In 1850 Harvard professor and biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned a study in scientific racism. The resulting images of Jem, Alfred, Fassena, Delia, Jack, Renty, and Drana, a group of people of African descent enslaved in South Carolina, are now known as the Zealy daguerreotypes and have become critical artifacts in the study of enslavement and racism in American history. The images were first discovered by the staff of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in the mid-1970s.
A new book co-published by Aperture and Peabody Museum Press, “To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes,” focuses on the challenges and possibilities of examining these images. The volume is edited by Molly Rogers, Deborah Willis, and Ilisa Barbash, and features articles by Harvard faculty including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, John Stauffer, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and a photography series by artist Carrie Mae Weems.
In “To Make Their Own Way in the World,” the writers engage with the historical, artistic, and ethical questions that surround the daguerreotypes and offer avenues for understanding the role of these images in revealing the legacy of slavery in the U.S.
“If we are to be ethical stewards of the collections, we must acknowledge and engage with the complex history of the Peabody and anthropology generally. This is especially true as we confront highly sensitive objects like the Zealy daguerreotypes, which bring to life this devastating history and its impact on seven enslaved men and women,” said Jane Pickering, William and Muriel Seabury Howells Director of the Peabody Museum. “As the current stewards of these images, we need to provide a platform to ensure this dialogue takes place, collaboratively and transparently.”
The Gazette spoke to Barbash, curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum, and Lewis, associate professor of history of art and architecture and African and African American studies, about their work on the book and their experiences of working with the daguerreotypes in teaching and research.
Ilisa Barbash and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis
GAZETTE: This book has been in the works for many years and will be the first encounter with these images for many readers. Why is it so important to tell this story and collect these analyses of the daguerreotypes in a volume like this?
BARBASH: We’ve been working on this idea in some form or another since 2008, first with the thought of doing an exhibition and then holding workshops and a seminar at the Radcliffe Institute. The whole purpose of the book was to do as responsible and as thorough a job as possible to frame the daguerreotypes as they make their way out into the world. For many people, this is their first introduction to these images and their very difficult and complex history. But it was never intended that what we were doing would be the last word on the subject. This is the first word.
LEWIS: I was asked to be part of this book project when I first joined the faculty in 2015, and what I most appreciated was how collaborative the process was — we developed scholarship as a community. This was so welcome, particularly since we are in an urgent moment, and I would argue a perilous moment, in our country. This country has been in such moments before, yet this particular one has a distinct character. It offers near-daily reminders of the fragility of rights in the United States and how they have not only been secured by norms and laws, but by regard — how we quite literally see each other, and how we refuse to see each other. The reckoning of our current moment is impossible to understand without rigorous study of culture born of the ocularity of slavery and the history of so-called racial science. The Zealy daguerreotypes are indispensable for this understanding. It is why the work coming out of the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery initiative, led by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is so important. It is perhaps impossible to grasp the nature of how slavery structured sight, regard, and citizenship in a racialized democracy without understanding the history and events that could have produced these images.
GAZETTE: The daguerreotypes are very difficult to look at and can provoke deep emotions and responses from viewers. In spite of these challenges, why is it important to examine and analyze them?
LEWIS: These images are some of the most important objects not only about the history of slavery in the United States, but also about the marriage of sight, regard, and citizenship in a racialized democracy. Without seeing these images, it is hard to understand why, for example, Frederick Douglass, along with Sojourner Truth, seized on the new photographic medium as a way to advocate for an expanded notion of citizenship and belonging. Their work anticipated a central theme in arts and humanities at large in American democracy: the function of visual representation, specifically, to create counternarratives as both evidence and critique and in civic society as a way to push back against dehumanization.