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

Molly Rogers, Author
Molly Rogers, Author . Yale Univ. $37.50 (350p) ISBN 978-0-300-11548-2
Reviewed on: 03/01/2010
Release date: 05/01/2010
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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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