Photography studio (via 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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Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor. You are aware of his story no doubt: The photographs were commissioned in 1850 by Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, who was a Swiss-American, professor of Zoology and geology at Harvard, who made his mark by studying glaciers and prehistoric fossils of mollusks and fauna, suggesting that the Earth in fact had an Ice Age.

After relocating to the US, Agassiz became a strident advocate of polygenism; the theory that human races originate from different origins. Agassiz was an unvarnished believer in the superiority of the white race, committed to proving it “scientifically.” To do so, he needed financial support for a project that found a less favorable audience in New England, during the pre-Civil War battle to abolish slavery. Therefore, Agassiz, the impresario, frequently mingled with slave-owners to whom he lectured that “the differences we notice at present between [us] and the races [that are] primitive” do not originate from a common center, nor from a single pair.” His biographer tells us that he was “a man who wanted to come across as both rigorously professional and unrelentingly popular.” Agassiz credible academic achievements such as providing a “full description of a jellyfish’s nervous system,” were overshadowed by the fact that he was an “incorrigible racist.” He was “a self-proclaimed advocate of abolition” when in the same breath he firmly: believed in the racial inferiority of blacks.” Darwin sarcastically remarks about the showboat Agassiz championing of polygenism and opportunism, which Agassiz served “to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerners.”    

It is important that we highlight that Agassiz’s biographer stresses his role in the “creation” of science in North America. So we must not understand Agassiz’s theories of race as a secondary consequence of his otherwise good work, or imagine him as a hermit working away on his fossils separate from the political and social world — as was the case with Darwin. Rather, Agassiz courted the spotlight, worked to integrate his “science” into the mainstream and frequently traveled as, what we would identify today, a public intellectual. Agassiz was a Harvard employee. The university was a benefactor of his entrepreneurial escapades and the value he extracted from enslaved black Africans.

In one such venue, Agassiz told a white, slave-owning audience in Charleston, S.C. that “the brain of the Negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seven months’ infant in the womb of a White.”  Shortly before this lecture, he hired J.T. Zealy, a white South Carolina photographer with deep connections to the slave-owning class, to make a series of daguerreotypes of six black slaves; Renty and Delia were among them. The portraits (if we can call them that) were arranged and coordinated by Agassiz’s admirer and friend, Dr. Robert Wilson Gibbs, a slave-owning Southern physician and self-styled paleontologist. He directed the photographer Zealy that the slaves should be photographed standing half-naked, shot from several angles, “so that the anatomical features” could appear as “proof” that “racial differences” could be acutely represented in the body of the black slave. 

Those images are at the center of a dispute between Tamara Lanier and Harvard, which “owns” them (and Peabody Museum that detains these images). The intent, as I read Lanier’s grievances, is for the liberation of these images, the liberation but also full enfranchisement of Ranty and Delia including their right to be with their family—a right denied to them as slaves. Lanier’s suit is only partly about “rights to the image.”  But also, her lawsuit is about re-patriation and re-distribution of that which has been stolen from enslaved black Africans. Harvard understands this. They understand that the image of Renty represents the volumes of objects in their possession that were acquired without consent from the places of their origins.

There are certainly international laws that regulate the repatriation of the remains of those who were kidnapped or imprisoned.  I hesitate to note the 1929 Geneva Convention that governs the repatriation of remains and the property of captured and enemy soldiers. Renty was not a solider. He was a slave. He did not willfully enter into any agreement with America, not to move to South Carolina, not to work in South Carolina and not to be photographed. He was a kidnapped prisoner and slave. 

I therefore request of the Court to repatriate Renty and Delia, what remains of their remains, to their living relatives, particularly Ms. Tamara Lenier.

Stephen Sheehi (he/is) is an Anarchist professor, anti-racist and anti-imperialist Arab activist, and founder of the Decolonizing Humanities Project at William & Mary, where he is also the Sultan Qaboos...