Daguerreotype by Frank Schulenburg, altered by Lakshmi Amin (Wikimedia Commons)

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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What is the relation between possessing a person, possessing their image, and dispossessing their progeny? What is given in the reduction not only of the black person but also blackness to the image of the dis/possessed? Can there be some restitution that is not only without but also against dis/possession? Can there be a cessation and reversal of theft that doesn’t properly establish the proper but, rather, obliterates the very idea of private, or family, property? Here, restitution will have been inseparable from destruction. What will have been destroyed is white supremacy, whose buttressing and execution in and through anti-blackness is, as Cheryl Harris shows, the establishment of whiteness as (the capacity to own) property. In her amicus brief, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay demonstrates that the establishment of whiteness in and as white supremacy, in and through the regulatory degradation of blackness and the scientific, aesthetic and juridical holding of black people in and as speciated inferiority, is the purpose of the photographs of Renty Taylor, his daughter, Delia, and Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem, which Harvard University professor Louis Aggasiz commissioned, staged and styled. This purpose can neither now nor ever be countered in any “benevolent” display of the photographs by the institution that claims to own them. Nor can it be undermined by any alternative or reformative discursive frame produced by those who work for and are worked on by Harvard as if such working were in the name of the photographed and of justice. This purpose can only be re-entrenched insofar as any such display is animated by the crime of ownership, whose proper name is not just continued theft but also ongoing genocide.

Raphael Lemkin famously introduces the distinction between crimes against humanity and genocide. But the ongoing theft of image, person and sociality that Harvard perpetrates reveals the terrible and terrific blur at that distinction’s heart. Aggisiz’s making, owning and bequeathing of these photographs most certainly is, as Azoulay argues, a crime against humanity because it denies the humanity of Taylor, et. al. and of their descendant, Tamara Lanier. It is also a crime of humanity insofar as it imposes upon them an unbearable (sub-)humanness. Harvard, in its claim of ownership, and the American justice system in its upholding of that claim, renders heritable this criminal denial and criminal imposition. Indeed, what Judge Camille Sarrouf affirms is that all that could ever have been passed down from Taylor and his fellows to their descendants is this fundamental inability to own (themselves and their images and the images of their kin). In this brutally legal criminality, jointly asserted and enforced by Harvard and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the encumbrance of this inability continues to enable the very law of American property. Rightly, and righteously, Lanier does not acknowledge that Harvard owns the photographs or, for that matter, anything else. In so doing, she shares with all who make a claim on the alternative that is released through the inability to make a claim. Moreover, Lanier and her ancestors, in their refusal of dis/possession, resist the denial of their humanity and reject the inferior mode of humanity for which they are forced to stand. Their objection to Harvard’s right of property is so absolute that it constitutes a general refusal of the rights of property. It is in this regard that the human claim Lanier makes on the image of her ancestors is a claim made in general, and against genocide, on and for blackness. 

It is only right and righteous that the dispossessed now insist on the radical dispossession of American law, American art, American man and the American archive. At stake is what it is to repudiate being held in perpetuity against the force of perpetual disruption that these photographs must always also bear. Such being-held is broken when Lanier breathes on the photographs and breathes in the air they breathe on her. The practice in which she engages is, in this regard, not only one of repudiation, and restitution, but also one of mutual resuscitation. In that sharing of breath she and her ancestors share something more and something else. The refusal to be owned by those who cannot own, which is borne as irreducibly social existence, persists not in preservation and display but in animated, animative seeing-with, which is felt and passed, by all who recognize their kin, from breath to breath and hand to hand, until the photographs disappear.

Fred Moten works in the Departments of Performance Studies and Comparative Literature at New York University.