Henry Louis Gates Jr.: W.E.B. Du Bois' Talented Tenth in Pictures

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[Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, at Harvard University.]

Visitors to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 were introduced to escalators, pictorial panoramas, the Paris Metro and the first films with sound. They also encountered -- in a section of the vast world's fair aptly titled exposé nègre, or Negro exposition -- an unusual photo exhibit: hundreds of images of black professionals and college students.

Mounted to counter stereotypes of blacks as backward and culturally bankrupt, the photographs in W.E.B. Du Bois' two albums, Types of American Negroes and Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A., at the Paris Expo focused on successful African Americans who thoroughly embodied American middle-class values. These albums constituted a political act, a declaration of inherent nobility in the war over the politics of respectability and the nature of the Negro....

Revisiting these images today serves to remind us both of the history of the struggle for control of the black image in American society and the necessarily political discourses into which all black art at the time was drawn. But the photographs also make vivid the age-old class divisions within the African-American community -- class divisions born in slavery, first, and then made even more pronounced by the markedly different status of slaves and freed people over the course of slavery.

These class divisions persisted despite pointed reminders such as the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision in 1857 and the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s, which identified all black people before the law as members of one class -- a class that we might think of as the "class of Negroes," a class as defined by "all Negroes shall" or "all Negroes shan't."...

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