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  • Diagrammatics as PhysiognomyW. E. B. Du Bois’s Graphic Modernities
  • Alexander G. Weheliye (bio)

W. E.B. Du Bois, Statistical Graphics, Social Science, Diagrams, Charts, Physiognomy, The Philadelphia Negro

I could see that the scientific task of the twentieth century would be to explore and measure the scope of chance and unreason in human action, which does not yield to argument but changes slowly and with difficulty after long study and careful development.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn

The Negro physiognomy must be freshly and objectively conceived on its own patterns if it is ever to be seriously and importantly interpreted. Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid. And all vital art discovers beauty and opens our eyes to that which previously we could not see.

—Alain LeRoy Locke, “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts”

Hortense Spillers has urged black studies to define its disciplinary object by virtue of “mov[ing] through a first step–to become a disciplinary object, or to undergo transformation of African American studies [End Page 23] into an ‘object of knowledge,’ rather than a more or less elaborate repertory of performative gestures and utterances” (Spillers 2003, 464). Spillers asks that black studies become an “object of knowledge” by virtue of recognizing itself in the mirror of specific modes of knowledge production, which, in the process, “introduce[s] a new set of demands” (451). Disarticulating the “real object” and the “object of knowledge” (“Black people” and “Blackness,” for example) concocts a new set of demands for the black studies project that would emphasize its productive powers in the construction of its disciplinary cum conceptual object. In other words, instead of assuming that black studies reflects an already existent series of “real objects,” we need to draw attention to how the field contributes to the creation of “objects of knowledge” such as “the Black community,” “the Negro,” “Black culture,” or black studies itself. Continuing to identify blackness as one of black studies’ primary “objects of knowledge,” with black people as real subjects rather than an “object of knowledge,” accepts too easily that blackness, and by extension race, is a given natural and/or cultural phenomenon as opposed to an aggregate of forces that must continuously re/produce black subjects as not-quite human. Analogously, as an “object of knowledge” whiteness designates not already existing groupings but a series of hierarchical power structures that apportion and delimit which members of the Homo sapiens species can lay claim to full human status. In short, insisting on black studies as mode of knowledge production provides the conditions of possibility for viewing race as a political relation and not a biological or cultural descriptor.

When W. E. B. Du Bois formulated a program for the study of the Negro at the turn of the twentieth century, based primarily in historiography and the then-nascent discipline of sociology, much of the data and analysis was concerned with how the category of the Negro qua Negro appeared on the stage of modern politics and how it embodied the modern world spirit.1 Instead of accepting as fact the assumed natural inferiority of black subjects, Du Bois interrogated systematically the historical genesis of the Negro while not losing sight of the multiple ways in which this category stood in relation to other contemporary racial groups (Southern whites or recent European immigrants, e.g.) and social structures.2 In this way, Du Bois devised a set of [End Page 24] methodological and philosophical protocols that excavated the sedimented synchronic and diachronic relationality of the Negro—now transformed into a stated object of knowledge—so as to replace the Negro as a putatively given object of nature with the analysis of the increasingly complex methods of racialization at the turn of the twentieth century.3 In Du Bois’s case these instruments include but are clearly not limited to the extremely limited labor choices in the urban North that were even more constrained in the South, the Negro’s exclusion from mainstream institutions of higher learning, social segregation, Jim Crow, the convict lease system, lynching, and sharecropping, as well as histories of enslavement...