Four African-American women seated on steps of Atlanta University, late 1890’s. Image taken from A Small Nation of People: W.E.B Du Bois & African-American Portraits of Progress. Published by The Library of Congress with essays by David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis (2003). ©The Library of Congress

Four African-American women seated on steps of Atlanta University, late 1890’s. Image taken from A Small Nation of People: W.E.B Du Bois & African-American Portraits of Progress. Published by The Library of Congress with essays by David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis (2003). ©The Library of Congress

 
 

Photography In Index (extract)

Chapter One - Introduction

This essay explores American Negroes display at the Paris Exposition in 1900 which was curated by American-American academic W.E.B Du Bois. This exposition featured a collection of photographs of African-Americans from turn of 20th century. This display of 500 photographs was a document of the conditions and ‘present conditions’[1] of the black American experience. Exploring the history of black identity within photography at the start of the early 20th century.

This album was initially collected by Academic and principal of Tuskegee Institute, Thomas Calloway. The majority of the collection came from Atlanta based African American photographer Thomas Askew. Having amassed a substantial collection of photographs, Calloway was keen to have the documentary photographs in the public domain. Thus he sought assistance from W.E.B Du Bois to curate and write about the exhibition. W.E.B Du Bois was a prominent academic and black rights activist and Calloway had studied with DuBois at Fisk University.

Callaway and Republican Representative for North Carolina George Henry White was successful in lobbying House of Representatives for financial support for the exposition, they eventually received a sum of $15,000 ($10,000 less than requested) to prepare the exhibition. Daniel Alexander Murray, Assistant Librarian of Congress participated due to his bibliographic skills helped with the collating and writing exhibition texts. The final installation of the exhibition was left to Du Bois as he would oversee the curation of the exhibition in Paris.

This essay will argue that this exhibition demonstrated a moment of cultural empowerment, a moment when African Americans took steps to control their identity through their own gaze and an opportunity to challenge the pervasive racialised imagery of African American identity that had been perpetuated by racial profiling. Steve Edwards explains in his book Photography: A Very Short Introduction, Edwards, that Western colonisers had employed photography as a way of archiving racial difference. The same methodology was applied to African American by white Americans. Edwards notes that:

Anthropology, institutionalised during 1840s, became increasingly concerned with photographic documentation during 1870s. During this period, images of the colonial ‘Other’ are overwhelmingly predicated on an idea of essential racial difference and a concomitant vision of racial superiority.[1]

Photography is the only medium that is able to document and reflect the realities of African American communities as it was able to provide an ‘examination of visual paradigms that fundamentally influenced the conception and representation of American identities in the second half of the 19th century. Among such paradigms, photography is perhaps the most concrete example’[2] as suggested by writer Michelle Shawn Smith in her book American Archives.

Du Bois was part of a movement of African Americans who were challenging and establish their presence with America, this exhibition was not a resolution to an entrenched mentality, especially as the racial cast system of Jim Crow had been in operation in (although practised to a certain degree in Northern states) Southern states from 1877. The exhibition provided a platform for Europeans and white Americans to view African Americans from different social and economic classes. Shawn Michelle Smith notes that documentary photography was utilised as a social tool of ‘self-representation, then, enabled one to claim a visible, tangible, representable space in a community that could now be imagined in new ways, through new technologies of vision.’[3] This essay will address how this photographic exhibition facilitated the representation of gender, social and economic progress of African American communities.

i. The representation of Black Female identity at 1900 Paris Exposition

The portraits of women and girls that featured in this exhibition varied, most of the women and girls came from a middle class background. Thomas Askew was based in Atlanta, Georgia and would feature his family in his photographs as well as the middle class black community of Atlanta. The women and girls featured in different guises; at home participating in domestic and cultured activities such as reading or playing an instrument, at work, at school, at university or at church amongst their community.

Some of the portraits featured women and girls with a lighter skin complexion or of mixed race heritage. Shawn Michelle Smith reflects in her essay Looking at One’s Self that Du Bois inclusion of Askew’s portraits of lighter skinned African- Americans were ‘a challenge to white investments in separating the races by signalling an undeniable history of physical union between them.’[4] By reflecting images of light skinned and mixed race women, Du Bois was jarring strict racial codes of the time, Smith argues that Du Bois was challenging the notions of race. Smith reflects that ‘individuals of mixed racial taxonomy founded in visual paradigms of recognition to be a fiction, albeit a powerful one.’[5]

The portraits of women and girls featured mimicked the contexts that their male counterparts. The women appeared well groomed, elegant and engaged in cultural activities, this choice was deliberate as African American used photography to ‘uplift and images of degradation. African Americans used photography to reconstruct their image’[6] as academic Leigh Raiford summarises in her essay Ida B. Wells and the Shadow Archive as images of black people being lynched in Southern States were regularly circulated in the media. Having to face a dual barrier of being black and female the women that featured in this exhibition demonstrated the duality of their identity as; women, mothers, daughters, students and workers.

