Delia's Tears Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America Molly Rogers, David W. Blight

Publication date:
05 Jan 2021
Yale University Press
384 pages: 229 x 178 x 30mm
36 b-w illus.

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In 1850 seven South Carolina slaves were photographed at the request of the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz to provide evidence of the supposed biological inferiority of Africans. Lost for many years, the photographs were rediscovered in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1976. In the first narrative history of these images, Molly Rogers tells the story of the photographs, the people they depict, and the men who made and used them. Weaving together the histories of race, science, and photography in nineteenth-century America, Rogers explores the invention and uses of photography, the scientific theories the images were intended to support and how these related to the race politics of the time, the meanings that may have been found in the photographs, and the possible reasons why they were “lost” for a century or more. Each image is accompanied by a brief fictional vignette about the subject’s life as imagined by Rogers; these portraits bring the seven subjects to life, adding a fascinating human dimension to the historical material.

Molly Rogers is a writer and independent scholar of American history and the history and theory of photography. She is associate director of the Center for the Humanities at New York University and the co-editor of To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes.

Selected as an Editor’s Choice by Booklist as one of the best titles published in 2010

"In a book that is at once sensitive, bold, and imaginative, Rogers delivers a deep history of the causes, creation, and consequences of these now famous photographs. . . . If there ever can be a shared humanity with a shared historical memory, perhaps it can only emerge from seeing such evidence of its most brutal denial."óDavid W. Blight, from the Foreword

"Through Delia's Tears, a beguiling mixture of history and imagination, we see that the poisonous allure of racial thinking, often posing as reasoned objectivity, has always blurred our vision. This is a story that is as beautiful as it is sad."-Jonathan Scott Holloway, Yale University