Monday, December 13, 2010

The Root Features W.E.B. Du Bois's Talented Tenth Portraits

This slide show at The Root captivated me this morning.
The Talented Tenth in Pictures
To counter the negative images of African Americans in the late 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois displayed portraits of middle-class blacks at the Paris Exposition of 1900. The Root has published some images from this act of defiance.


The photos are courtesy of the prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress, and you may search the entire collection there as well as Du Bois's other works.

The slide show narrative that goes with the picture above reads:
At the original 1900 exhibit, both sitters and photographers were presented anonymously. It has since been established that Thomas Askew, a prominent African-American photographer in Atlanta, made many of the photographs for Du Bois' Georgia Negro studies. In the Library of Congress catalog, a typical image caption would read, "African American woman, half-length portrait, facing right, with left hand under chin." Some sitters have since been identified, including Du Bois' students at Atlanta University.
These photos made me think of one of Prof. Kim Pearson's comments on my old post about self-mythology. Posting a picture of Du Bois of a child, the one that I've added below, she said:
"The stories we are told about ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves are critical to the ways in which we think about our opportunities. This is part of my fascination with the life of WEB Du Bois, whose mother was single, disabled and working class descendant of black freeman, and whose father was a Civil War deserter and the illegitimate son of a mixed race New England merchant. Despite his poverty and birth into circumstances that would have been considered shameful in that Victorian post-bellum era, his mother had a portrait made of him when he was four:"


Professor Kim has been researching how the stories we tell about ourselves connect to the stories others tell about themselves and how these stories when matched well may later result in beneficial networking. She seems particularly interested in how the telling of such stories through digital media can influence and improve opportunities for minority students.

When I see Du Bois's Paris exhibition, I think about how he sought to change the flat narrative of African-Americans written by the dominant culture's gatekeepers in his day, an inaccurate narrative that reached beyond America and left in the minds of others negative stereotypes of American black people.

See the slide show at TheRoot.com, which is only a small part of the whole collection.

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