Their Own Progress and Prospect: African Americans and l'Exposition
Universelle de 1900
by Wilfred D. Samuels
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.
-W. E. B. Du Bois, "The American Negro in Paris"
Discussion of Africans and African Americans in Paris during the early
decades of the twentieth century generally leads to the French fascination with
"primitivism," manifested, for example, in the Expressionist Movement,
specifically the works of Pablo Picasso and Matisse, and also by St.
Louis-born Josephine Baker, who took Paris by storm in the Revue Nègre
and Folies Bergére.
Whereas Picasso immortalized this allure in
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,
Baker changed forever Parisian theater and
revues with her stage personification of the savage through her exotic costumes
and dance movements to tom-tom music.(1) This "vogue of the Negro" led French art
critic Paul Guillaume to conclude France was experiencing a "new renaissance" at
the turn of the twentieth century.(2)
However, the French obsession with African culture and the black (Nubian)
body was evident as early as the 1870s in annual world's fairs and specifically
in the financially successful ethnographic exhibitions staged in public parks and
fairgrounds, sponsored at first by the Jardin d'Acclimatation and later by a
government with dreams of a colonial empire in Africa. Through these venues the
French gazed at the bodies of black "subjects" in their natural habitat,
"going about their daily routine-displaying what life was like in distant
Members of the French Anthropological Society, particularly those interested
in craniometry, reaped tremendous benefits, as they were able to have, through
these exhibitions, a conveniently available laboratory in which to measure not
only skull shape and volume--that is, the brain size and intelligence of their
black "subjects"--but also all aspects of human anatomy, though not without some
limitations, as a society member reveals in his lament that "The only thing we
could not do was to examine and measure genital organs. It was not possible to
see any lower than the upper part of pubic areas."(4)
A somewhat different agenda and plan for assessment must have dominated the
mind of Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, the Harvard graduate and sociologist, when he
traveled to Paris to participate in l'Exposition Universelle de 1900--still
considered the greatest of all French exhibitions. The exhibition's motto--"Le
bilan du siècle" [The summation of the century]--concisely stated its
pivotal objective. Designed in part for an international intellectual elite to
display its scholarly and technical knowledge and progress, the exposition of
1900 was, according to Richard D. Mandell, "the last time anyone tried to
include all of man's activity in one display." Mandell concluded that more than
man's creativity was at stake: That last festival of amusement and education,
co-operation and competition, chauvinism and internationalism could only be
planned during a time that still had faith in optimistic philosophical systems,
hopes for social reform, joy in expanding material wealth, and confidence in the
moral benefits of art.(5)
This optimism, particularly the sense that art was morally beneficial, was
shared in part by Dr. Du Bois, who was committed to what he called "the higher
aims of life." Despite his pessimistic but prophetic declaration in his now
classic collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk
(1903), that "the
problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," Du Bois was
most encouraged by what for him were the significant contributions of African
slaves and their descendants. He maintained: Little of beauty has America given
the world save the rude grandeur of God himself stamped on her bosom; the human
spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than
beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song--the rhythmic cry of the
slave--stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most
beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas... it still
remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest
gift of the Negro people.
What greater progress in human civilization to celebrate, Dr. Du Bois
declares, than the measurable progress blacks had made, a mere three decades
after emancipation, with their now calculable contributions--not only to
American culture, but indeed to human culture. He concluded:
It is no new thing for a group of people to accomplish much under the
help and guidance of a stronger group.... When, however, the inevitable question
arises, What are these guided groups doing for themselves? there is...no more
encouraging answer than given by the American Negroes, who [in this exhibit]
are shown to be studying, examining, and thinking of their own progress
Du Bois's gift and cultural bearers had made this contribution, despite their
active and continued quest for freedom in a marginalized world of legal
segregation. In fact, Dr. Du Bois had traveled to Paris from the American South,
a space governed by segregated public facilities.
In response to the French's specific request for a "Negro Section" for the
1900 exhibition, Du Bois mounted the "American Negro Exhibit," a "panorama of
progress" that, assembled by him and Thomas Calloway, was housed in the Palace of
Social Science. Including musical compositions, books by African American
authors, and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, their award-winning display of
photographs, books, models, maps, patents, and plans from several black
universities, including Atlanta, Fisk, Howard, Hampton, and Tuskegee, showed the
world African Americans "studying, examining, and thinking of their own
progress, and prospect." For Du Bois, this was indeed the best venue not only to
announce, record, and celebrate universally the progress African Americans
had made, but perhaps more importantly to (re)claim the respectability due them
and their culture, which had been forfeited through the pronouncements and
leadership of Booker T. Washington and the legalization of jim crowism.
Clearly, with this exhibit Du Bois engages, in words and action, a
signifying act of deformation; he refuses, as Houston Baker asserts, the
"master's nonsense" (e.g., manifested in the Plessy v. Fergusson Supreme Court
decision and such pseudo-scientific activities like those conducted by
craniometrists in France's Anthropological Society) to transcend "the veil"--the
"barrier of American racial segregation that keeps Afro-Americans always behind
the color line"(8)-- and celebrate cultural triumph and spirituality that move
beyond the physicality and materiality of class and race to a level where the
"most beautiful expression of human experience" is found.
