Welcome back to the PolicyViz Podcast! I’m just back from Germany attending the Information+ Conference in Potsdam and am excited for this week’s episode. This week, I chat with Britt Rusert, one of the editors of the new book, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black Americaand Silas Munro, one of the book’s contributors. DuBois’ work shows up now and again in discussions about early data visualizations, and this book promises to provide a reference for those discussions. 

Britt Rusert (website, Twitter) is Associate Professor in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York University Press, 2017) and co-editor, with Whitney Battle-Baptiste, of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018). Rusert received her Ph.D. in English and certificate in Feminist Studies from Duke University. Her research and teaching focus on African American literature and visual culture, Afrofuturism, speculative fiction, science and technology studies, gender and sexuality, and critical theory. She is currently working on a monograph about William J. Wilson’s Afric-American Picture Gallery (1859), a nineteenth-century text that imagines the first museum of Black art in the United States.

Silas Munro (website, Twitter) applies design to inspire people to elevate themselves and improve society. His LA-based studio, Poly-Mode, helps organizations embrace cultural diversity and increase community involvement. Munro’s design work and writings have been published in many forms at home and abroad. As an educator, he focuses on expanded design studies. He has been a critic, lecturer, and professor at many internationally ranked art and design programs. Munro serves as Assistant Professor in Communication Arts and MFA in Graphic Design at Otis College of Art and Design, and Advisor in the MFA Program in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

Episode Note

W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

Britt Russert book | Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (America and the Long 19th Century)


Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. I am just back from the Information+ Conference in Potsdam, Germany, great time, I have more to write and say about that coming up [inaudible 00:00:26] in future episodes, hopefully getting some podcasts shows out about the conference. Great experience. But for today, I have some special guests on the show to celebrate a new book that’s actually available today. Today is the first day you can actually get the book in your hands.

Jon Schwabish: I am happy to have one of the editors of this new book and one of the contributors. Britt Rusert is with me and Silas Munro. Britt is one of the editors of this new book W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. Britt edited this book with her coeditor Whitney Battle-Baptiste who wasn’t able to make it today. But also on the show, Silas Munro, who is one of the contributors and the graphic designer who worked on the book. I am really excited to talk about this book, some different data visualizations and looking all the way back to the late 19th century, early 20th century. Britt, Silas, welcome to the show. How are you?

Britt Rusert: Well, thanks for having us.

Silas Munro: Great. Glad to be here.

JS: I am really excited to have you guys on. Congratulations on getting this book out today, it’s great.

BR: Thanks so much. We are super excited about it.

JS: I bet. Why don’t we start this way: Britt maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself and how the book came together, and then I will turn it over to Silas for a second.

BR: Okay, sure. I teach in the Du Bois Department, the Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst. I am a literary scholar by training and I also work in black critical theory and I have interest in black visual culture and visual studies. I recently wrote a book called Fugitive Science which is thinking about histories of antebellum resistance among black antebellum activist writers and scientists who are refuting scientific theories of race and especially scientific racism in the earlier part of the 19th century. When I was finishing up that project, I first saw these amazing images that Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University had put together the Paris Exposition in 1900. And in many ways it seemed to be genealogy of what I call fugitive science in that book that happens later in the century, and so I was really interested in the kind of activist work and the sociological work of those images. I was also just really blown away by them because they are produced in 1900 but they look like works of modernist art, and so I was really curious to learn more about them.

Princeton Architectural Press actually came to Whitney Battle-Baptiste who is the director of the Du Bois Center here at UMass Amherst and they were interested in doing a design book about these images and showcasing these images. And Whitney came to me and I had already had interest in actually writing about them, I was really interested in talking a little bit about how this was not just a project, it was not just a Du Bois project, it was a collaborative project done with a whole team of student and alumni researchers. And so since I already had an interest in these images it was serendipitous and amazing that the press wanted to put together this collection.

JS: Yeah, it’s great. There are four different chapters, and so you and Whitney have an introduction, then there’s two other chapters and maybe I will let Silas talk about his own, but do you want to talk about those other two chapters and what people can expect?

BR: Yeah, sure. One of the things, we really wanted this to be multidisciplinary project that was rooted in black studies but also drew from different disciplinary forms of expertise and knowledge bases in part because it’s a set of images and visualizations that demands that attention. We were interested in the fact that Du Bois was training a school of black sociologists in US South at the turn of the century but they were also clearly using different kinds of ethnographic skills, interviewing skills, data design, visualization skills, they were using different kinds of tools and forms of expertise in order to produce these sociological studies about black life at the turn of the century.

