Kimberly Juanita Brown: An Endorsement of an Amicus Brief for Lanier v. Harvard

Editor’s Note: This endorsement is part of a special edition that Hyperallergic published on the ongoing legal case to return the photos of Renty and Delia Taylor to their descendants.

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The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, his daughter Delia, along with other enslaved men and women, more than presenting subjects bound by unfreedom, offer evidence of the violence and brutality of American slavery, whose dismissals and denials haunt the nation still. The call to acknowledge and repair is at the heart of this case, and indeed Harvard’s refusal to aid in the process of repair signals how the precise mechanisms of power are often opposed to interrogating their place in the hierarchy. It is not enough to limit access to this archive in the face of Lanier’s request. The Court must offer restitution to the descendants of the enslaved featured in these images. Any less than this is a deflection of responsibility and a refusal of redress.

If, as Mark Sealy suggests, “photography has dominated how the Other has been portrayed,” then the daguerreotypes aid in the continuation of this portrayal. The images exist in a space of complicity, and they are still doing harm. One way to ameliorate this harm is to return the photographs to the Lanier family. It is not enough to relegate this complicity to the past when the descendants of slavery still experience its aftereffects. To know this is to have the information most vital to resolution at the ready, and it is important to act on information in a way that is both moral and ethical.

Harvard’s contention that it bears no responsibility to return the photographs hinges on a claim of ownership made legally spurious in light of what we know about Lanier’s case. As a descendant of Renty and Delia, Tamara Lanier is requesting that Harvard University return the daguerreotypes to family members of the enslaved subjects in the images. This request is only considered controversial if the violent history of enslavement in the United States is disregarded. Though it has taken museums, archives, and universities a while to get here, contemporary discourses surrounding objects of trauma and violence are taking into account the harm associated with the retention of these objects.

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