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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
In 2010, Tamara K. Lanier was still reeling from her mother’s death. Though her day-to-day work as a probation officer continued, Lanier still wrestled with the promise she had made to her mother before her passing: documenting their family history.
She relayed this promise to the old cashier at a small ice cream shop where she usually ordered a salad before going back to work. In a stroke of luck, the cashier happened to have a passion for genealogical research and offered his support.
The moment catalyzed a more than a decade-long endeavor undertaken by Lanier to link her ancestors to Harvard’s long-standing ties to slavery. During her ancestral research, Lanier came across daguerreotypes, an early form of photography, commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz that depict bare-chested enslaved people. She identified two people in the images as Renty — whom she says is her great-great-great grandfather — and his daughter Delia.
Lanier, who is currently pursuing an emotional distress lawsuit against the University for its possession of those images, is slated to publish a book about her genealogical research and the emotional journey involved in claiming ownership of the daguerreotypes. Lanier did not comment on the book’s release date.
With an overarching theme of generational love, the book will also combine memoir and biography to tell the stories of Renty and Delia.
“When you read this book, you’ll have an amazing understanding of who Papa Renty was,” she said. “I want the readers to feel with me when I’m going through these slave indexes.”
“I remember thinking of the inhumanity of man to have such a marginal view of life, of Black life and Black bodies, to equate them with pigs and other chattel,” she added.
Lanier’s mother — a retired teacher — would often recount stories of Renty to her family to memorialize his legacy. Renty was an enslaved man who taught himself, and then others, to read — despite it being a criminal offense to do so.
Upon reconnecting with the man from the ice cream shop, Lanier learned about the racist research practices of Agassiz, which the University’s landmark report on its ties to slavery characterized as “abusive.” Agassiz’s work was centered on eugenics and polygenism, a racist strain of pseudoscience that alleged Black racial inferiority on the basis of genetics.
“I saw him as this amazing educator,” Lanier said of Renty. “He’s done remarkable and amazing things, and the scientific racism is an insult to this man’s legacy.”
The daguerreotypes used in Agassiz’s research are currently in the possession of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Upon encountering the daguerreotypes commissioned by Agassiz, Lanier said she felt a sudden influx of emotions as she first saw Renty’s image, which reduced him to a research subject — a stark contrast to the stories Lanier’s mother told her.
“Immediately, I knew that that was the man that I had heard so many stories about my entire life,” she said. “I remember just staring, trapped in a gaze where I’m just staring and staring in his eyes, and I felt like he was staring back at me.”
“I was originally thinking, ‘Oh, how my mom would have loved to see this image.’ And then I’m like, ‘Oh my God, if my mom lived to see this and know this, it would hurt her to her core,’” Lanier added.
When she saw the daguerreotypes, Lanier said, she knew she had to honor the full story of Renty’s life.
“I knew in that moment that I had to do something to correct this narrative, to say to not only the curators of the world, but to Harvard, ‘This is not who my Papa Renty is,’” she said. “He was an amazing man who has a rich oral history and a rich legacy that has lasted almost 200 years, since children are still talking about him 200 years later — that’s how important this man was.”
Beyond publishing the book, Lanier said she is also in the process of advocating for legislation in Connecticut and Massachusetts that would allow cultural groups to obtain their “plundered property.” Such legislation would follow in the footsteps of the Holocaust Expropriated Art and Recovery Act and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, she said.
“Why do you have to legislate human dignity? But apparently you do,” she said.
Lanier said she hopes to encourage discussion and reflection on the stories encoded in cultural artifacts.
“When we think about museums and other institutions that curate, what is the larger story, the history of the artifact, or the history of how they acquired it? What story should be on display?” she said.
—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Tess C. Wayland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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