To Make Their Own Way in the World The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes / Reviewed by Earnestine Jenkins

To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes
Edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis
Peabody Museum Press, 2020
9.25 x 6.5 x 1.9 inches
230 images, 488 pages
Reviewed by Earnestine Jenkins

In 1850, seven enslaved Africans and America-born Blacks living on a plantation in South Carolina—Delia, Drana, Jack, Renty, Alfred, Jem, and Fassena—were photographed by Joseph T. Zealy for Harvard professor and scientist Louis Agassiz. These visual representations were intended to support his theories about polygenesis. Agassiz believed that human beings were created as distinct types at different times and in different locales. Agassiz’s theory of multiple creations defied Christian belief that all of humanity descended from Adam and Eve. When Agassiz’s ideas were rejected by his colleagues, the fifteen daguerreotypes were shelved away in an old cabinet at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, hidden from view until rediscovered as part of the museum’s archives in 1976. Since then, they have inspired artistic creativity and pioneering research into race and representation in American culture and history.

Louis Agassiz, Signed carte de visite, early 1860s. Photograph by John Adams Whipple. Collection Christoph Irmscher.

To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes is a multidisciplinary reconsideration of some of the most challenging imagery in American art, culture, and history. The book is part of a larger initiative at Harvard seeking to understand how the institution is shaped by its past, specifically the enduring legacy of slavery. A diverse group of prominent scholars were invited to collaborate in uncovering new information about the history of the Zealy daguerreotypes. Scholars of American and African American history, literary studies, art history, slavery, anthropology, photography, and the history of science explore the experiences of the people depicted in the daguerreotypes situated within the broader context of nineteenth century America. The volume features over two hundred illustrations, including new photography by artist Carrie Mae Weems.

The extensive new research is strongly driven by historical approaches firmly planted in archival resources and new interpretations of traditional materials. The book is divided into four thematic sections: Photographic Subjects; Photographic Practice; Ideas and Histories; Memory and Projection. Parts one, two, and three exhibit a collective strength aimed at unearthing the slightest leads that will reveal more about the lives of Delia, Drana, Jack, Renty, Alfred, Jem, and Fassena. The volume’s richness in depth of research and analysis makes it difficult to select or eliminate points of discussion. In this critique I follow the lead of the scholars contributing to this text, who have all argued for the value of comparative, interdisciplinary perspectives. I have therefore chosen to respond to how the various disciplines represented “riff” off each other, to borrow a term from jazz, raising novel questions and ways of thinking about the subject, as I read each author’s work. Space prohibits addressing them all. I therefore attempt to contend with aspects of the research that most pressed upon my mind.

“Jack (driver), Guinea. Plantation of B.F. Taylor, Esq. Columbia, S.C.” Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology (PMAE), Harvard University.

The chapter by Gregg Hecimovich, “The Life and Times of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty,” reflects exhaustive research into written documents: census records, agriculture, industry and slave schedules, church minutes and publications, family papers, plantation records, wills and probate records, maps, and monographs written by descendants of prominent slaveholding families. The author, for example, excavated a previously unknown inventory of slaves revealing that at least three of the Zealy subjects were still in the possession of the Taylor family in 1859. The author likewise offers new interpretations of established sources like slave narratives. When assembled with the daguerreotypes, the new information uncovered by Hecimovich more firmly locates the subjects within the milieu of their daily lives.

We learn that Delia and Renty are the same individuals who appear in the 1852 probate records of Benjamin F. Taylor and who are finally listed on Sarah C. Taylor’s slave inventory from 1857. Jack, identified as a “driver” on the Zealy daguerreotype, was also owned by Benjamin Taylor and appears in the 1857 slave inventory. Jem, identified as an experienced mechanic, probably worked on many of the building projects linked to the growth of the capitol in South Carolina. While Hecimovich did not find out much more about Alfred, he confirmed that he was likely one of the four enslaved males owned by farmer John Lomas. Fassena, identified as a carpenter in the Zealy daguerreotypes, was in his seventies during the Civil War. He may have witnessed the burning of his former master’s plantation home, Wade Hampton II’s Millwood mansion, by William Tecumseh Sherman in 1865.

The author’s archival sleuthing also involved the discovery of hand-drawn land surveys from 1845 depicting plantation sites and properties relevant to the new narrative. The maps Hecimovich uncovers place former enslaved authors Charles Ball and Jacob Stroyer on labor camps adjacent to Taylor and Hampton properties. By locating precisely the places described by Ball and Stroyer, Hecimovich situates Ball and Stroyer in the same “neighborhood.” This enabled the author to identify the physical setting, such as the “negro quarters” designated on the map of the Robert Mills area, and practices of labor. The new research confirms that Alfred, Delia, Jack, Jem, Renty, and Fassena, absent Drana, were alive to witness freedom.