Ironically, Du Bois's participation in the exhibition resulted in a
collaborative effort between him and the president of Tuskegee Institute,
Booker T. Washington, whose program of work, money, adjustment, and submission
Du Bois criticized for not only "almost completely...overshadow[ing] the higher
aims of life," but also for almost accepting "the alleged inferiority of the
Negro race."(9) Washington's alma mater, Hampton University, where he remained
most influential, was the site and therefore the center of the photographic
exhibit, showcasing the "images of stunning clarity and intensity" celebrated by
Du Bois and produced by white feminist photographer Frances Benjamin Johnson,
whom Hampton's administrators had called on to "provide a complete pictorial
As Jeannene M. Przyblyski correctly points out, the dual identity and
narratives of progress and effect of spectacle of the exhibition inevitably
"laid the products and peoples of the world at the feet of visitors, not as they
were, but as those exhibiting them wished they would be"; consequently, in the
resulting "realm of the performative and imaginary"(10) racial differences were
registered and, in the case of such exhibits as the Natives of Dahomey with its
live "subjects," exoticism was inscribed through its depiction of the noble
savage. The result was a "zoo-like exposure" to the gaze of exposition visitors.
The Negro Exhibit, staged by exemplary and dutifully attentive Hampton
students, and projected and framed by Johnson's lens, allowed visitors to learn
about African American culture by gazing at these "subjects" crammed in
winged framed cabinets in a tiny twelve-by-twelve-foot exhibition, constricted
space. Stated differently, one may correctly argue that, as a staged-visual
display, Johnson's photographs exposed Hampton, its students, and African
American culture to an appropriating white gaze much like that experienced by the
"subjects" of the earlier ethnographic exhibition sponsored by the Jardin
d'Acclimatation that included animals and natives.
Although somewhat valid, this argument and view would be myopic, for it would
fail to consider and/or validate the other overarching accomplishments of the
Negro Exhibit of l'Exposition Universelle de 1900, a time when the Negro was in
vogue, as African Americans perceived them. Above all, this exhibition allowed
African Americans to see, (re)appropriate, and (re)present themselves positively.
In their mind, they were crafting a positive self-representation--a "New Negro,"
if you will--in order to turn, as Henry L. Gates Jr. suggests, to overcome and
transcend in the new century the prevailing "stereotypes scattered throughout
plantation fiction, blackface minstrelsy, vaudeville, racist pseudo-science, and
vulgar social Darwinism."
Herein lies the significance of the epigraph with which I began this essay.
With his participation, Du Bois insists that we, too, must not come to the
exhibition site to gaze (to look) but as visionaries who "see" graphic
significations of African American progress and prospect, rather than
stereotypes, at best, or merely another ethnographic exhibition--another
sideshow--at worst. Perhaps by making this distinction we, too, will do what Du
Bois asks readers to do at the end of "Of Our Spiritual Striving": stop to
listen to the unreconciled "striving in the souls of black folk" and recognize
the dogged strength that alone keeps their (black) body from being torn asunder
by a relentless appropriating and marginalizing gaze determined to make them
1. See Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon, Josephine, trans. Mariana Fitzpatrick
(New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 47-82.
2. See Chidi Ikonné, From Du Bois to Van Vechten: The Early New Negro
Literature, 1903-1926 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981), 3-44.
3. William H. Schneider, An Empire for the Masses: The French Popular Image of
Africa, 1870-1900 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982), 124-201.
4. Quoted in Schneider, 131.
5. Richard D. Mandell, Paris, 1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967),
6. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Books, 1989),
178; emphasis added.
7. W. E. B. Du Bois, 'The American Negro in Paris,' American Monthly Review of
Reviews (November 1900): 577.
8. Houston A. Baker Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1987), 57; 49-69. Baker distinguishes between the
tactics of Booker T. Washington, which he describes as 'Mastering the Form' of
the (minstrel's) mask to conceal and disguise his agenda, and Du Bois's, which he
describes as 'the Deformation of Mastery' aimed at displaying and advertising
rather than concealment.
9. Du Bois, 'Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,' The Souls of Black Folk,
30-42. Interestingly enough, Washington emerges as the national leader for
African Americans after giving his infamous speech, 'The Atlanta Exposition
Address,' at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.
Washington successfully argued that the exposition would give former slaves a
chance to demonstrate their progress since emancipation. His request was
approved and blacks had a separate 'Negro building' to house their
See Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader,
1856-1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 204-228.
10. See Jeannene M. Przyblyski, 'American Visions at the Paris Exposition, 1900:
Another Look at Frances Benjamin Johnson's Hampton Photograph,' Art Journal
(Fall 1998): 65.
Wilfred D. Samuels is associate professor of English and ethnic studies at the
University of Utah. He is also the president of the African American Literature
and Culture Society of the American Literature Association. He is an Americanist
with research interest in twentieth-century American and African American
For information contact Dr. Samuels at:email@example.com
or AALC's web site
You may phone Dr. Samuels at (801)581-3288.