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?
and Delia were enslaved Africans who are the center of a lawsuit as
to who has the rights to the photo. 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.
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.
took the photo of Peter after he made his way to the Union Army camp.
The run-away 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.