History and visual studies work together as complementary tools of analysis in Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s “History in the Face of Slavery: A Family Portrait.” Higginbotham’s essay is distinguished by the inclusion of oral traditions, family archives, and a range of written materials that explain how her family home became a classroom where her father, Albert N.D. Brooks (1897-1964), taught her about her ancestors, both enslaved and freed, in Richmond, Virginia. Brooks worked with Carter G. Woodson who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Photographs played the most significant role in learning about her family history. Brooks trained his daughter to interpret family photographs as part of a larger enslaved community that shared in the pain and resilience that defined Black peoples’ lives during the nineteenth century.

The story of Higginbotham’s ancestor, Margaret Anne Brooks, best exemplifies what enslaved people frequently encountered. Born in 1840, she was the eldest child of Higginbotham’s great grandparents Albert and Lucy Brooks. She lived with her parents and siblings in the home of her mother’s master, Samuel Sublett. Margaret Anne had a photograph taken of herself around 1858. In her description Higgenbotham compares the sense of fashion displayed in Margaret Anne’s photograph to Drana’s forced undress in the Zealy daguerreotype. Slave status is not revealed and might even be described as hidden in plain sight by Margaret Anne’s beautiful presentation of herself. Oral tradition preserved as written account penned by Higginbotham’s grandfather records the truth about the sale of his sister after the death of Sublett in the late 1850s. The Richmond family to which she was originally sold found the nineteen-year-old’s intelligence undesirable and sold her again to another Richmond family that finally discarded Margaret Anne into the cruelty of the domestic slave trade. She ended her days as a slave in Tennessee where she died in 1862. The photograph of Margaret Anne was preserved by the women in the family, first passed by her mother Lucy to her daughter Lucy Gertrude Lewis who bestowed it for safekeeping to her daughter Leah Lewis.

Higginbotham’s research demonstrates how photographs function as social objects. Historians specialize in the archival research and analysis that can bring such material culture back into circulation. Such investigations are disclosures of histories of social practice that entail looking at photographs in private, interior family spaces that were never meant to be seen publicly. The social lives of private photographs, usually portraits, are laden with intense emotional histories. In white families, a range of written documents, such as letters, wills, and diaries, is often available for scholars in their study of white subjects in photographs. With antebellum Black families, slave or free, such private archival materials are usually absent.

The differences between Margaret Anne’s photograph and that of Delia and Drana are telling. Margaret Anne’s picture is a typical studio portrait. She sits up straight in a high-backed chair in a frontal pose but slightly turned. This position allows a better view of some of the details of her fine dress, including the choker collar necklace and drop earrings. The camera is focused on her upper body which takes up most of the picture frame. She looks directly at the camera and does not smile. Margaret Anne, who could read and write, presents her best self to the world with the confidence and “presence” that her brother recalled as her most salient character trait.

By contrast, Delia and Drana are photographed in a semi-nude state as a sign of their racial distinction and inferiority. Tanya Sheehan challenges narrow readings of the Zealy photographs in the chapter “Business as Usual? Scientific Operations in the Early Photographic Studio.” She examines how the so-called scientific approach to photography shared complicated affinities with vernacular photographic practices. The photographs of Delia, Drana, Jack, Renty, Alfred, Jem, and Fassena, for example, were taken in Zealy’s Columbia studio. They compare formally to his portraits of white sitters posed sitting up straight in high back chairs with squared shoulders and raised heads looking directly at the camera. Delia and Drana are seated in chairs and slightly positioned away from the camera in the same manner as Margaret Anne. Sheehan argues that Zealy applied the same strategies of representation to all subjects regardless of race or social status.

The influence of the photographic studio is treated also in Christoph Irmscher’s chapter, “Mr. Agassiz’s ‘Photographic Saloon.'” Irmscher points out that the amateur photographer engaged for Agassiz’s project in Brazil resulted in imagery that, when compared to the Zealy daguerreotypes, was “not artistically compelling.” Situated in shabby, run-down, outdoor surroundings, the photographs were dull, shabby and monotonous. Seeking to replicate the scientific model Agassiz used in 1850, and still obsessed with women’s breasts, Agassiz made female subjects (young, middle aged and old) strip to the waist. Agassiz had before-and-after shots taken of his subjects. Even when allowing for the tropical conditions under which they were taken, Agassiz’s Brazilian photographs of naked or half-naked subjects lack, as Irmscher notes, the visual impact and signification of the Zealy daguerreotypes.

I found it particularly constructive to view the photographs of Margaret Anne, Delia, and Drana juxtaposed to each other. The eyes of Drana directly engage the camera with the force of her anger and her pain. Her appearance indicates that she had born children and nursed them. Drana disappears from the written record after 1852. Hecimovich suggests that she may have been sold or died before then, possibly buried in the slave section of the Benjamin F. Taylor graveyard in Columbia, South Carolina. Delia, her representation often described as sorrowful because of the influence of Molly Rogers’ 2010 study called Delia’s Tears, possibly labored in the forge alongside her partner, a blacksmith named Sam. 