The photographs projected the women’s identity in an aspirational context, for example one of Askew’s photograph shows a portrait of a young women reading amongst a clean, domestic setting. A portrait of a relative in the background next to a jar of flowers suggests that the subject has strong connections with her family and belongs to middle-class. Askew has used deliberate social codes to project a specific imagery for the viewer to decipher. Deborah Willis argues that black photographers such as Askew ‘participated in the dissemination of photographs of black subjects at every level’[7] and this image is one example of this narrative throughout the exhibition.

There are two angles on how the viewer could read the depiction of African American women, one could be a perspective that Du Bois referred to in semi-autobiographical book ‘Darkwater’ (1920), Du Bois states that, ‘the uplift of women is, next to the problem of colour line and peace movement, our greatest modern cause.’[8] This statement suggests that women of colour had historical and social problem to address in-terms of their gender and race. Although Darkwater was written in 1920, Du Bois was aware of the ‘politics of juxtaposition’[9] that women of colour face in particular.

The 1900 Paris Exposition was an attempt by Du Bois and his peers to address this discrepancy. One photograph represents four black women sat in line on the steps at Atlanta University, this image suggests the women were actively participating in academia. Sporting the latest fashion trends, the women’s confident steely gaze reaffirms a narrative that exhibition had curated in its depiction of African American women; aspiration and educated. The two examples give the viewer an alternative feminised imagery of the African American woman. This is impressive considering that the women were not part of the process of collating or curating of the exhibition.

The second position applies a more critical gaze upon Du Bois and his representation of African American women. It would have been a major oversight if black women’s presence was omitted from the exhibition. The exhibition was curated by men and the depiction of women was seen through the male gaze. Hazel V. Carby essay The Souls of Black Men, questions Du Bois thoughts on African American woman. Here Carby argues that The Souls of Black Folk, by Du Bois clearly states that ‘beneath the surface of this apparent sacrifice of individual desire to become an intellectual and a race leader is a conceptual framework that is gender specific.’[10] Corby goes on to elaborate further on this point by stating:

This gendered framework negates in fact the opportunity offered in words for black women to make ‘their lives similar’; the project suffers from Du Bois complete failure to imagine black women as intellectuals and race leaders.[11]

The Souls of Black Folk was written in 1903, three years after the exhibition, however, it can be argued that Du Bois had not fully recognised the significance of African American’s women within society. Du Bois later writing ‘Darkwater’ does acknowledge the political duality that women face. Although at the time of when the exhibition was curated, to an extent African American women were not given the prominence that they deserved as Du Bois was not fully conscious of their position yet.


[1] S. Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2006), p.20

[2] S. M Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA, 1999) p.7

[3] S. M Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA, 1999) p.4

[4] S. M Smith and M. O Wallace, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Duke University Press, North Carolina, USA, 2012), p286

[5] S. M Smith and M. O Wallace, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Duke University Press, North Carolina, USA, 2012), p.287

[6] S. M Smith and M. O Wallace, Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Duke University Press, North Carolina, USA, 2012), p.311

[7] D. L Lewis and D. Willis, A Small Nation of People: W.E.B Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress by The Library of Congress (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, USA, 2003), p.54

[8] S. Gillman and A. E Weinbaum, Next to the Colour Line: Gender, Sexuality and W.E.B Du Bois, Library of Congress, (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota USA, 2007), p.3

[9] S. Gillman and A. E Weinbaum, Next to the Colour Line: Gender, Sexuality and W.E.B Du Bois, Library of Congress, (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota USA, 2007), p.3

[10] H. V Carby, The Souls of Black Men, Next to the Colour Line: Gender, Sexuality and W.E.B Du Bois, Library of Congress, (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota USA, 2007), p.235

[11] H. V Carby, The Souls of Black Men, Next to the Colour Line: Gender, Sexuality and W.E.B Du Bois, Library of Congress, (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota USA, 2007), p.235