In 1900, sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois organized an exhibition of photographs entitled “The American Negro” for that year’s World’s Fair in Paris. He selected images that showed a refined, educated, and prosperous population of African Americans to exhibit their success after the abolition of slavery.
In three large albums, Du Bois included photographs that he called “typical Negro faces,” focusing on the accomplishments of African Americans. Some of the photos were formal studio portraits, but there were also more informal shots of groups of people, children playing in the streets, people working, family outings, images of houses and businesses and the interiors of homes.
Du Bois’ aim in exhibiting these photographs was to challenge the racial stereotypes and caricatures that were often the dominant mode of representing blacks in America.
According to Dr. David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, “Blacks have been portrayed in popular culture as pitiable exotics, cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society.”
The connection between Jim Crow laws and racist material objects cannot be ignored. Dr. Pilgrim writes, “These anti-black depictions were routinely manifested in or on material objects: ashtrays, drinking glasses, banks, games, fishing lures, detergent boxes, and other everyday items. These objects, with racist representations, both reflected and shaped attitudes towards African Americans.”
Negative stereotypes were used to support and justify Jim Crow laws, which restricted the physical, social, and economic movement of African Americans. To quote Dr. Pilgrim again, “Jim Crow laws and etiquette were aided by millions of material objects that portrayed blacks as laughable, detestable inferiors. The Coon caricature, for example, depicted black men as lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, physically ugly idiots.” Distorted representations of black men, women, and children were everywhere.
Critic bell hooks says the camera “in black life [became] a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation as well as a means by which alternative images could be produced. Photography was more fascinating to masses of black folks than other forms of image making because it offered the possibility of immediate intervention.” Photography gave African Americans a tool to view themselves in a different light.
Snapshots, postcards, portraits, and other typically private photographs became “galleries” of and for black Americans.
In 1900, mainstream American newspapers generally ignored the existence of the Negro Exhibit. Black periodicals like The Colored American wrote extensively about the project.
Du Bois stated, concerning the exhibit, “we have thus, it may be seen, an honest, straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.”