Margaret Anne also grew to young adulthood within a family group whose core was still intact but had suffered loss by way of sale. Like Delia and Drana she wasn’t spared the experience of being sold. However, unlike Drana and Delia, who were kept within the vicinity, Margaret Anne was sold outside the circle of slaveowners to which her people had belonged. It was doubly unfortunate that Margaret Anne’s attempts to better her situation and the aspirations that we think we see expressed in her portrait were the very same qualities that elicited such punitive repercussions from the whites around her, people she may, in her innocence, have thought were trustworthy. Whether the women in these images were slaves working in the field who sat for their portraits partially clothed, or whether they were the slaves in their master’s household who were allowed to learn to read and write and to pose fashionably dressed for the camera, the differences in representation made no difference to their fates. The photographs of Delia, Drana, and Margaret Anne, linked by their enslaved status and gender, emphasize the necessity of continued research on nineteenth-century American photography across multiple fields of study. Reading these photographs in relation to family records published in To Make Their Own Way in the World has been a disturbing revelation.

I will end my remarks with a discussion of Carrie Mae Weems’ brilliant and iconic artwork, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried [Hear Weems talk with MOMA about her series]. Joseph T. Zealy’s daguerreotypes first made their appearance in the artist’s 1992 Sea Islands Series and then again in Hidden Witness, the 1995-1996 exhibition at the Getty Museum wherein Carrie Mae Weems made the original 32 panel installation of which From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried forms a part.

Carrie Mae Weems, “Splattered” (2016-2017), based on the photograph of Sweet Potato Planting, Hopkinson’s Plantation, April 8, 1862, by Henry P. Moore

The core visual theme Weems creates is the linkage of African and African Diaspora experiences. This is accomplished by arranging the Zealy daguerreotypes between two images of Nobosodru, an African aristocrat of Mangbetu ethnicity. Nobosodru is turned to face and confront Delia, Renty, Jack, and Drana. She was initially photographed by German photographer George Sprecht as part of a French colonial expedition across central Africa in 1924/25. Weems deconstructs the voyeuristic view of Sprecht’s enslaved subjects by sandblasting carefully selected texts onto the glass surface of her prints, such as “YOU BECAME A SCIENTIFIC PROFILE,” “AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL DEBATE,” “A NEGROID TYPE,” and a “PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE.” Like many contemporary artists of color throughout the African Diaspora, Weems recycles controversial images and artifacts from the past in order to create new artworks and objects characterized by resistance, as well as an alternative aesthetic expression.

Since then, the series has been surrounded by controversy and questions of whether the enslaved subject’s original humiliation is reinforced by viewing them again in our contemporary art world. The debate remains unsettled. This uncomfortable soul-searching bears down upon us as we continue to unearth visual evidence, particularly in the realm of photography, about America’s history of slavery. How should artists grapple with the importance of bearing witness to historical oppression, violence, and suffering?

Weems’ installation confronts the history of rape and sexual exploitation the enslaved endured by referencing Delia’s and Drana’s semi-nude appearance. The nudity in the Zealy daguerreotypes is still rarely confronted by scholars or artists. Brian Wallis, in his article “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes” (1995), discusses the associations between nudity, eroticism and pornography elicited by these images. In To Make Their Own Way in The World, art historian Sarah Lewis builds upon this research in her chapter “The Insistent Reveal: Louis Agassiz, Joseph T. Zealy, Carrie Mae Weems, and the Politics of Undress in the Photography of Racial Science.” Her research elucidates the multifaceted role that clothing played in regulating Black bodies. Partial dress was not only used to de-humanize but was appropriated by abolitionists to reveal the indignities and cruelties perpetuated upon the enslaved.

Lewis’ contribution to this volume reiterates the value of in-depth historical contextualization in the analysis of African American and African Diaspora arts, leading to the final points I want to make about From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. The image of Nobosudru is critical to Weems’ re-interpretation of the Zealy photographs. While colonial references are generally made in descriptions of the installation, neither art historical research nor art criticism has really dealt with the work from the broader African diaspora lens that it demands. The portrait of the African woman in Weems’ installation raises questions about identity and humanity across the African diaspora that need to be considered.

Nobosudru’s image emerged from the 1924 expedition across the African continent known as La Crosière Noire, or The Black Crossing, which began as a showcase of newly manufactured automobiles and the capability of the vehicles to cross rough terrain. The expedition was well-publicized and attracted the attention of the European public. Three years after the journey, numerous drawings, sketches, and photographs were published in a book entitled, The Black Journey across Central Africa with the Citroën Expedition, and an adventure film, titled La Croisière Noire, was released.

