CAMBRIDGE, Mass — In the summer of 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was returning from a trip to China and had difficulty entering his home in Cambridge. Apparently the front door was jammed. Both he and his driver tried to open it before going around to a side entrance. A neighbor noticed the two men struggling with the door and called the police. What followed engulfed the nation in a heated conversation about race and, more specifically, racial profiling by police. The conversation entered its absurdist phase when President Obama invited both Gates and James Crowley, the officer who arrested him, to the now infamous “Beer Summit” at the White House. Obama’s even-handed management of the circumstances around the arrest pleased no one at the time.
It all seems rather innocent now: an African American’s encounter with the police ending peacefully — albeit after an arrest — and afterwards all aggrieved parties sharing conciliatory smiles and handshakes at the White House with the President. It is a sharp contrast to the now painfully familiar results of numerous instances in which deadly police force ends the conversation all too abruptly.
Gates’s arrest had very little to do with Harvard other than the fact that he taught there and lived in university housing. It also had everything to do with Harvard: if Gates, a high-profile academic, could be arrested for “breaking into” his own home just blocks away from Harvard’s main campus then what were encounters with police like for the average African American? Even in an ostensibly progressive city like Cambridge the deck still seemed stacked against fairness, and indeed, common sense when it came to the relationship between police and African Americans.
Slavery in the Hands of Harvard, curated by Dr. Jonathan M. Square, is a small but remarkably effective look at both Gates’s arrest and, more specifically, the historical ties and intersections between the school and the varied institutions of slavery. Square, a Harvard professor and first-time curator, deftly navigates the history of racism that exists across the school and investigates how that history still resonates today. Through original works by several contemporary artists and reproductions of materials from Harvard’s vast archives, Square establishes a series of historical markers that vibrate with personal experiences.
“Renty Henry” (2018-19), a diptych made by Noel W. Anderson, pairs the mug shot image of Gates with the daguerreotype of a slave named Renty, by Joseph T. Zealy, who worked for and was recruited by Louis Agassiz in 1850 to photograph slaves. Agassiz, a Harvard professor, commissioned dehumanizing polygenist studies in an attempt to scientifically prove the inferiority of Black people. In “Renty Henry,” the warped and distressed images, transposed onto heavily worked tapestries, link Gates and Renty over a shared moment and with a satisfied mutual defiance at odds with the poses that they were forced to strike.
Nona Faustine uses another of Zealy’s images, of a young woman named Delia, to posit ideas of agency as well as a woman’s right to present herself to the world as she sees fit. Juxtaposed with Zealy’s austere image of Delia, Faustine self-portrait, “Venus of Vlacke bos” (2012), is a serene pronouncement of self. Wearing just a crown and white gloves, the artist gazes out at the world unflinchingly. Vlacke bos is the Dutch name of the village that became Flatbush in Brooklyn, where Faustine grew up. This striking photo is both beautiful and threatening and suggests that Faustine has an understanding the past — her own and Delia’s.
Although Square doesn’t consider himself an artist, he also contributed work to the show. In a piece titled “Freedom Papers?” (2019) he uses his diplomas as talismans of academic achievement and symbols of active protest. The three diplomas, turned on their sides, are overlaid with colored circles, raised, unshackled hands, and the simple yet powerful phrase, “I AM A MAN.” With these gestures, Square situates the work at the intersection of unbound enlightenment and profound uneasiness.
Square’s piece directly references manumission papers, documents issued to newly freed slaves. In the United States the system was regulated and often freedom was granted to slaves who were elderly and passed their useful prime. Needless to say, this “freedom” was greatly reduced and marginal. Square’s images evoke the ambivalence accompanying proffered freedom, even with diplomas denoting rarefied academic achievements.
The exhibition is located in the bustling concourse of The Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard. It is interesting to watch as students stop and engage with the work, often pausing to look at it and read the wall texts. Given that the exhibition is spread over two floors and a staircase — not the ideal place to contemplate the complexities of these histories — Square prompts viewers to stop in their tracks and reflect on not only the past but the uncertainties of today, especially for people of color.
Slavery in the Hands of Harvard, curated by Dr. Jonathan M. Square, continues at The Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard University (1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through March 16.
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I wish the article lived up to the promising title of the exhibition. Besides Agassiz’s work, what does the exhibition tell us about slavery and Harvard?
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