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One year after Harvard promised to think more deeply and differently about its complicity in slavery, its actions show the shallowness of its commitment.
In November 2019, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced a new $5 million initiative to study Harvard’s ties to slavery. Since 2007, Harvard faculty and students have been working on the “Harvard and Slavery” project in various iterations, documenting the lives of enslaved people who lived in Harvard Yard and enumerating the ways that Harvard profited from slavery, but this new initiative promised to go further. It would “encourage our broader university community to think seriously and rigorously about the continuing impact and legacy of slavery,” Bacow wrote, and “ensure that discussion and understanding about our past can help us think differently and move us ever closer to a Harvard where all of us can thrive.”
A year later, Harvard’s lawyers are in court attempting to dismiss a lawsuit over the University’s possession of images taken of enslaved people directly harmed by Harvard. In her suit, Tamara K. Lanier says that she is “a direct descendant of Renty and Delia,” two subjects in the images, and asks Harvard “to recognize her lineage and relinquish the daguerreotypes to her family.” These images, taken in 1850, show Renty and Delia stripped naked and photographed from all angles. Harvard’s star science professor Louis Agassiz commissioned the photographs as evidence for polygenism, a now debunked theory that people of different races belonged to different species. The images are currently kept at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
“That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said after seeing one of the daguerreotypes of Renty. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that's what that photograph was taken for."
Renty and Delia could not have consented to being photographed as specimens. As enslaved people, they did not have legal rights over their own bodies. Despite this coercion, Harvard’s refusal to settle indicates its belief that it has a right to own, display, and profit from these images over the Laniers’ objections.
Harvard’s actions in Lanier’s case show that its commitment to “think[ing] differently” about its complicity in slavery is puddle-deep. According to her complaint, Harvard has cast doubt on Lanier’s family history and dismissed her expertise. She asked the University to stop licensing the photographs of her ancestors, but Harvard approved the use of the photographs in a lavish new book published last month. The book’s foreword asks, “can any one person be the heir to these photographs, or does the responsibility for them fall to all of us to protect them as archival relics of history, to be studied, pondered, and reckoned with?” The following 500 pages make a case for the latter by continuing to treat the daguerreotypes as specimens for scholarly inquiry.
This kind of imperialist thinking animates the arguments that wealthy institutions use to justify keeping looted artifacts like the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes. In the era of Black Lives Matter, many museums and universities are confronting their racist and colonialist foundations, and some are taking small steps toward change. Earlier this month, the French National Assembly voted to return 26 stolen artifacts to Benin in a move that Benin President Patrice Talon called “strictly the minimum.”
Harvard’s brash handling of Lanier’s case shows that the University is not likely to repatriate its ill-gotten gains unless it is forced to do so. Like other institutions that receive federal funding, Harvard complies with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires the return of sacred objects and human remains to Native nations and descendants. Although no such law protects the bodies of non-Native enslaved people or artifacts stolen from other continents, Harvard could still choose to return objects like the daguerreotypes. It has not done so.
The scholars who participate in Harvard’s new $5 million research initiative will undoubtedly produce admirable, important work. But their research should not distract anyone from Harvard’s actions. Discussions and acknowledgements mean nothing if Harvard continues to exploit people like Renty and Delia, and to treat their descendants as obstacles to be overcome.
Tamara Lanier is an expert on the harm Harvard has done in the past and continues to do in the present. If Harvard were serious about confronting the legacy of slavery, it would give Lanier the daguerreotypes immediately and ask what it could learn from her, rather than fighting her in court. Until Harvard changes its behavior, its Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery is just window-dressing.
Caitlin Galante-DeAngelis Hopkins is a graduate of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She was a former Research Associate for the Harvard and Slavery Project.
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