Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture

Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture

by Shawn Michelle Smith

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Interest in W.E.B. Du Bois doesn't seem to be waning after 2003's Souls of Black Folk centennial. Carroll, editor in chief of the Independent Film & Video Monthly Magazine, interviews 20 famous African Americans to share their ideas on what that book means for them today. The range of voices, including Katherine Cleaver, Clarence Major, and Terence Blanchard, makes for interesting diversity, and the interviews themselves are short enough to read in a few minutes each. Smith (American studies, St. Louis Univ.), who examined the issue of race and photography in her well-received American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in a Visual Culture, delves deeper into the same territory with an investigation of the 363 groundbreaking black-and-white photographs Du Bois displayed at the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. By carefully juxtaposing Du Bois's images of middle-class African American society with contemporary mug shots, lynching photos, and racist caricatures, Smith argues that his exhibit deliberately challenged white racist visual representations of black culture. The 86 exhibit photos in the special plates section give the reader a better understanding of Smith's thesis and take up a considerable portion of the complete book. Aimed less at a scholarly audience than at the average reader, Carroll's collection should be of interest to both academic and public libraries. Smith's work is highly recommended for all academic libraries, along with David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis's A Small Nation of People, which covers the same territory.-Anthony J. Adam, Prairie View A&M Univ. Lib., TX Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

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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Duke University Press
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a John Hope Franklin Center Book
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Photography on the color line

W.E.B. Du Bois, race, and visual culture
By Shawn Michelle Smith

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3343-0

Chapter One

Envisioning Race

In what has become one of his most widely quoted propositions, W. E. B. Du Bois describes "double-consciousness" as "the sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others," thereby drawing on a visual paradigm to articulate African American identity in the Jim Crow United States. It is the negotiation of disparate gazes and competing visions that imposes the "two-ness" of double consciousness. The recognition of violently distorted images of blackness-those projected "through the eyes of [white] others"-produces the psychological and social burden of attempting to assuage "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals."

Many of Du Bois's most influential concepts from the turn of the century are focused through visual imagery, including, in addition to double consciousness, what he calls "the Veil" and "second-sight," and this chapter argues for Du Bois as an early visual theorist of race and racism. Du Bois not only utilized visual images to describe racial constructs but also conceptualized the racial dynamics of the Jim Crow color line as visual culture. In Du Bois's early writings, the color line represents not only the systemic inequity of racialized labor but also a visual field in which racial identitiesare inscribed and experienced through the lens of a "white supremacist gaze." While race may be structurally codified and entrenched according to the movement of global capital via colonialism, imperialism, and the slave trade, in Du Bois's understanding, the experiences of racialization and racial identification are focused through a gaze and founded in visual misrecognition. Attending to the visual in Du Bois's early written works enables one to see identity and race as both effects and cornerstones of visual processes, as both products and producers of visual culture.

Double Consciousness as Visual Culture

Over the course of the century following his initial proclamations, double consciousness has proven to be one of Du Bois's most evocative conceptions, framing and shaping much creative and scholarly work on the cultures of the African diaspora. Despite its influence, however, double consciousness remains a subtle and complicated insight, and recently scholars have begun to historicize Du Bois's use of the term by tracing its genealogy. In my own assessment here, I aim to draw out the relatively unexplored legacy of visual psychological ideas that Du Bois draws on and fundamentally reconfigures to theorize double consciousness. Once again, it is the image of himself that Du Bois sees through the eyes of white others that makes him feel his "two-ness"; it is the image of self as other that Du Bois cannot fully assimilate.

By focusing on the visual terms through which Du Bois conceives double consciousness, one finds that the connections between his theory and William James's early work in psychology are both less direct and more fundamental than others have posited. Indeed, the most important conceptual links shared by Du Bois and James, which clarify Du Bois's unique use of double consciousness, become fully apparent only when considered through a visual lens. My argument necessarily takes issue with part of Shamoon Zamir's recent and important study, Dark Voices, in which he spends considerable energy distancing Du Bois's thought from that of James. Zamir has argued that during Du Bois's years at Harvard, it was not his studies with James, but his studies with George Santayana, of Hegel and German philosophy, that most influenced Du Bois's understanding of double consciousness. In a detailed comparison of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind to Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Zamir suggests that Hegel provided a means by which Du Bois could theorize "the relationship of consciousness to history." But while Zamir argues carefully and convincingly for the Hegelian thematics in The Souls of Black Folk, his analysis fails to account for the visual dynamics central to Du Bois's conception of double consciousness. Indeed, the one aspect of Du Boisian double consciousness Zamir cannot reconcile with Hegelian philosophy-"the linking of self-consciousness to seeing and being seen"-can be illuminated by a closer analysis of James's Principles of Psychology. And as Zamir notes, James was teaching portions of Principles in 1889, the year Du Bois studied with him at Harvard.

