most poetic, insightful, and compelling in the canon of American thinking. (I’m specifically referring to his foundational “The Souls of Black Folk” collection from 1903.)


A portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois from 1918.handout

But Du Bois was a sociologist by formal training, an academic distinction he wielded as a legitimizing force in his lifelong campaign for civil rights — and nowhere more clearly than at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

It’s an awfully long way from boyhood in the 19th-century Berkshires to what was then the world’s most important showcase of advances in technology and intellectualism, designed to prime the planet for the promised wonders of the 20th century. Du Bois was just 32 when he presented “The Exhibit of American Negroes,” a defiantly dignified portrait of Black America just a handful of decades after Emancipation.

The exhibit was conceived to debunk the racist propaganda of the Jim Crow South. The brainchild of lawyer Thomas Calloway, it was taken up by Booker T. Washington and pitched directly to President William McKinley, who approved a $15,000 budget. With only four months to prepare, Calloway enlisted Daniel Murray, the assistant to the librarian of Congress, and his former Fisk University classmate Du Bois.


Writing about the many photographs Du Bois presented as part of the exhibit — his selection focused on Black businesspeople and college students, or sharply-dressed family units — Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in an introductory note to the book that Du Bois successfully showed a global audience “the resilience and dignity of a people under siege.” Jim Crow laws were in full force; ugly, dehumanizing caricatures of Black Americans were the norm in popular media. As a counterpoint, the exhibit, Gates writes, is a “pivotal moment in the history of the war of representation.”

But Du Bois conceived another visual strategy for the exhibit that has resonated through the ages for its ingenuity, clarity, and disarmingly elegant beauty. Enlisting his students at Atlanta University, a Black college where he had been teaching since 1897, Du Bois set about creating a compelling visualization of the data he mined on Black perseverance through the social tumult of Emancipation and Reconstruction, often to quantifiable success: His numbers told of plummeting illiteracy rates — lower than in several European nations — and skyrocketing school enrollment. (His data showed that Black children’s enrollment in public school grew nearly twentyfold in Georgia from 1870 to 1897.)

Presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition, this graphic charts the proportion of freemen and slaves among Black Americans.W. E. B. Du Bois/Library of Congress

The result was what we’d now call data visualization. In boldly engaging color and graphic form, Du Bois’s exhibit breathed emotional life into cold numbers. The clean lines and precise forms were in line with the growing aesthetic of the Internationalist movement, already present in Russian Constructivism and soon to be popularized by the Bauhaus. The exhibit projected a visual literacy among the Black intellectual class that dehumanizing American propaganda would have led the largely European audience to assume nonexistent.


The graphics have a movingly intimate grace. They’re carefully hand-hewn, with crisp free-hand printing, drafting, and coloring. Data here feel vividly animated as well as personal: A chart showing the distribution of free and enslaved Black Americans from 1790 (8 percent) to 1870 (100 percent) is graphically dramatic, a slim green portion of the frame consumed by dark shadow until it drops off a cliff at the end. A chart detailing the distribution of Black Americans in towns, cities, and rural areas in 1890 curls into a dense spiral for the latter group, the number so disproportionately high that representing it on a linear graph would be impossible.

This graphic demonstrates how many Black Americans lived in cities vs. rural environments.W. E. B. Du Bois/Library of Congress

The graphics were visual testament to the passage of Black Americans through the trauma of displacement and bondage into the massive and confluent upheavals of the modern world. They quantified a Black American society struggling to keep pace with rapid social, technological, and intellectual change. And largely succeeding, despite strenuous efforts to stop them. Looking at the graphics today, they resonate with the figures in ways I can’t quite grasp; if there’s such a thing as emotional data, then this is it.

