Artist unknown, button dated 1840s - 1850s (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Editor’s Note: This endorsement is part of a special edition that Hyperallergic published on the ongoing legal case to return the photos of Renty and Delia Taylor to their descendants.

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A full exposition on the world-historical crime of transatlantic racial slavery is impossible to render within the bounded written text of any historical or legal document. The innumerable atrocities and agonies of enslavement belong to a category of criminality and resultant suffering that evades all forms of rhetorical or documentary capture, that evades language itself.  From our contemporary vantage, we who are their descendants carry the history of capture, dispersal, and enslavement of our African ancestors with speechless shock and abiding pain.  We confront the centrality of slavery to the development of the New World, its economies, infrastructures, and institutions as unredressable crimes against humanity.

By retaining the daguerreotypes of seven enslaved black people, including Renty and Delia, Harvard University perpetuates the violences of racial slavery in this country: financial accumulation via the instrumentalization of enslaved bodies and persons; the dispossession and wonton display of the bodies of the enslaved; the prioritization of legalistic, proprietary claims to the enslaved over the rights and bonds of human kinship; the severance of African American familial ties and the obliteration of African American familial legacies.

At issue in Ms. Tamara Lanier’s suit is an attempt of one African American family to secure justice on behalf of their enslaved ancestors.  In the strongest possible terms, I request that the Court repatriate Renty and Delia to their living relatives, specifically Tamara Lanier, and in so doing put an end after nearly two centuries to their enslavement.

Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman is an associate professor of American Studies and English at Brown University.