Photography on the Color Line

W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture

Photography on the Color Line

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

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Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 86 photographs (incl. special plate section) Published: June 2004

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Photography

Through a rich interpretation of the remarkable photographs W. E. B. Du Bois compiled for the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Shawn Michelle Smith reveals the visual dimension of the color line that Du Bois famously called “the problem of the twentieth century.” Du Bois’s prize-winning exhibit consisted of three albums together containing 363 black-and-white photographs, mostly of middle-class African Americans from Atlanta and other parts of Georgia. Smith provides an extensive analysis of the images, the antiracist message Du Bois conveyed by collecting and displaying them, and their connection to his critical thought. She contends that Du Bois was an early visual theorist of race and racism and demonstrates how such an understanding makes the important concepts he developed—including double consciousness, the color line, the Veil, and second sight—available to visual culture and African American studies scholars in powerful new ways.

Smith reads Du Bois’s photographs in relation to other turn-of-the-century images such as scientific typologies, criminal mugshots, racist caricatures, and lynching photographs. By juxtaposing these images with reproductions from Du Bois’s exhibition archive, Smith shows how Du Bois deliberately challenged racist representations of African Americans. Emphasizing the importance of comparing multiple visual archives, Photography on the Color Line reinvigorates understandings of the stakes of representation and the fundamental connections between race and visual culture in the United States.


“[T]his book is an original reflection on the importance of visuality in the theorizing of Du Bois and highlights the diverse and complex ways in which he problematized ‘race’ and racialization.” — Charles Gore, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Through a careful analysis of Du Bois’s use of photographs, Smith has demonstrated the degree to which Du Bois’s construction of the archive places him squarely within it and determines our ability to change the way we see and are seen.” — Carla Williams , Visual Resources

"[A]n important contribution to the critical analyses, discussions, and methodologies dedicated to both visual culture and archival research." — David A. Gerstner, Scope

"Beyond theoretical and historical inspiration, readers . . . will find an extensive collection of images, highlighted by twenty-four plates that beautifully reproduce black-and-white photographs from the American Negro Exhibit. . . . [A] major contribution to understanding the formative role of the culture of lynching in the construction of white identity." — Ira Dworkin , American Literature

"In an era of massive visual media attention, through which our realities are manipulated and often perceptually transformed . . . the relevance of Smith's analysis and interpretation of racialization via photography in the 19th and early 20th centuries is absolute. . . . [B]rilliant. . . . Highly recommended." — C. Chiarenza , Choice

"Smith's readings of DuBois's texts and the Georgia Albums draw on her synthesis of a large and diverse trove of scholarly literature. The interesting discussions and rich reference material in the endnotes should be read carefully. . . . This is a book that will generate wide discussion, given the growing interest of scholars from many disciplines in understanding more fully the connections between visual culture and race." — Julie K. Brown , Technology and Culture

Photography on the Color Line should be widely read and widely taught. In this outstanding book, Shawn Michelle Smith has offered not only a spirited reading of a historically important group of photographs but also a methodology and theoretical grounding that are widely applicable even beyond the specific archive of the Du Bois photographs.” — Laura Wexler, author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism

“Photography on the Color Line is both a complicated and fascinating read on race, human displays at expositions, and Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness. It is groundbreaking work on the Du Boisian concept of life on the color line.” — Deborah Willis, coauthor of A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Shawn Michelle Smith is Associate Professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University. She is the author of American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xv


Photography on the Color Line 1


Envisioning Race 25


The Art of Scientific Propaganda 43


“Families of Undoubted Respectability” 7


Spectacles of Whiteness:
The Photography of Lynching 113


The Archivist in the Archive 147

Notes 161

Bibliography 203

Index 217
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3343-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3331-9
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