Molly Rogers’ DELIA’S TEARS and More on Black Family History
This afternoon at 4:30pm, Molly Rogers, author of Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in 19th-Century America, will be interviewed by eminent historian David Blight about her book here on Yale’s campus.
The book retells the story of seven South Carolina slaves who were photographed at the request of Swiss naturalist, Louis Agassiz, who sought to use biological evidence to support the theory of separate creations by proving the inferiority of the African race. Rogers writes: “At the heart of this story is the question of what it means to be human….These people, the people depicted in the photographs—Delia, Jack, Renty, Drana, Jem, Alfred, and Fassena—are at the heart of the story described here. The story is about them, and yet at the same time they are strangely absent from it.” Accompanying the historical narrative are short, fictional vignettes about each of the photographs and their subject, recreating slave perspectives that are otherwise lost to us.
The photographs themselves were only uncovered a few decades ago by museum staffers of the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The daguerreotypes were unusual not only because they were of African-Americans, but ones half-clothed, atypical of the white middle-class, nineteenth-century ritual of getting a portrait done with the new exposure process, invented by Louis Daguerre. Once connected to Agassiz, the daguerreotypes uncovered the century-old fascinations with anthropology, ethnography, and race science.
Since the publication of Rogers’ book, a woman in Connecticut, Tamara Lanier, has attempted to prove that her family descends from Renty Taylor, son of Renty in the 1850 photographs, whom her family’s history accounts for as having changed his surname to Thompson when he was sold to a different owner in Alabama. Although photographs are difficult to use as conclusive proof, Lanier insists that the census and genealogical information she has found point to links between her family and Renty. Of the daguerreotype, she says, “How ironic it is to know that the black African chosen by a scientist to be the symbol of ignorance and racial inferiority was truly an educated and self-taught man.” For Black History Month, her “goal is to correct history and to share with all that…Renty was an educated an exceptional person.” Lanier is expected to attend Rogers’ talk this afternoon.