W.E.B. Du Bois’s Inky Visualizations Teaches Us How Powerfully Humanizing Data Can Be

Living colors and quantities.

For years now, I have occasionally seen 19th century data visualizations attributed to W.E.B. Du Bois. Always struck by them for their content (data about “the African diaspora in America“) and their beauty (multi-colored, spatially elegant, and deceptively simple visualizations). His work is a poignant entry point for conversations about the tensions between the quantitative and qualitative, computational and humanistic. Here is how the Smithsonian frames Du Bois’ work:

After graduating with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, W.E.B. Du Bois, the prominent African-American intellectual, sought a way to process all this information showing why the African disapora in America was being held back in a tangible, contextualized form. ”It is not one problem,” as Du Bois wrote in 1898, “but rather a plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex; and these problems have their one bond of unity in the act that they group themselves above those Africans whom two centuries of slave-trading brought into the land.”

To accomplish this goal, Du Bois turned to the burgeoning field of sociology. Sociology’s scope in history, statistics, and demographics held the potential to quantifiably reveal “life within the Veil,” as Du Bois called the structural forces of oppressions that separated black and white populations, whether that came to educational attainment, voting rights or land ownership.

You can find a book collection of the visualizations, with commentary, over on Amazon.

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