George Sprecht’s photograph of Nobosudru, a profile view of her head, shoulders and breasts, emphasizes the cylindrically shaped hairstyle worn by women of royal status in the Mangbetu kingdom. The semi-nude eroticized images of Nobosudru and other Mangbetu women photographed during the expedition filter over into popular culture, inspiring comic books, fashion, film and justifying the depiction of semi-nude African women in scientific journals like National Geographic. American artists influenced by Nobosudru’s “otherness” include African-American painter and illustrator Aaron Douglas and American sculptor Malvina Hoffman. Douglas’ Art Deco illustration, which he cropped from the neck down excluding the breasts, was featured on the front of Crisis magazine and was widely copied. Hoffman’s sculpture, approached as a study in racial and ethnic types, astonishes with its highly skilled technical mastery of the medium and replicates the subject exactly, breasts included. So, even before Weems’ appropriation of the image, artists were challenged by African women’s nudity in photographic imagery and what to make of it.

The new project Carrie Mae Weems created for this book, While Sitting Upon the Ruins of Your Remains, I Pondered the Course of History, again uses the material archive of slavery and Reconstruction to connect the past, present and future. Architecture, landscape, dance and song, language and fashion reveal the hidden signs of Black folklore. Deborah Willis, in the chapter “In Conversation with Carrie Mae Weems,” discusses with the artist how, in addition to the uniqueness of place, the stories of Black women and their origins in Africa are likewise persistent themes in the new project.

Images by Carrie Mae Weems from the “Sea Islands” series, taken between 1991 and 1992.

Weems’ photographs and installations create complicated visual connections between the historical portrayal of the Black female body and the African continent. There is a history of colonization in Africa that has yet to be explored and worked out in terms of its relationship to enslaved Blacks in nineteenth-century America. When Europeans arrived in Central Africa during the mid-nineteenth century in search of the headwaters of the Nile River, they were fascinated by the centralized government and artistic achievements of the Mangbetu. However, they also mythologized the Mangbetu as an immoral people with a penchant for cannibalism. In her indigenous context and space, Nobosudru’s semi-nudity was an accepted style of “dress” and her elongated elegant hairstyle restricted to women of a certain status. Sprecht’s photograph, however, effectively “captures” and “documents” Nobosudrou as an uncivilized colonized subject, eroticized and sexualized initially and specifically via the gaze of European males. Scholars of African art, culture, and history should study the Zealy daguerreotypes alongside Weems’ From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, bringing different perspectives, thorny and intricate, to bear on the research exploring Weems’ creative work.

Finally, Willis’ interview with Weems highlights the importance of the artist’s scholarly training. She studied folklore with the renowned folklorist Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley. Weems learned the value of working with material culture in her pursuit of the connections between Africa’s past and the African Diaspora. Another inspiration was the work of literary figures Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Regarding the latter, I would point to an even more interesting parallel between the two Black women artists. Weems’ methodology and how it reveals hidden histories uncannily intersects with the recovery work Hurston carried out in 1927 in Alabama. Sent by her mentor, the legendary anthropologist Franz Boas, Hurston carried out fieldwork interviewing survivors of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach America in 1860, ten years after Zealy photographed Delia, Drana, Jack, Renty, Alfred, Jem, and Fassena. She focused on ninety-five-year-old Kossolo, also known as Cudjo Lewis, whose village was raided by warriors from the kingdom of Dahomey. Most were killed, including his parents, resulting in the young boy being thrust into the Atlantic Slave Trade. Considered too radical to reveal, Hurston’s research was suppressed. Her book, Baracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” was not published until 2018.

To Make Their Own Way in the World is a major contribution to the study of the Zealy daguerreotypes. It will play a significant role in moving the study of the daguerreotypes beyond valuing them as priceless museum artifacts. The volume draws attention also to how the place of the Zealy daguerreotypes within Harvard University’s archives evolved and to Harvard’s current exploration of its historical relationship to slavery.

Harvard University is currently embroiled in a legal controversy with Tamara Lanier. Lanier is suing the university for its continued use of the images of Renty and Delia, who Lanier believes were her ancestors. These claims should be acknowledged. The family’s oral traditions about Renty and Delia would extend the new scholarship into the Reconstruction era, giving us some idea how father and daughter survived the challenges of freedom. Such private resources, derived from the enslaved family itself, are comparable to how private photographs linked to oral traditions enriched Higginbotham’s genealogical research. It is a collaboration that can only enhance the mission of To Make Their Own Way in the World, telling a fuller story about the individuals pictured in the Zealy daguerreotypes. The more we delve into the question of “Who were these people?” the more we concede the humanity revealed to us in their portraits, regardless of Agassiz’s racist intentions.