- Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America
In 1850, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypist, Joseph Zealy, to create a remarkable set of images—photographs of seven slaves living and working in and around Columbia, South Carolina. Through the camera, Agassiz hoped to make visibly and incontrovertibly apparent the physical distinctiveness of black bodies in order to substantiate the theory of polygenesis. This theory purported that the differences between whites and other races were so profound that each race must have originated and developed separately. This view challenged monogenesis, the idea that all humans originated from a common ancestor. The slaves, who included “Delia” in this book’s title, were stripped of their clothes and placed in front of the camera, exposed, and examined as scientific specimens.
Delia’s Tears tells the story of how these extraordinary images came to be. From its subtitle, the book also promises to examine the junction where scientific racism and photography met in the nineteenth century. Photography was well suited to serve the interests of white supremacy, which, as an ideology, depended on visible markers of difference. Enlightenment scientific practices revolved around the classification and ordering of natural phenomena based on discernible differentiations; for early naturalists, seeing formed the cornerstone of knowledge. When photography emerged in the 1840s, it became a valuable scientific instrument due to its capacity to record and reveal truths that the human eye might miss. In this particular case, it promised to fix in place assumed hierarchies of racial difference. [End Page 660]
Rogers, however, pays comparatively little attention to the origins or consequences of scientific racism or the role of visual technologies in it. Instead, she widens the frame of the photographs to permit the context behind them—the cotton plantation economy, South Carolina slaveholders, and naturalists like Agassiz—to come into view. Rogers aims for a general audience; her style is mostly narrative. Although the book shows careful research, it does not cover much new scholarly ground. Even as a narrative history, however, its various strands do not entirely come together. Rogers has widened her scope so far that the overall purpose or thrust of her story becomes lost in all of the detail.
The most striking parts of Rogers’ narrative are the fictional vignettes that she has created for each of the photographed slaves to counteract the dehumanization of slaves that the images represent. Indeed, if Zealy’s daguerreotypes stand as any kind of evidence, it is of the objectification to which slaves were routinely subject. Rogers fictionalizes Delia and the others in her narrative to allow them some subjectivity and to re-animate them as human beings. The concept has merit, but, unfortunately, Rogers’ prose, which is otherwise lucid, comes across as strained and self-conscious in these sections. Furthermore, because she imbues all of the characters with the same tone and voice, these vignettes tend to flatten them as historical figures. She would have done better to use testimonies, speeches, and other documents to convey the experiences of slaves within her larger narrative, as she does to some degree with Frederick Douglass.