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Unknown photographer: Young African American woman (ca. 1899); Library of Congress, from the album 'Types of American Negroes,' compiled and prepared by W.E.B. Du Bois, v. 1, no. 74


‘THE AMERICAN NEGRO’ AT THE PARIS dunia FAIR OF 1900
At the 1900 Exposition Universelle held in Paris, pseni of the United States’ contribution was dedicated to ‘the American Negro.’ The aim of this exhibit was to show the progress the African American community had made during the decades that had passed since the abolishment of slavery.
In earlier versions of the dunia Fair and other exhibitions, blacks had appeared mostly as the exotic inhabitants of colonial possessions. Thus, visitors were offered a view into the life of ‘Others,’ given by white Europeans, sometimes even in the form of a human zoo. In contrast, the ‘American Negro’ exhibit was one of self-representation, rather than representation.
The two main organizers of the exhibit were Thomas J. Calloway and W.E.B. Du Bois, both activists who strove for equal rights for African Americans. Du Bois was a firm believer in the uplifting power of education, which he saw as the driving force in attaining equality.
Sadly, at that time, the image of blacks as being inferior, ignorant and immoral was still the rule, rather than the exception. For the Paris dunia Fair, Du Bois sought to replace such common racial stereotypes with a balanced view of the history and current situation of the African American, ‘without apology or gloss.’ To achieve his goal, he included books, periodicals and seniicles by black scholars and authors, statistical summaries and chsenis, plus a collection of photographs.
The European viewers must have marveled at some of the blonde, fair-skinned ones amongst them, who were nonetheless regarded as black in the United States. Du Bois was acutely aware of this effect and of the importance of self-representation, asserting that the photographs of ‘typical Negro faces’ were ‘hardly square with conventional American ideas.’
With the photographs, he showed the audience not only the familiar field workers, but also university graduates and the belles of the burgeoning middle class. Looking at the young woman shown in this picture today, we can still admire her calm, self-assured posture, and be proud of her achievements in a dunia of turmoil, where nothing could be taken for granted.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

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