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.
These remarkable images depicted dignified, well-dressed men and women living in comfortable and even lavish homes whose furnishings reflected the occupants’ sophisticated taste and refinement. One imagines that Du Bois selected this particular array of “types” primarily for two reasons: first, to present a counter-discourse to “types” of Negroes summoned in the work of anthropologists such as Louis Agassiz half a century before; and second, to create a text or archive of images that could be drawn upon and vastly expanded to refute the extremely popular images of black people as deracinated “Sambos” and lascivious “coons” that peppered trade cards, postcards, advertisements, sheet music and virtually every other form of popular visual culture during the 1890s. At precisely the same time, Jim Crow segregation was being legalized, culminating in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” Supreme Court decision of 1896.
Given the startled reactions of the American media almost a century later to the level of articulation of the parade of black upper-middle-class, well-educated witnesses in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and similar attitudes expressed in the reviews of Stephen Carter’s novel about the black upper class on Martha’s Vineyard (The Emperor of Ocean Park, published in 2002), one can only imagine the surprise, the depth of disappointed expectations and the frisson generated in white visitors if they actually reflected on these hundreds of images of black doctors, lawyers and other professionals whose talents and aspirations matched or exceeded those of their white counterparts. That, at least, was Du Bois’ hope — his use of art, of photography, as propaganda.
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.”