While I will persist in drawing connections between the early work of Du Bois and the contemporary work of James, I do not aim to make a case for scholarly influence by tracing a genealogy of great ideas through great men. For certainly, as David Levering Lewis suggests, "the irreducible fact that Du Bois's existence, like that of other men and women of African descent in America, amounted to a lifetime of being 'an outcast and a stranger in mine own house,' as hewould write, was a psychic purgatory fully capable by itself of nurturing a concept of divided consciousness, whatever the Jamesian influences." And yet, the particular manner in which Du Bois articulated double consciousness does run parallel to James's thought in important ways. Ultimately, however, I am interested, as is Zamir, in demonstrating how Du Bois adapted, rather than adopted, the critical thinking of his day, and further, like Priscilla Wald, in how Du Bois's adaptations commented on the limitations of the thought he worked with and transformed. Du Bois's thinking was clearly in flux at the turn of the century. He was struggling to refashion received models of inquiry, attempting to develop new languages and methods for assessing and articulating African American life in all its geographic, economic, and gendered variety. He sought fervently to develop an anti-essentialist methodology that could challenge the legacy of biological racialism and the emergence of eugenics, both of which claimed to delineate a hierarchy of innate, inherent, biological racial differences. Following an elite education and training in the United States and Germany, Du Bois modified and reformulated the purportedly "universal" theories that he inherited-theories outwardly unmarked but clearly Eurocentric, white supremacist, and masculinist-to make them adequate to his own experience and race-conscious social, economic, cultural, and psychological analysis. Thus, while the particular psychological conversations he entered into shaped his own thinking at the turn of the century, Du Bois also pushed the limits and challenged the foundations of those conversations by attending to the question of race.

Several scholars have noted James's use of double consciousness to discuss personality disorders and pathologies. And while interesting overlaps exist between James's clinical psychological use of the concept and Du Bois's adaptation, Du Bois's specific articulation of double consciousness in visual terms resonates most powerfully with the more general processes of identity formation and self-recognition that James describes as fundamental to the development of "normal" consciousness. In other words, Du Bois does not adopt the category of an anomalous pathology to articulate African American distinctiveness; instead, he racializes the very process of identity formation itself, as posited by James, demonstrating how race in a racist culture fundamentally changes and determines everything. Du Bois's use of double consciousness transposes James's theory of social self-recognition into African American experience; it places James's undifferentiated "Me" back into a world divided by the color line, and specifically into an African American world shut off from the white world by "a vast veil." Du Bois's adaptation of James's psychological theories explores an African American psyche to emphasize the social pathology of a racist American culture.

Having said that, however, there are significant connections between James's discussion of personality disorders and Du Bois's conception of a racialized double consciousness. In his analysis of "alternating personality" in The Principles of Psychology, James discusses several cases of double consciousness, describing individuals who have experienced a spontaneous, radical transformation of personality concomitant with severe memory loss. He comments on the case of Felida X., a young woman who at age fourteen began to pass into a "secondary" state marked by a significant loss of inhibitions. While in the second state, she could remember the first, but once restored to her original state, she could not remember the second. Thus, over the course of several years, her original self would express bewilderment at changes that had occurred during her secondary state, such as becoming pregnant, of which she had no memory. Another young woman, Mary Reynolds, fell into a deep, unshakeable sleep and woke up twenty hours later with an entirely new personality. The formerly melancholy young woman awakened cheerful and mischievous, with no memory whatsoever of her previous self. She did not recognize family and friends, and she forgot how to read and write, and initially, she even forgot how to speak. After five weeks, Reynolds awakened to find herself restored to her usual self, as if nothing had happened in the interim. These severe alterations in personality continued over the course of fifteen years. James accounts for these pathological states by suggesting that the "brain-condition" must allow for distinctly organized "association-paths." According to James, the brain must be structured to permit "the processes in one system [to] give rise to one consciousness, and those of another system to another simultaneously existing consciousness." Explaining the memory loss that occurs in a state of double consciousness, James suggests that the two selves remain largely unknown to one another: "Each of the selves is due to a system of cerebral paths acting by itself."

