Delia (Daughter of Renty)
ca. 1830 - ?

In March 1850, Louis Agassiz, celebrated Harvard natural scientist and widely admired Cambridge intellectual, arranged through the good offices of Dr. Robert W. Gibbes for a local daguerreotypist in Columbia, South Carolina, J.T. Zealy, to take a series of pictures of African-born slaves at nearby plantations. Zealy made the pictures in his studio, turned them over to Gibbes, who shipped them to Agassiz at Harvard, where in 1976, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, they were found in storage cabinet.

Agassiz had visited several plantations in 1850 while in South Carolina to address a meeting of scientists in Charleston on the topic of the “separate creation” of the human races. That notion, which denied the unity of mankind, seemed to provide a scientific or natural basis for racial inequality and slavery. After the meeting, at which the Harvard scientist thrilled his Southern audience by endorsing the doctrine that mankind had no common origin, Agassiz expressed interest in examining African-born slaves. … He wanted firsthand evidence of anatomical uniqueness and also to see if these distinct traits would survive in American-born offspring. “Agassiz was delighted,” wrote Gibbes, “with his examinations of Ebo, Foulah, Gullah, Guinea, Coromantee, Mandingo, and Congo Negroes,” satisfying himself that “they have differences from other races.” He asked Gibbes to arrange for the photographs, and took his leave.

The Zealy daguerreotypes reflect the unusual circumstances of Agassiz’s request. They show a conventional studio setup with a patterned carpet and the headrest stand usually hidden behind the sitter’s back. The daguerreotypes themselves feature the gold-plated overmat and wooden case typical of the commercial artifact. However, the persons portrayed here are standing naked: not “representative” in [Mathew] Brady’s sense of an imagined and desired America, but examples of specimens of a “type” — a type, moreover, of complete otherness. It is difficult to view these images now without a sense of outrage at the indecency of the poses and the system of bondage they reflect — the absolute power of masters over the bodies of their slaves. The response is heightened by the extraordinary fact of male nudity, of genitals presented directly to that daguerrean eye in what must have been a genteel Columbia, S.C., daguerrean gallery or “parlor,” of women asked to disrobe not for prurient purposes but for “science.”

The most important routes of the slave ships led from the northern and middle coasts of Africa to South America and the south coast of what is today the Caribbean and the United States of America. The captains and sailors of the boats were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the slaves. This included rape, murder, and torture because the slaves were considered their property. As many as 20 million Africans were transported by ship. The transportation of slaves from Africa to America was known as the Middle Passage. The African slave trade was outlawed in 1807, by a law passed jointly in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, the applicable UK Act was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire. The US law took effect on January 1, 1808. After that date all US and English slave ships leaving Africa were legally pirate vessels subject to capture by the American and British navies. In 1815, at the Council of Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands also agreed to abolish their slave trade. During this time, the slave ships became smaller and more cramped in exchange for improved performance in their new role as smuggling craft and blockade runners.

Without a public mask to mediate their encounter with the lens, the eyes of the enslaved Africans can only reveal the depths of their being — for, as naked slaves, they are permitted no social persona. In the absence of the clues which define Brady’s portraits as formal, heroic, at once individual and illustrious, and yet in the presence of certain conventional signs — the carpet, the stand, the case and framing mat — we confront a disturbing contradiction. The illustrations are trapped within a system of representation as firmly as the sitters are trapped within a system of chattel slavery. And they powerfully inform us of our own entrapment. We know how to view conventional portraits — but to gaze upon naked bodies, male and female, of persons dispossessed of themselves, is another matter. The effect even now can be confusing, erotic response mingling with moral disgust and outrage. Above all, the pictures suggest a potentially subversive power within the daguerrean effect of immediacy — including its eroticism — a power to subvert the very conventions of portraiture which the works of commercial studios shaped. Often we feel a similar effect in anonymous images found in old shops or studied in collections — an uncanny rapport with vibrant shadowy traces of persons on a silver-coated plate, who continue to live in spite of stilted poses and stiffness. The Zealy pictures reveal the social convention which ranks blacks as inferior beings, which violates civilized decorum, which strips men and women of the right to cover their genitalia. And yet the pictures shatter that mold by allowing the eyes of Delia and the others to speak directly to ours, in an appeal to a shared humanity.

By allowing their subjects to gaze through the lens directly at us, the Zealy portraits immobilize the physiognomic theory which supports [Marcus Aurelius] Root’s confidence. Stripped of everything deemed intrinsic to selfhood and “character,” if not humanness itself, they are simply themselves — what we see. The photographer takes no pains to “portray” them or to elicit an expression. By obeying his commission to present them as bodies rather than persons, as biological specimens, Zealy allows them to be as they are: black slaves constrained to perform the role of specimen before the camera. The absoluteness of their confinement to this role has the unintended effect of freeing their eyes from any other necessity but to look back at the glass eye staring at them. Their gaze defies the scrutinizing gaze aimed at their nakedness, and challenges the viewer of these daguerreotypes to reckon with his or her responses to such images.

“simply themselves — what we see.” Yet the whites who looked at these pictures in 1850 did not see.

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