#MathArtChallenge 92: W.E.B. Du Bois Data Portraits

The Challenge: Following the style of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Data Portraits, update or create a graphic demonstrating current data. For example, below on the left is Du Bois’s portrait comparing Black and white occupations in 1890 and on the right is my recreation using the closest set of matching data I could find in 2018.

Materials Needed: Maybe graph paper, maybe simply regular paper and writing tools.
Math concepts you could explore with this challenge: Statistics

I love his image because it plays with the traditional circle graph and units (hello, #UnitChat!) while highlighting the disparities in job sectors. My data is not a perfect match, but it is relatively close. I invite you to examine both and offer whatever critiques, notices or wonders that occur to you.

I first came across the Data Portraits created by W.E.B Du Bois and a team at Atlanta University from this conversation between Marian Dingle and Chris Nho, and I immediately ordered my own copy of the book.

The entire project (many more images of his work at that link and this) is breathtaking for a variety of reasons. Du Bois did, as Marian explains, create this set of data to convince contemporaries of the injustices still very much realities for Black America. From the essays, it seems he was largely unheard. We are fortunate, however to have the plates from his exhibition because they can serve as such a rich resource for learning, discussion and mathematics.

The mathematician in me is struck by the beauty and creativity with which Du Bois drove home his messages. I know that I have been guilty in critiquing whether students use independent or dependent variables as x or y axes, and a teacher may have criticized the image below, but why? Insistence that there is one correct way to organize a graph is stifling and strikes me as a place mathematicians hinder themselves creatively. IMG_1942

In the image below, the angles chosen to connect proportioned lines are arbitrary, but do draw the eye. “The text paired with each segment reads more like a narrative than a typical key.” as the book plate notes. His design draws the eye to the large red spiral where we can ruminate on the large portion of the population of Black Americans living in rural areas in 1890. The immediate question that occurs to me is: how exactly had their lives changed since emancipation? What does it mean that the graphic would be so different today? Would it, in fact? How different? What happened in the intervening years?


Du Bois and his team played with size and scale in fascinating ways that also helps to illustrate much of the situations of Black America in 1890. Notice his mastery of a true unit. Though Black America was “one-eighth” of the population ins 1890, notice how many more people that represents compared with the “one-fifth” from 1800.

There’s so much more in the book, and I really encourage you to get your hands on a copy.

The essays that accompany the plates are thoughtful and really dig into the history of the Paris exhibition, which “presented a global stage for nations to strut their sense of national pride,” (Morris, 23). Du Bois’s exhibition speaks to “the gains that had been made by African Americans in spite of the machinery of white supremacist culture, policy and law that surround them. In this way, the data portraits actually challenged the dominant framework of liberal freedom and progress that characterized both the American Negro Exhibit and the Paris Exposition,” (Battle-Baptiste & Rusert, 22). If that’s not a quote to make you question America’s current situation with respect to Black America, I invite you to entertain it.

I, personally, am struck at the timing of the exhibit. Too often, white America thinks of the end of enslavement as a point of pause in American history, but

“As the twentieth century approached, these ex-slaves found themselves exiled in their own land, where their unpaid slave labor had constructed one of the world’s greatest empires. Rather than benefitting from this bounty, freemen and -women found themselves homeless, penniless, stripped of the vote, unable to seek education, and patrolled by whites. Indeed a new racial order was forged.”

Mathematics is, and always has been, a tool to question the world we live in. A tool to highlight what you see that others may not. A tool to obfuscate what you want hidden. I invite you to learn more about Du Bois’s exhibition – I linked these articles above, and more is written here and here. Then perhaps attempt to recreate or create your own visualization.

UPDATE: Naturally, I’m not the first to do this, check out this from Mona Chalabi (via Mark)

Depending on how you use this activity, you may engage with different mathematical standards. I’ve listed possible connected math content above. Here are a few suggestions for how you might integrate the 8 mathematical practices. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! 

2.) Reason abstractly and quantitatively. What are the important statistics you need to share with the world? How will you share those?

3.) Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. When you make a visual like these, you are making an argument. How can you be clear and convincing with your argument?

4.) Model with mathematics. What methods work best to share data in a convincing manner?

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

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