And so in part, I mean, we still have some questions I think, questions about art training, if and how these contributors to the images were trained in art but we really wanted to assemble a group of scholars who could take up these images from multiple disciplinary perspective. So the introduction is written by myself. I am working in black studies and also in literary and cultural studies. Whitney has trained as an archeologist and also works in black studies. And then we have a chapter by Aldon Morris who’s also in black studies and sociology at Northwestern, and he recently wrote an amazing book called the Scholar Denied which has really put Du Bois at the beginnings of the methods and the history of American sociology and talks about how Du Bois found the school of black sociology in the south at Atlanta University. So he has a sociological and historical more take on the images. Then there’s an essay by Mabel Wilson who works in art history and also in African American studies at Columbia University, and so she is taking up some more formal and artistic questions related to the images. And then Silas was our decider for the project who did a really wonderful job giving us the design intro for the images and then he also provided all of the captions for the images.

I was really excited, just that I think – I am hoping that the book shows different ways that we might approach and think about the visualizations themselves but we don’t have a DH scholar, we don’t have data visualization scholar who actually worked on the images so I am also really curious to see now that the book’s out to see how other scholars including other design scholars and folks working in data visualization will take these images up as well.

JS: I think that’s a great question and we should definitely turn back to that. But before we do so I want to give Silas a second here. Silas maybe you can talk a little bit about your background and your section and your work on this book.

SM: Sure. I am Silas Munro. I am faculty at Otis College of Art and Design where I teach graphic design to BFA students and also in our masters program. I run a design studio called Poly-Mode and I have cultural, academic and business clients where I actually practice as a designer. A lot of my clients and a lot of the work that I do tend to have some social, cultural value or like embracing a diverse perspective. So when the opportunity came up, when Britt and Whitney approached me about writing about Du Bois’s work for this project I was super thrilled and ecstatic, because for me as someone who’s both a design practitioner and interested in design history, to me this work was a missing piece in the lineage of design history. And the work that he and his students did together, they predate a lot of iconic avant-garde movements in design history including the Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism and De Stijl. And what’s interesting about the global stage that these gouache, ink, and water color designs were displayed on in 1900, they actually could have influenced it and impacted the people that would start the Bauhaus 19 years later, which to me was like a total – my mind kind of exploded when I thought about a reverse engineering, about how a black man living in the Southern Eastern United States could generate forms that might influence this European avant-garde that is the backbone of what we think of as design aesthetics both in Europe and US and globally now.

JS: Can you paint a picture for us as it were of where these images appeared for the first time – so this was all in the World Fair in Paris but can you set the stage for us of where this was and why these particular images and how they were displayed?

BR: They were a part of a study that Du Bois put together and was commissioned for the American Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and a group of black activists including Thomas Calloway who organized the exhibit with the help of Booker T. Washington petitioned the US government for a African American exhibit to be displayed at the Paris Exposition as part of the American component and contribution to that exposition. Calloway went about assembling an exhibit that really showcased black progress that had been made in the decades since emancipation in 1863 and that really highlighted the work of HBCU, so the kind of work that was being done at historically black colleges and universities across the south. Du Bois was his old buddy from Fisk University which they attended together as undergrads and Du Bois at that time was teaching at Atlanta University, and so Du Bois and his students put together – it was basically a sociological exhibit, there were two aspects of it, one was more focused on national statistics that thought about the impact of slavery and freedom on African American populations at the turn of the 20th century so it has this more national scope and that was also really embedded in thinking about the afterlives and legacies of slavery.

And then the other part of the exhibit was a more regional case study that was called the Georgia Negro and that was really focused more on data and thinking about different aspects of demographics and statistics and aspects of life for African Americans in Georgia at the turn of the century. So scholars have really focused on that exhibit, I mean, so far as there was photography that was included, there were a couple of albums that Du Bois also included in the exhibit, but there hasn’t been as much work done on these amazing data visualizations, these infographics that were also a part of the sociological exhibit. Those images appeared on the wall and as part of the American Negro Exhibit and would have been viewed by European audiences at the Paris Exposition including some black visitors in Europe during that time. It became a prize winning exhibit. When Calloway and his group packed up and brought that exhibit back to the United States, it traveled to regional and other world’s fairs back within the United States, and I think it was really significant that they had won a prize at the Paris Exposition. So that like cosmopolitan and a European validation really meant something when the exhibit was touring back in the Jim Crow context.

