Rogers on Researching the Zealy Dagguerreotypes of Slaves (2012)

In 2012, at Mirror of Race, Molly Rogers reflected on the Jacques Zealy daguerreotypes of South Carolina slaves (now held by Harvard University).

In the sum­mer of 1976, employ­ees of Har­vard University’s Peabody Museum of Archae­ol­ogy and Eth­nol­ogy dis­cov­ered fif­teen daguerreo­types in the museum attic. The pho­tographs were made in 1850 and they depict five African men and two African Amer­i­can women, all of whom were slaves in or near Colum­bia, South Car­olina. The names of the peo­ple are known—the men are Jack, Jem, Fassena and Alfred, and the women Drana and Delia—as are a few details on the cir­cum­stances of their lives. The daguerreo­types are con­sid­ered to be the ear­li­est known pho­tographs of iden­ti­fi­able Amer­i­can slaves….

…As I exam­ined the pho­tographs, scru­ti­niz­ing Delia’s body with the aid of a mag­ni­fy­ing glass—seeking in her image evi­dence of mal­treat­ment, of the cir­cum­stances under which the image was made, and of her indi­vid­ual character—an unpleas­ant feel­ing came over me. Louis Agas­siz had com­mis­sioned Delia’s pho­tographs after phys­i­cally exam­in­ing her. The images were intended to serve as aides-memoire to this osten­si­bly sci­en­tific exam­i­na­tion and also as evi­dence of his find­ings, which he could show to other peo­ple. The pho­tographs were there­fore dou­bly linked to Delia’s vio­la­tion: they were both the cul­mi­na­tion of an inva­sive exam­i­na­tion and a sec­ond instance of this objec­ti­fy­ing scrutiny. And there I was, exam­in­ing Delia much as the sci­en­tist had done: she was exposed against her will and in her body I sought infor­ma­tion, facts, evi­dence. That the kind of the evi­dence I hoped to find dif­fered from that of the Swiss nat­u­ral­ist offered lit­tle con­so­la­tion. Ulti­mately, there was no avoid­ing the fact that I was regard­ing Delia as an object and doing so for my own gain…

Read the rest: Molly Rogers, “Fair Women Are Transformed into Negresses,” mirrorofrace.org 2012 January 18. http://mirrorofrace.org/fair-women/

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