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More Than Words

Harvard's Actions Are Unspeakable

Reading about the origin of the photos taken of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia has changed my view about photos. Any photo. Who takes them and why? Whose profits from them and for how long? Where do they reside and for how long?

Renty and Delia were enslaved Africans who are the center of a lawsuit as to who has the rights to the photos. Descendant Tamara Lanier filed legal action against Harvard University and Peabody Museum for "wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images" of her enslaved ancestors. To date, one court has already ruled that the photos are property of the university. Remember, Renty and Delia were also considered property in 1850.

Forced nudity is a form of psychological torture. It is used by prison guards and by militaries. Capturing images of that compromised state must be incredibly humiliating.

I have seen the photos of Renty and Delia dozens of times before, just as I have the haunting image “Whipped Pete.” There is a stark difference between Renty and Peter. In short, the photos taken of Renty, his daughter and others are part of a racist project by Louis Agassiz to document the inferiority of Africans.

Photographers took the photo of Peter after he made his way to the Union Army camp. The runaway joined up shortly after he escaped to safety. The purpose of the photo was to document the horrors inflicted upon Black bodies under the savage system of chattel slavery. The abolitionist movement widely circulated the horrific photo to further their cause. Peter's powerful story is one of resistance to the brutality that accurately characterized slavery despite ongoing efforts to cast it as a benevolent institution.

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I am not a particularly pious person but upon reading that Agassiz forced his human subjects to strip naked added another layer of outrage. Until recently, I had never read or heard that stinging fact. I think about a naked Delia, not totally understanding what was about to happen to her.

Forced nudity is a form of psychological torture. It is used by prison guards and by militaries. Capturing images of that compromised state must be incredibly humiliating -- opening up feelings of vulnerability, shame and powerlessness.

After reading articles about the Agassiz project and its mission to prove white superiority, I looked at Delia's photograph with a new lens. Her face gave me more information. It was not the stoic face I once saw. With the benefit of historical context, I now see a defiant Black woman who chose to not be present in that painful moment. Delia's eyes tell me that only her body, void of spirit and soul, remained in the room. She endured the gaze of sick, white men for the duration of the photo shoot but had no idea of the endless sea of eyes that would be cast upon her broken body forever.

Lanier's legal battle may not get her family's rightful property back. However, it has raised the thorny and enduring question of the property rights of African Americans. Harvard University's obsession with ownership of the photos underscores that people of African descent have no rights that white people accept, especially wealthy and powerful white folks.

jamala rogers 210

The famous quote of slaveholder and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford made it clear in 1857: Blacks “…have no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In the case of two very special family photos, the ringing truth of Judge Taney’s legal opinion prevails today.

Jamala Rogers