Friday, September 6, 2013

Latest on Universities and Slavery

The following originally published on The Faculty Lounge.

Loyola Law School Professor Yxta Maya Murray's article "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried: Carrie Mae Weems' Challenge to the Harvard Archive" has just appeared in volume 8 of Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left. It tells the really interesting story of a dispute between the artist Carrie Mae Weems and Harvard's Peabody museum over the use of photographs that Louis Agassiz took of enslaved people that he hoped would support the theory of poly-genesis that he embraced (along, I might note with Alabama's Josiah Nott). The article explores Agassiz' purpose in collecting the pictures, their re-discovering in the 1970s at Harvard, and the controversy over their use. While I usually emphasize Harvard's contributions to the anti-slavery cause, this story reminds us again of the connections between Harvard and racial thought in the pre-Civil War era.

Cribbing a little from the article:

In the same year as the enactment of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Agassiz toured South Carolina plantations and decided to defend his polygenesist position by resuming his collecting habit. But this time he would collect live people, not animals, bones, or plants. For this purpose he enlisted Dr. Robert Gibbes, a Morton acolyte, who led Agassiz on a tour of the plantations. On this expedition Agassiz selected Delia, Jack, Renty, Drana, and others for their supposedly instructive appearances. He ordered Gibbes to "gather corroborative photographic evidence" of them, and then retreated to Harvard. Gibbes hired one J.T. Zealy to take nude pictures of them at Zealy's studio in the two attitudes that make up the series, being headshots and full body shots. The record of what happened to the pictures here dwindles. .... [T]he daguerreotypes fade from history until their discovery in the Peabody attic in 1976.

Agassiz would trigger Carrie Mae Weems' show, From Here I Saw What Happened. Weems found much to comment on with photo-metrists like Galton. ... Inspired by Georges Cuvier's 1815 dissection of Sarah Baartman, the original, doomed Hottentot Venus, Galton conducted his own infamous study of yet another "Venus." He encountered this second goddess on his journeys, and measured her every square inch with a sextant. In 1859, when his cousin, Charles Darwin, had published The Origin of Species, Galton's enthusiasm for measuring racial attributes merged with a conviction in White supremacy he felt was assured by Darwin's work. Back in Europe, Galton expanded on his practice of measuring people he believed resided on the lower reaches of the Great Chain of Being.

The Getty Museum commissioned From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried from Weems, asking her to react to its 1995 show Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography. Hidden Witness displayed photographs of African Americans from the 1840s through the 1860s owned by the Getty itself as well as a Detroit collector named Jackie Napoleon Wilson. Weems assembled a presentation based on thirty prints, which she tinted red (signifying the outrages evidenced by the appropriated, violent images) and blue (signaling the confessional thoughts of the bookending Nubian observer) and emblazoned with her texts.

This sets up a question that Murray explores at the end of the article: does Harvard own these images?

Assuming that the copyright did belong to Agassiz, and that Agassiz or his heir transferred it to Harvard when his collection of "accumulated specimens" was purchased for the University around 1858, or when Alexander Agassiz gave Agassiz properties to the University in 1935, the question next becomes whether the duration of the right extended until the 1990s. One problem is the lack of publication history. Moreover, Harvard counsel refuses to enlighten me about this record. If the images were published around 1850, the copyright would certainly have run out by the 1990s. However, if the daguerreotypes malingered in the obscurity of the Peabody's attic until their discovery in 1976, then Harvard could have claimed sole copyright in the images until well into the 2000s.

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