I long knew of Du Bois’s writing when in 2016 I saw the exhibit graphics for the first time, and absent the data they represented. It was at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, where the artist Theaster Gates had been invited to build an exhibition from scratch. Gates was already wildly famous for what was being called social practice. In his case, it stemmed from his setting up shop in a South Chicago neighborhood where violent crime was endemic. Gates made it the hub of his art activity, and called it the Rebuild Foundation. Its name took in bricks and mortar efforts — he restored an old bank building as a cultural center — and the more slippery work of advocating for Black culture, broadly defined, in a world long unwilling to acknowledge its value. (One of my favorite Gates pieces brought the entire contents of a South Side True Value Hardware to the Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2016, implicitly canonizing it as a site of Black cultural significance for its now-retired owner’s determination to remain open through decades of crime and violence.)


From Theaster Gates's "How to Build a House Museum" exhibition.Artworks © Theaster Gates, photo courtesy AGO

Gates’s AGO exhibition was called “How to Build a House Museum.” Inside, he built a shrine to iconic house music DJ Frankie Knuckles and outlined his intention to buy the former Chicago home of bluesman Muddy Waters with hopes of establishing it as a museum of its own. (The musician’s great granddaughter has since beat him to it). But it was the overarching idea of a conventional museum as a monumental, monolithic, and impenetrable arbiter of cultural importance that Gates meant to address, with its prescriptive notions of what mattered and what did not. Folded into this, in what he called “The Hall of Negro Progress,” were Du Bois’s graphic illustrations, presented as paintings and divorced from their original data. (The one with the red spiral, indicating rural population distribution, Gates also remade in shimmering neon.)

In another room, Gates presented some of Du Bois’s charts as they’d been seen in 1900. But stripped bare, they were mysterious and eerily powerful, functioning without their data in a purely aesthetic space. Gates could see in Du Bois’s bare visuals a sophisticated, ennobling embrace of the nascent visual avant-garde; his homage to Du Bois was to canonize his compassionate and humane research as a form of art in its own right. In a brilliant sleight of hand, Gates allied Du Bois with Modernism’s most enduring contribution to the visual canon: abstraction. And in making the data visualizations into abstract paintings, Gates positioned Du Bois at the vanguard in a thoroughly white-dominated realm. (Du Bois would no doubt have approved. “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,” he famously said.)

I can’t stop thinking of all this every time I pass that sign declaring his birthplace, or the center, or the national historic landmark his grandfather’s old property became. (A volunteer group is trying to raise money for more and deeper programming on the site.) Things have inched forward: Last fall, the local school committee backtracked, turning the Monument Valley Middle Regional Middle School into W.E.B. Du Bois Regional. Meanwhile, Du Bois’s day of recognition seems to have struck a chord. ”I can’t believe it’s taken this long to recognize him,” resident Andrew Blechman told the Berkshire Eagle Tuesday. “It would be like blowing off Ben Franklin in Philadelphia.”

Still, Du Bois’s presence feels lighter here than it should. As wonderful as it is, the center is essentially a house museum, as Theaster Gates would have it, un-enshrined by officialdom. Would it matter to Du Bois? I’d like to think. His life was celebrated, international, and far flung, but he returned to Great Barrington frequently. The center itself abuts the cemetery where Du Bois buried his son, Burghardt (who died as a child in 1899), his first wife, Nina (in 1950), and his daughter, Yolande (in 1961). Du Bois intended to make a holiday retreat of his grandfather’s property, but ended up selling to a neighbor in the 1950s due to financial hardship.

The town’s history with Du Bois, if not exactly fractious — he went to integrated public schools, and his mixed church congregation funded his college education — has certainly been frosty at times. An effort to turn the site into a memorial park failed in 1969, weighed down by politics. (Du Bois, a devout communist, had spent the last years of his life in Ghana.) The property sat untouched until 1976, when it was finally designated a national historic site. One grudge-holding local opposed the school naming in 2005 because of Du Bois’s communist leanings. And Du Bois’s own mixed feelings about the place are well known. Great Barrington was “shut in by its mountains and its provincialism,” he wrote in “Dusk of Dawn.” “But it was a beautiful place ... a boy’s paradise.”

It still is. Provincialism is no longer a barrier to anything in this pocket of urbane sophistication, linked to cultural wonders all along the Housatonic River, and its most famous son, finally, belatedly, has been welcomed home.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.