For Du Bois, double consciousness is marked by a similar two-ness, by "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body." And yet, Du Bois is acutely aware of both selves simultaneously. His is a strangely conscious double consciousness. And further, for Du Bois, double consciousness does not arise from two distinct "cerebral paths"; it is not a "brain-condition," a biological structure, but a social construct. Du Boisian double consciousness results when one attempts to reconcile radically different perceptions of self; competing representations split consciousness, not competing cerebral paths. In short, two-ness is an effect of the color line. Du Bois does not outline an anomalous psychological pathology, but the condition of being African American in white supremacist America. Ultimately, he describes the struggle of a healthy mind forced to confront and inhabit a perverse world; pathology finally resides not in an African American brain, but in America's social body.

Du Bois's understanding of double consciousness most closely resembles James's description of the basic components of self-consciousness. For Du Bois, African American consciousness is marked by the discordant splitting that James describes as an effect of disjunctions between one's various "social selves." The two-ness of Du Bois's self-consciousness is engendered by the conflicting images he finds of himself held in social worlds divided by the color line.

In Psychology: The Briefer Course (1892), William James describes the self as "duplex," "partly known and partly knower, partly object and partly subject," both "Me" and "I." The elusive I is finally, for James, thoughts themselves as thinkers (83); the I is that which "is conscious," and the Me is simply one of the things the I is "conscious of" (62). The Me is the more readily apparent aspect of the self, according to James, for it is, quite literally, that which is known, that which the thinker thinks about.

In James's understanding, the Me is constituted by three parts, namely, the materialme, the spiritualme, and the socialme (44). The material me includes one's body, clothes, family, house, and possessions, and is thus characterized by external attributes. The spiritual me, on the other hand, is specifically internal; it is "the entire collection of [one's] states of consciousness," most notably marked by "active-feeling states" (48). Finally, one's social me is "the recognition which [one] gets from his mates" (46). According to James, "Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind" (46; emphasis added). The social self is multiple, and divided, sometimes even by "discordant splitting" (47), as one shows different sides of one's self to different groups of people (46). What James describes as one's sense of "images of [one's] person in the minds of others" holds incredible importance within his theory of the self (61). Just as one must take an intense self-interest in one's own body, so, proclaims James, one must also be guided and directed by the ways in which one is perceived: "I should not be extant now had I not become sensitive to looks of approval or disapproval on the faces among which my life is cast" (61). What Du Bois would call the "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others," is, then, for James, fundamental to self-knowledge and even to one's survival.

In James's depiction of the functions of the social self, one finds an avowedly social, and developmentally secondary, rendition of what Jacques Lacan would later describe as the mirror stage. Lacan's mirror stage depicts ego formation as a process founded in misrecognition, in one's misrecognition of self in and as an image reflected in the mirror. According to Lacan, such a process generally takes place between the ages of six and eighteen months. During the mirror stage, an infant's fragmentary experience of self coheres as the ego around a unified image of self seen in the mirror. This idealized image of wholeness is illusory, greater than the sum of felt, fragmented parts it magically combines in spectacle. The image initiates the infant into the psychological cycle of lack and desire, for the child will forever attempt to maintain this illusion (this self-delusion) of ideality and wholeness realized only in reflection. Through the mirror stage, the ego is thus founded both in the split between body (or physical experience) and image and in the perpetual psychological effort of suturing self-identification to image.

According to Lacan, the mirror stage takes place at a time in which the infant is still "unable as yet to walk, or even to stand up," when he or she is "still sunk in his [or her] motor incapacity and nursling dependence." As such, it is a process that requires "some support, human or artificial," and most likely maternal. While Lacan downplays the mother's role in the mirror stage, proclaiming that this development takes place "before [the ego's] social determination," 25 the mother is the phantom support that carries the child in its "nursling dependence," and I would argue that she provides important social reinforcement for the child's misrecognition through her own approving gaze. One might suppose that as the infant looks into the mirror, the mother corroborates the child's misrecognition-"Look! Who's that? Yes. That's you!"-affirming the child's identification with his or her reflection. Thus the infant's initial identification with an idealized image of self is reinforced by the intimate gaze of the mother, whose adoring eyes corroborate and accept the idealized (whole) image as an adequate representation of the child's self. For a brief moment, the infant's fantasy of wholeness is shared by another, and thus the mirror stage (what one might call primary (mis)identification), despite Lacan's assertions to the contrary, can also be considered social. Viewing the mirror stage through the lens of Jamesian psychology, what distinguishes this first moment of misrecognition (in the mirror stage) from later scenes of social misrecognition is that the image of self reflected in the eyes of the mother (the social other) is not partial, nor distorted by "discordant splitting" or multiplicity, but is equivalent (for the child) to the child's own (mis)perception of self. In this revised rendition of Lacan's mirror stage, the adoring gaze of the mother supports misrecognition and reinforces the suturing of self and image.


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Meet the Author

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.

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