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  • Tamara Lanier listens as her lawyer speaks to the media outside of the Harvard Club in New York.

    Tamara Lanier listens as her lawyer speaks to the media outside of the Harvard Club in New York. | Photo: Reuters

Published 21 March 2019 (9 hours 6 minutes ago)

“The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered,” Lanier said,

A United States woman, Tamara Lanier, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for "shamelessly capitalizing" from photographs of people who were enslaved, one of whom she claims is her great-great-great-grandfather. The lawsuit, which is challenging ownership rights and the university's right to profit from the institution of slavery, was filed Wednesday in Middlesex Superior Court.

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The image of Lanier's relative, who she refers to as "Papa Renty," is a slave from South Carolina who was able to read and write and used those skills to hold secret Bible classes, despite the risk of being on a plantation.

Papa Renty's photograph belongs to a collection of daguerreotypes commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, who is infamously known for works portraying white biological superiority that was used as a framework for justifying slavery in the United States.

The images are some of the first known photographs of enslaved people.

The subjects were commanded to pose naked, and the non-consensual images were later made available online. One of the images is that of Papa Renty and was plastered on the cover of the anthropology book, "From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery."

Papa Renty's daughter Delia was also subjected to the experimental photographs.

Lanier's lawsuit says Harvard has charged a "hefty" licensing payment for image reproduction. In a statement, Lanier expressed that "Papa Renty's slave owners profited from his suffering," and she asks that "Harvard... stop doing the same thing to our family."

Since 2011, Lanier has been writing to Harvard's administration regarding the photographs. At first, she simply asked to be informed as to how the images would be used. In 2017, she wrote to Harvard again demanding they relinquish their ownership of the images. While Lanier received responses both times, her requests were never met.

 

The photographs were rediscovered by a researcher, Elinor Reichlin, at Harvard's Peabody Museum in 1976.

Since then, they have been the subject of art exhibits and printed on the program cover of Harvard's 2017 conference called "Universities and Slavery: Bound by History." Lanier attended the event, and said that "while Agassiz earned acclaim, Renty returned to invisibility."

The suit says that Harvard needs to acknowledge complicity in "perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery," by supporting Agassiz's racist research. It also points out that without the subjects' consent, Agassiz had no right to pass ownership to Harvard.

“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered,” Lanier said.

As Papa Renty's alleged next of kin, Lenier wishes to claim rightful ownership of the images and tell "the true story of who Renty was." She also hopes that her lawsuit will "force this country to reckon with its long history of racism," and test its "moral climate."

 

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