Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: 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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Your Honour —

On April 11, 2018, The New York Times published a report on the differential outcomes for maternal and infant mortality in the United States, in which statistical data measuring those outcomes demonstrated that “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.”1 Data from the Centers for Disease Control in that reporting also evidenced the chilling reality that “Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts.”2 

The status of what we might colloquially call ‘black life’ is so profoundly, materially and structurally constrained at the moment of birth that the term “life” is strained beyond deformity in its notional equivalence across all racial categories in the United States. We live in a moment where the prospects for infant survival among black mothers lag behind those that obtained when black women’s historical status was that of chattel under slavery. The fact bears repeating. This is to say that 1850 was still present in 2018, as it was in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday June 17, 2015 when Dylann Storm Roof freely entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, sought out the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, joined his Bible study session for one hour, and then set about massacring nine innocent African-Americans in furtherance of the ‘race war.’

To state that slavery is ‘over,’ that history is past, is to deny the ongoingness of these systemic realities. More recent medical research assessing health outcomes by racial group over twelve months of the Coronavirus pandemic merely underscores the force of the reality of slavery’s ongoing effects. Data assessing health outcomes amongst racial groups in the United States show that deaths amongst Black and African-American citizens increased over twelve months of the pandemic at 6x the rate of white people amongst the uninsured, at 5x the rate of white people amongst insured middle-class families, and at 5x the rate of white people amongst insured families with household incomes in excess of $100,000/yr.3 This data demonstrates that it is presently safer to be a poor uninsured white person than an insured Black or African-American earning six figures in income. 

Profoundly (indeed violently) disproportionate outcomes at this scale can only be described as a matter of ‘individual choice,’ or of ‘individual responsibility’ if the individuals — in the aggregate — are congenitally degenerate or unfit. This is to say: to put down such statistical realities to individual actions is to mark the totality of the racial group as fundamentally backward, inept, or unreconstructed. No other logic could explain such structural differences in outcomes by way of individual choice. That the data illustrate a nation-wide systemic reality of racial inequity is, I am arguing, proof of the ongoingness of the logics of slavery, under a different guise. Whatever the formal transformations in municipal policy, state or federal law, the profitable and violently differentiated precarity of black ‘life’ in the United States continues at a sustained pitch of extremity, and does so along too many of the axes by which we measure ‘life’ for such a claim to accurately reflect the cessation of the expropriative, brutal logics of slavery.  

If we are back at rates of black infant death in excess of those that obtained under slavery in 1850, then the matter before the court is merely an extension or echo of the broader reality that we are not beyond the ills of slavery in 2021 either. The site of the former B.F. Taylor plantation may lie around two hours northwest of the site of the Emanuel AME massacre, but the ills of slavery lay in the present tense, and they bond these two locations into an inextricable union, as they do the sinews of this nation in an ongoing paroxysm of anti-black violence. 

Tamara Lanier has established, through the ledgers (the literal accounting) of American slavery, that she is the direct descendant of Renty Taylor and of his daughter Delia. As slaves, they were property and not people: they were tools and not individuals possessed of rights of self-determination. When the white supremacist Louis Agassiz set about attempting to prove the separate and degenerate origin and evolution of black people, he selected Renty, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena and Jem as objects belonging to the B.F. Taylor plantation—objects that were not legally possessed of the right to choose what to do with their own persons or their visages. 

Each and every daguerreotype that resulted from the photographic work of J.T. Zealy and Louis Agassiz is a theft visited upon people not formally imbued with the right to give consent. Each photograph is not merely the issue of the regime of slavery, but constitutes the exercise and incarnation of the practice of slavery. Each image is the instrument of a brutal imposition of racially motivated subjugation and expropriation, visited specifically and intentionally upon Black and African-American people in service to white supremacy. 

To argue that the perpetrators of acts of enslavement — Louis Agassiz, J.T. Zealy, or Harvard University — are entitled to claim ownership of the objects that issue from the active practice of enslavement is to ratify the arrangements of slavery, and to endorse the rights of slavers in the present tense. Harvard cannot claim to own these daguerreotypes without resting upon, and without actively endorsing the indefensible, wholly rapacious logic of slavery. It cannot claim these objects without re-affirming the rightness of white supremacy’s claim that Black and African-American people are objects to be freely disposed of by white people as they see fit. It is on the basis of racial subjugation that they claim to possess this ‘property.’ It is on the basis of that violent imposition, and that imposition alone, that these images were reft from the persons of the slaves we see in the daguerreotypes.

If Tamara Lanier’s descendancy from Renty and Delia is not in question, then these objects should be returned to her in refutation of the illegitimate claims of slavery. Her descendants could not consent because they were not people possessed of the right to give consent. Tamara now echoes and affirms their refusal of the status of the enslaved — the status of the degenerate, inhuman, possessable object — through her efforts to retrieve what is proper to her family. Does the law uphold the right of white slavers to condemn black people to the status of possessable objects, or does it see the burdened personhood of Renty and Delia, and thus their right to rights? I hope that you will reject their ongoing expropriation, their ongoing subjugation and enslavement, which continues unabated at every instant that these daguerreotypes remain in the spurious possession of Harvard University. I hope that you will return to Renty and Delia’s family what was stolen from them, against their right to exercise will in human action. It is within your power to end their enslavement in such an act.

Notes

Linda Villarosa, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” The New York Times (April 11, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html

Ibid

Sarah Miller, Laura R. Wherry, Bhaskhar Mazumder, “Estimated Mortality Increases During The COVID-19 Pandemic By Socioeconomic Status, Race, And Ethnicity,” Health Affairs Journal Vol. 40 No. 8 (July 21, 2021) https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2021.00414

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