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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.4 (2005) 741-774



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Cultural Artifacts and the Narrative of History:

W. E. B. Du Bois and the Exhibiting of Culture at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle

In much of his work from the last decade of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth, W. E. B. Du Bois's major intellectual thrust was the narrating of American history in such a way that the African American was transformed in the popular imagination from historical victim to historical actor. At the same time, Du Bois was alive to the possibilities present in imagining the African American as not simply an American citizen, but a citizen of the modern world. Paris proved to be an apt locale for such a cosmopolitan notion of global belonging. Home to the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Paris continued a tradition of large, cosmopolitan cities hosting international events that, additionally, gave expression to nationalist desires. London had done so in 1851 and 1862 when it hosted the Exhibition those years; likewise, Chicago served American interests as the setting for the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893.1 Each fair underscored the ideologies of nationalism that inhabited the collective consciousness2 of the host countries. [End Page 741]

Viewing Paris as a cosmopolitan world capital is important to the work I propose in this essay, an examination of Du Bois's gold-medal winning exhibit of African American history and culture, which he mounted for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. I discuss the sort of story Du Bois narrates through imagery and the exhibiting of artifacts (including more than 200 books written by black authors and collected by African American Assistant Librarian of Congress Daniel Payne) alongside data in the form of graphs and charts. In proposing to read imagery as narrative, I read the images Du Bois presents as certain attempts at African American self-determination in the face of what Frantz Fanon refers to, in Peau noire, masques blancs, as an "over-determination from without" via the larger social context (116). At the same time, my work underscores the instability of these images, Du Bois's role in mediating them for presentation on an international stage, and how these images articulate at once a metaphoric African American "presence" in the modern context as well as a metonymic African American "absence" in modern social discourses. Attention to Paris as the site of such making and unmaking of meaning serves to contextualize my discussion. For while the Paris fair provided, perhaps for the first time in the history of the world's fairs, a broad opportunity for African Americans to represent themselves at such an event,3 it also reinforced, in ways that I shall discuss, a narrow nationalistic insistence upon the metaphysics of race and society that sought to, but did not quite succeed at leaving them voiceless in the matrix of western discourses.

In this essay, I suggest that a consideration of the relationship of some aspects of the images in Du Bois's collection to the historical development of the discourse of sociology and its claims to propositional truth can teach us something about the dual nature of exhibiting cultural artifacts at venues such as the Paris Exposition and perhaps, at least partly, explain why Du Bois's collection, in particular, was capable of attracting the attention of a sociological world against whose values his work largely ran counter. Sociology is a realm rarely discussed in literary circles. Indeed, from Carl Van Vechten's introduction to the second edition of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912; 1927) to Ralph Ellison's many essays on culture and literature, sociology has received harsh treatment for its tendency to place African Americans under a dissecting light. However, Du Bois's embrace of this discipline, an equivocal embrace at the time of the Exposition, means that we, too, must examine it, if only to understand its...

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