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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*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