I think one of the really interesting things is that they were thinking about multiple audiences at once I think when they were designing the images. Some of the images have French so they clearly were thinking about the European audience, I think they were thinking about European workers and how they might think about their relationship to black workers in the US but I think that they also had in mind the fact that African American viewers back in the United States would possibly see these images as well, and they did. So a group of black club women in Buffalo, New York actually petitioned and brought the American Negro Exhibit and it was showcased there during the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. There were multiple audiences for the original images and then after that the images ended up in the collections of the Library of Congress. I don’t want to go on for too long but there’s also some really interesting questions about what they’ve been doing there, who if anyone has seen them since that time, and we do have in the Du Bois papers here an indication of letter to Thomas Calloway from Du Bois that indicates that Du Bois wanted these images back. We can only speculated on why he wanted them back and what he planned to do with them. But the fact that the images still remain in the collection at the Library of Congress indicates that he actually didn’t get his wish and he didn’t get those images.

JS: Let’s turn to the data visualization part itself. It’s an honestly fascinating collection. A lot of people have written about it, not in a book form, but several blogs. I am curious about your thoughts about the visualization type. A lot of these images in the book are not standard graphs, they are not the sort of things that we think about, they are not bar charts and simple maps and line charts you’ve got. Instead the cover is a circular or radial bar chart. I will put the picture on the side but most people will be familiar with this [inaudible 00:14:00] instead of the bars being strictly horizontal or vertical, they wrap around a circle. And today a lot of people in the data visualization field will say, “Well, that’s not a great chart type because it’s hard to clearly see the patterns,” and there’s lots of other maybe one where you call them innovative graphic types. And I am curious about your thoughts on how these visualizations I guess were built initially, how they are different and maybe better than standard chart types or maybe not, and what Du Bois may have known at the time while he was creating these in terms of other work by Playfair and maybe some others that were thinking about how to visually communicate data. Maybe I will start with Silas on that since we were talking about that before we started recording about your thoughts on where he came from and where you think he was going with these.

SM: Yeah, I think, there are a number of factors that contributed to the uniqueness of these diagrams. I think one of the factors is what Britt had already mentioned that these were created as a collaboration between Du Bois and his students and actually our research found that there was one sociology alumni of Du Bois’s, William Andrew Rogers who was probably the point person for actually drawing and gouacheing and coloring and actually making the diagrams with other students in the program at Atlanta University. These were a group of really bright and [inaudible 00:15:37] sociologists but not trained as designers; though Du Bois was very well read and well-traveled, had already been to Europe before, he would be quite familiar with previous case studies of other statisticians or researchers who were making visual form, like you mentioned, William Playfair, the Scottish statistician who created the pie chart; he would likely be familiar with Florence Nightingale’s work and her Rose Diagram and someone who was using graphic form to tell a story and enact social change with her campaign for healthcare in England especially for soldiers. They were looking at other forms of data visualization but also the schedule was super compressed; Calloway and the other collaborators including Booker T. Washington and Du Bois and his students only had a few months to generate all this work. I think part of some of this innovation, when you look at that one spiral chart, was like how can we get all this data and express it in a short period of time. I think that hacking of bar chart into spiral was also about how does it fit into this 22-by-28-inch frame of the diagrams. And one of the things I would add to what Britt was saying, these were designed to be displayed in a very interactive way, so they were hanging on these wingback frames that the viewers would get a chance to turn and page through as an early experience design. I think the combination of novice training in visual making and also just interest and exploring and experimenting required them to do nonstandard forms of diagrams.

JS: The fact that Du Bois and his team were able to see some of the work that was going on but they weren’t inherently – or trained as graphic designers even if there was graphic designing training at the time or necessarily mathematical people, do you think that freed them up to be more innovative in the graphs that they created?

SM: I think so. I think that they had a time crunch. I think that they were creative and generous and they were looking at certain case studies but knowing that this would be a global audience I think they just had that combination of – and this happens I think with the best design projects is when you are under the gun of a deadline and they had an excellent set of datasets. And you can actually even see as you look at the plates, oftentimes they were – you can see their pencil work underneath the gouache where they were making attempts at things, and in addition to the 63 final diagrams there are also a series of charts showing their data and also lettering sketches and in progress attempts on the backs of some of these prints.

