Delia's Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

Overview

In 1850 seven South Carolina slaves were photographed at the request of the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz to provide evidence of the supposed biological inferiority of Africans. Lost for many years, the photographs were rediscovered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1976. In the first narrative history of these images, Molly Rogers tells the story of the photographs, the people they depict, and the men who made and used them. Weaving together the histories of race, science, and photography in ...

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Overview

In 1850 seven South Carolina slaves were photographed at the request of the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz to provide evidence of the supposed biological inferiority of Africans. Lost for many years, the photographs were rediscovered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1976. In the first narrative history of these images, Molly Rogers tells the story of the photographs, the people they depict, and the men who made and used them. Weaving together the histories of race, science, and photography in nineteenth-century America, Rogers explores the invention and uses of photography, the scientific theories the images were intended to support and how these related to the race politics of the time, the meanings that may have been found in the photographs, and the possible reasons why they were “lost” for a century or more. Each image is accompanied by a brief fictional vignette about the subject’s life as imagined by Rogers; these portraits bring the seven subjects to life, adding a fascinating human dimension to the historical material.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

— 2010 Editor's Choice
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Rogers succeeds in humanizing photographs that were taken not to bring out the individual qualities of those photographed but in an attempt to confirm theories of human inequality."—Reginald Horsman, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

— Reginald Horsman

Choice

"[An] excellent work."—J. D. Smith, Choice

— J. D. Smith

David W. Blight

"In a book that is at once sensitive, bold, and imaginative, Rogers delivers a deep history of the causes, creation, and consequences of these now famous photographs. . . . If there ever can be a shared humanity with a shared historical memory, perhaps it can only emerge from seeing such evidence of its most brutal denial."—David W. Blight, from the Foreword
Jonathan Scott Holloway

"Through Delia's Tears, a beguiling mixture of history and imagination, we see that the poisonous allure of racial thinking, often posing as reasoned objectivity, has always blurred our vision. This is a story that is as beautiful as it is sad."-Jonathan Scott Holloway, Yale University

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society - Reginald Horsman

"Rogers succeeds in humanizing photographs that were taken not to bring out the individual qualities of those photographed but in an attempt to confirm theories of human inequality."—Reginald Horsman, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Choice - J. D. Smith

"[An] excellent work."—J. D. Smith, Choice
Publishers Weekly
Photographs of slaves reveal much about the men who took them in this perceptive study of antebellum racial ideology. Historian Rogers examines a cache of daguerreotype portraits and nudes of South Carolina slaves made in 1850 for naturalist Louis Agassiz, which he displayed to buttress his theory that Africans were a distinct species unrelated to whites. She uses the pictures as a window into 19th-century racial science and its intersection with Southern economic interests, and tries to illuminate the perspective of the slaves by pairing their photos with short fictional vignettes written from their imagined viewpoints. Rogers is preoccupied with critical theory (“the idea that a photographic image conveys Truth is thus a highly unstable concept”), and her fictional epiphanies—“He did not wish to be on the ocean, but he wished to have it nearby so he could feel its movement on the air”—sometimes evoke a writers' workshop more than a plantation. Still, her well-researched history paints a rich panorama of the mental world of slavery—the slaves' anxiety and humiliation, the planters' callousness and hypocrisy, the corrupt pseudoscience that explained it all as natural law rather than human oppression. Photos. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300115482
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/25/2010
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author


Molly Rogers has published essays on the history of photography, and her fiction has been produced for theater and radio. She lives in the UK, where she teaches creative writing.
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