This image is part of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s collection of almost 400 photographs called African American Photographs Assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition. W.E.B. Du Bois was an African American writer with a passion for social justice. These pictures, in particular, depict African American life in the regional south and take a different approach to the racist ideology circling both academic and public thought among white people. At the time of this exhibition, the world had taken to portraying African Americans (or any person of color, for that matter) as a race lacking the means to “attai[n] great material and cultural achievements”. However, W.E.B. Du Bois’s collection of photographs, like the one above, portrayed African Americans as “a proud people, dressed in splendor, as accomplished scholars and intellectuals studying the world with as much competence” as any student of the classics. Simply, Du Bois debunks many racist assumptions of African American citizens by photographing many men and women who work and live in affluent positions.
I think this photo of an African American man giving piano lessons serves as a wonderful example of Du Bois’s goal with the collection. To this day, playing the piano maintains a certain level of social sophistication– a skill that could be a party trick, the main entertainment, or a sign of affluence in one’s community (pianos are #expensive). Playing the instrument well requires diligent practice and lots of hours dedicated to improvement. Furthermore, African American pianists are not restricted to music that originates from their experience (i.e. spirituals, folk songs, psalmody…). Learning any instrument provides exposure to composers that wrote music particularly for that music-making machine. Even though it is difficult to see in this image, these African American pianists could be playing the same music as white pianists.
At this moment, I recall our Eileen Southern reading: The Music of Black Americans. Southern includes African Americans in the same musical and social practices as early white colonists, something scholarship was lacking prior to her work. She uses language like the following phrases throughout these initial pages : “a variety of informal social activities were available to colonial villagers, participated in by white and black alike…” and “white or black, servant or master, religious instruction was not only an essential prerequisite for membership in the church, but was also a basic part of daily life.” Similar to how Southern takes back the narrative of African American life in the early settlements of America, Du Bois’s collection reclaims that African Americans are not only capable of producing intelligent cultural products, but also have always succeeded in doing so.
Du Bois, W.E.B (William Edward Burghardt), collector. [African American man giving piano lesson to young African American woman]. Published 1899 or 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Photograph. Accessed on 1 October 2021. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/99472455/
Du Bois, W. E. B., and Provenzo, Eugene F.. Illustrated Souls of Black Folk. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
The W.E.B Du Bois Center. W. E. B. du Bois’s Data Portraits : Visualizing Black America. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.