BR: Yeah, one of my favorite things is how you can – the more you look at the images, the more you start to see more hands at work. You see different forms of handwriting and different pencil markings; and so in terms of the collaborative nature of the design, I think it’s interesting to think about how the collaboration itself potentially produced novel forms of data visualization. I also think, you know it’s important to note that they were getting training in math and also sociological methods at Atlanta University and that’s one of the most powerful arguments about Aldon Morris’s book is that Du Bois was pioneering an empirically based statistically based method for sociology at a time when what passed as social science was really a set of racial and other forms of biases. And so, we think about statistics and its rootedness and forms of eugenics and other forms of social science that were really using science in order to reproduce racist and classist and sexist ideas was that Du Bois and his team were producing data and producing black data in opposition to forms of science and social science that actually weren’t rooted in empirical work.

I think that’s really crucial in terms of the thinking about these images and their relationships to science and social science, but I also think spirals are really interesting because I think that they were attempting to make and intervene into debates about race and intelligence and capacity and these kinds of things. I think they also were trying to capture the real irrationality of the Jim Crow system and the kind of surrealness of black life during this period. For me, I think those artistic flourishes when you see those spirals and those kind of motifs for me are about capturing the kind of irrational dimensions of American life and policy and law during this period.

JS: That was really interesting. I want to close up with two questions, for each of you. I want to jump off this topic that you just talked about Britt. Let me follow up where you are going. What was the impact of these images and this work I think more generally on American society and American culture at the time, and maybe even American study of sociology in the university system at the time, what was the broader impact that these had across the country?

BR: I am curious to know what Silas thinks. What do you think Silas?

SM: That’s a good question. I know what the impact of them is now but it’s funny because I think in some ways and Aldon Morris talks about this, Du Bois’s legacy both as a sociologist and researcher I think has been underplayed and erased for many years in the larger discourse of its impact. Obviously, he was so multitalented and impactful through his work in NAACP, his other writing and publishing, but I think as the sociologist and even this work as a data visualization person has been pretty much ignored in certain academic circles. I do know that the pieces themselves were wildly popular both in Europe and domestically when they came back and a lot of people would have seen them and they made a big impact especially I think in African American circles because a lot of the sites and venues that were seen domestically were historically black colleges. But I wonder, especially as someone who’s been trained in design history and visual culture, this was just not discussed at all anywhere in design history. I think when they got digitized by the Library of Congress and were seen publicly in the digital world, they caught fire because they were so relevant in terms of their visuality but also the kinds of issues of equality and balance. And there’s actually even, Britt I think you are getting a sort of poetic quality to some of these diagrams. I look at the one chart that’s the assessed valuation of all [inaudible 00:23:40] property owned by Georgia Negro where it has these wedges, these triangles in these series of concentric circles, he really is making this argument of piercing and debunking some of these myths around the lack of equality of black people to other Americans and other global citizens both to the data and also to the form.

BR: Yeah, there’s also some of the images that they kind of had this – they are actually multimedia so there’s one that incorporates photographs, and there’s this kind of collaging element. I think the ways that they look forward to later forms of, you know I don’t know, forms of black art making and other forms of art making is really interesting. I guess I would say we don’t yet know the influence of these images because they have been pretty – they haven’t been widely viewed since their original display in the early part of the century. I think there’s more work to be done in terms of these individual researchers, so there are these Atlanta University studies that have been published and there’s republications of those. And I think there’s more work to be done to think about Du Bois’s network of field researchers which included alumni from Atlanta University, who are in Atlanta University but it will also spread out across the US South and I would be curious to know and to learn more about forms of design and other forms of visualization that may have been a part of their sociological and other forms of work. Many of these people went onto be teachers so I think there’s a question of the use of black data and black design within black classrooms throughout the 20th century that I would want to know more about. I also think we were really interested in doing this project because since they haven’t been – you know they’ve been in the archive and not really widely available since the early part of the century – I think that there’s possibilities for their influence today in terms of educational use, inspiring forms of art making, the kind of movement around Data 4 Black Lives and to think about other forms of production of data that’s oriented towards emancipation projects rather than the surveilling and policing of black communities, I really love thinking about – one of the things about Du Bois is right is that he did so many things and we think of him wearing so many hats, but we really have not thought of him yet in a design context. Right?

SM: Yeah, you are right.

