The Continuing Fight to #FreeRenty


Image of photographer Joseph Zealy's studio, edited by Professor Ariella Azoulay for her amicus brief in the Lanier v. Harvard case. Her alteration reflects respect for the felt presence of Alfred, the enslaved person photographed against his will, and, on the other hand, an understanding of the photographer's studio as a site of violence. Image courtesy Ariella Azoulay and used with permission.

Over the last few years, Hyperallergic has reported on the continuing quest of Tamara Lanier to retrieve daguerreotypes of her ancestors Renty and Delia Taylor. In March 2019, Lanier filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts to obtain rights to photographs in the collection of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, which were commissioned by Louis Agassiz as part of a eugenics campaign. The images depict her ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, and are some of the oldest existing photographs of enslaved people.

“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering,” Lanier said in a statement at the time. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family.”

Since emerging into the public spotlight, there’s been a range of reactions from various communities watching this case. Some scholars have sided with the university over the family, while others, including those published here, support the family’s pursuit of justice through the return of the images. The images themselves have been used by artists, museums, and organizations since their rediscovery in the 1970s. However, many of those same individuals and institutions have remained silent at the recent calls by Lanier and her family for their property rights.

In March of this year, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge ruled in Harvard’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit. But Lanier appealed, and arguments will be heard at the Massachusetts Supreme Court on Monday, November 1.

The following 12 scholarly endorsements of Ariella Azoulay’s amicus brief, which was released in the Boston Review, are being published in this edition: Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Sandrine Colard, Carles Guerra, Marianne Hirsch, Eunsong Kim, Jane’a Johnson-Farnham, Fred Moten, Stephen Sheehi, Brian Wallis, Laura Wexler, and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa.

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