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Delia's Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America Hardcover – May 25, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From 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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From Booklist

*Starred Review* In 1976, researchers came across a cache of unidentified photographs in Harvard’s Peabody Museum. What was unusual was that the photographs, dating from an era when only the wealthy could afford to have portraits done, were of seven African Americans—likely slaves—taken in the nude. Research revealed that the photos were taken in 1850 in Columbia, South Carolina, under the direction of the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz. The Swiss scientist immigrated to the U.S. to teach at Harvard, lecture around the nation, and encourage the study of natural history, supporting a controversial theory that the races were the product of separate creations. The photographs of the slaves, including a woman whose enigmatic gaze is soul stirring, were apparently part of Agassiz’s research efforts. Breakthroughs in photography came at the same time as heated debate about theories of physiognomy, the reading of character in human faces, and eugenics, with its disputes about single or multiple origins of humans. Rogers draws on archives and historical records for the facts of slavery, photography, and science of the period. For the imagined lives of the slaves—who left no written record—she draws on the writings of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison, among others. Rogers begins each chapter with a vignette imagining the lives of the slaves who were photographed as she explores the intersections of power, ideology, and imaging. This fascinating book includes the rediscovered photographs as well as others of major figures of the era. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (May 25, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300115482
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300115482
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,169,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Molly Rogers is a writer and independent scholar. Originally from Northern California, she studied film production and art history at Boston University and subsequently worked as a location scout for the motion picture industry in Massachusetts. Later, as a graduate student of art history at Rice University in Houston, Texas, she pursued an interest in photography and its histories.

In 2001, Molly received an urban writing award for an essay on Chelsea, New York City, and in 2003 her short story "Some Kind of Accident" was produced for the BBC Radio 4 program Opening Lines. By this time she was also researching early anthropological photography and scientific racism in nineteenth-century America for her book Delia's Tears (Yale, 2010), which uses fiction and non-fiction writing to tell the story behind a group of photographs of American slaves.

Beginning with her work on the photographs of slaves, her approach has been to conduct research on a topic while producing varied texts - including fiction, drama and scholarly writing - that explore the research material in different ways. The historical research that went into Delia's Tears also resulted in a short play that was produced in 2001 and an article published in the peer-reviewed journal History of Photography.

Molly is currently pursuing two projects, both of which will result in fiction and non-fiction writing. The first is on fear and the Cold War, and the second is about the American oil industry in Mexico in the early twentieth century; both projects derive from her family history and will examine the genre of life writing. She also continues to write on the history of photography.

In addition to her research and writing, Molly teaches creative writing in the UK, where she now lives.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Katerpillar on July 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From such a small source - seven photos of South Carolina slaves - Molly Rogers crafts a rich study of the nineteenth century world of American slavery and society. This is a complex book, best read during the long afternoons of a summer holiday, rather than pages snatched in the sleepy moments of bedtime. It soon becomes difficult to put down. We move from the emerging South Carolina's cotton fields, through the scientific collections of Columbia's elite and the racial discussions provoked by such sideshow spectacles as the 'Feejee Mermaid' to Agassiz's voyage from Europe to examine the Africans. Only towards the end of the book do we reach the daguerrotypes that resulted from such a potent mix of racial theory, technological change, and cotton society.

This book, therefore, is not just about Delia, or the photographs. The introductory cast of characters is a welcome touch, to which the reader will often return, and in which Rogers mingles the biographies of the slaves with introductions to Frederick Douglass and Louis Agassiz. With touches like these, Rogers combines the scholarship of an academic history book with the beautiful phrasing and moving prose of a fine novel. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of Delia's Tears is the author's use of fictional vignettes to bring the reader into the imagined lifeworld of the people we otherwise see only through the photographer's lens. Few authors would have the creative impulse, or the bravery, to pull off such a combination.

Experts in the history of slavery, as well as interested readers with no previous knowledge of the subject will find Delia's Tears a fascinating and revealing study of the histories of science, race, America, and photography.
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Format: Hardcover
Beginning with the discovery of photographs of seven South Carolinian slaves taken during the 1850s in the attic of Harvard's Peabody Museum in 1976, Molly Roger's beautifully scripted book, Delia's Tears: Race, Science and Photography in Nineteenth Century America, skilfully weaves together the complicated issues of race, science, photography, and politics that allowed slavery to become "science" during the nineteenth century. Yet alongside this broad historical sweep, the author never allows us to forget that at the heart of this oppressive and manipulative system lay real people. The fictional vignettes that accompany each chapter bring the character of the individual slaves chosen to demonstrate the supposed inferiority of African Americans to life in a way that many histories of the topic simply fail to do. Furthermore, the author is not content with attacking straw figures. Instead, she fleshes out the contentious characters that helped to develop the sinister and damaging ideologies of racial inferiority and "natural" history, allowing for a far more nuanced and deliberate study as to how such destructive and enduring ideas took hold. In this sensitive yet far reaching book, Molly Rogers draws a captivating portrait of the tragic manner in which racial ideologies became scientifically justified during the nineteenth century, highlighting the contentious manner in which "humanity" itself is neither an abstract concept nor an absolute, but is instead often tragically constructed in opposition to another.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By LikesMovies on February 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An amazing book about the tide of events and attitudes that led America into the Civil War; with intimate portraits of intellectualized cruelty, depths of denial, suffering... revealing our species in "all it's terrible humanness". Molly Rogers does here with Delia's Tears, what "The New Journalism" did for reporting in the 1960's - giving history a living breath and a beating heart.
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Format: Hardcover
One of the best books I've ever read about the history of science, photography, and racism. Although for the last topic, it is more like Current Events. I did not think I would read a book that is so hard to read, and yet couldn't put down. Roger's scholarship, and Roger's storytelling, bring the horror show of US slavery and racism to reality. I was educated; I was moved; I was angered; I was humbled. Too many white liberals like me think they know what racism is, and what slavery was. We do not. If only this book could be adapted as a television series, so that millions of people could see US history for what it was, and how institutional slavery became institutional racism that afflicts us today. And how little has changed in the arguments of those who defend it and benefit from it.
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By Lady in LA on July 26, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Epic contribution to American history. Beautiful fictional writing brings these haunting images to life in the soul.
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