BR: We don’t usually think about [inaudible 00:26:22] as being a designer. Silas has this amazing moment in his intro where he talks about Du Bois as the leader of a design team in the South during this period which I just think is really important and interesting. And I would also add it’s really important to think about then Du Bois as a curator of this work. He had to basically cobble together the funds in order to travel to Paris and he clearly had ideas about how this work should be installed and how it should look visually. I think maybe there’s even something to be done and to think more about Du Bois as a curator. I think there’s more to say about Du Bois as a curator and I would love to see this work taken up then in multiple different places today. That’s to say that I think it’s really great that even though there were these decades in which these images were kind of lost in that scene that I think I am hoping that they can take on a new life today.

JS: Yeah. That was really interesting. My last question, I want to flip this around a little bit, we’ve talked a lot about the production of these, Du Bois and his team and now I am curious about what you think about how the public viewed them or understood them especially at the time. I mean, now we are surrounded by data and graphs all the time and there’s obviously a burgeoning data visualization field and there’s research going on and I am curious what you think about how people who were viewing these at the time may have thought about them and the messages they may have taken away from them.

BR: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. I think that this is where the kind of context of the World’s Fair really matters. The Paris Exposition was one of these turn of the century expositions that was about displaying the powers of industrialization and really kind of touting the modernity of global imperial powers. It was really a fair that was about the projection of western progress. I think it’s really important to think about how these images were participating in, but also challenging those discourses. For example, the fact that these images were insisting on the legacies and the histories of slavery as they had shaped the US itself, I think really was a critique of the idea of America as the civilized and civilizing nation. I think that that was really important in terms of what they were showcasing through the images. One of my favorite things about the modernist design of the images and this looking forward to a kind of European avant-garde is that I think that partly the images were constructed to look so modern and clean and almost like machinic even though they were hand drawn is I think that the contributors to the images wanted to make a place, wanted to showcase black cosmopolitanism, wanted to say something about black modernities, specifically in the south. I think they were making an argument about Atlanta as a Black Mecca in a place of black industrialization and progress but they were also making a claim to modernity while at the same time making a huge critique of the US as a supposedly civilized place; because in the United States at the time, it was actually a backward looking regime, it was the age of segregation. I think there is, through the images themselves, I think they were trying to convey their kind of status as a nation within a nation, as a black nation within a nation that was at pace with the European superpowers but that the United States itself was actually non-modern and was actually a barbaric nation, it was not actually an industrializing and forward-looking nation.

SM: I think one of the things that unique about just this display showing data was if you look at the other exhibits that were happening at the World’s Fair and the history of sociology was more about creating these dioramas that would have stuff representations or things that were object studies to present evidence whereas this was saying, “Oh, information can be a kind of communication.” I think, these are the first time where you are really seeing data visualization showing up in a way that could make an argument and then it was compelling because of the whole gold prize winning aspect about the exhibit. And it’s really interesting that the American Negro square footage wise in the [inaudible 00:31:46] social economy was relatively small compared to the other exhibits, but its density, its complexity between the diagrams, the other artifacts in the space, I really do think that Du Bois and his team and his collaborators were thinking about it like a bit of an experience design and using this data as a way to have a fresh perspective on all these issues of racism of a backwards perspective that the US was starting to come out of.

BR: I think they also were just constantly reminding viewers that the United States’ industrial progress happened through the labor of enslaved people AND [inaudible 00:32:33]. There’s all of these images that there are these huge black blocks of color and so the continual reference back to slavery that it is slavery that makes industrialization happen that I think that they really were powerfully conveying visually and it was a huge intervention within the broader logic and focus of kind of progress, industrialization and freedom within the fair itself.

JS: Well, that is probably the most historical perspective I’ve had on this channel about data visualization, it’s terrific. Well, Britt and Silas, thanks a lot for coming on the show today, it was great to chat with you.

BR: Thanks for having us.

SM: Our pleasure Jon.

JS: Thanks everyone for listening. The new book W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America is available today. You can go run out and get it right now, it can be on your hands. Please do go grab it. I will put a link to it of course on the show notes page. If you have any questions please do get in touch. Let me know if you have any questions or reach out to Britt or Silas or any of the authors, I am sure they would be happy to talk more about the work that went into this book. I hope you enjoy this week’s episode a little bit more of a historical context to data visualization, always an interesting topic. Thanks so much for tuning in. Until next time, this has been the PolicyViz Podcast.