Events Calendar
Nov 23
16:00 - 17:15
'Of Dislocations: Mediatized Black Bodies, Haunted Ethnological Archives'—Mita Choudhury (Purdue University Northwest)
Postcolonial Seminar series

'Of Dislocations: Mediatized Black Bodies, Haunted Ethnological Archives'—Mita Choudhury (Purdue University Northwest)

As bi-product of both technology (photography in particular) and advancements in the natural and social sciences, the study of slaves emerged in the mid-twentieth-century American academy within the context of not only anthropology but also biology—the two fields most committed to the study of evolution, human nature, and racial difference. One such study has received recent attention in the mainstream American media and part of the report in The New York Times (March 5, 2017) goes as follows: "In 1976, archivists at Harvard's natural history museum opened a drawer and discovered a haunting portrait of a shirtless enslaved man named Renty, gazing sorrowfully but steadily at the camera. Taken on a South Carolina plantation in 1850, it had been used by the Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz to formulate his now-discredited ideas about racial difference." The anthropological daguerreotypes developed by Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) were the result of his field trip to Columbia, South Carolina (circa March 1850). In both the full-face and the profile versions of Agassiz's daguerreotypes the "enslaved man named Renty" appears shirtless. These images were part of a recent discussion at Harvard University, initiated by its current president, "to explore the long-neglected connections between universities and slavery."

A little less than a hundred years earlier, far removed from the South Carolina plantation memorialized by Agassiz and in the heart of the consumer culture in London, Francis Barber's portrait appeared. This "portrait of a black man" by Joshua Reynolds—identified by some to be Francis Barber—presents a striking contrast to the logics of Agassiz's anthropology because it focused on the category of the black man rather than on a specific subject with an identifiable history. Given the paucity of models who could sit for such a portrait, Francis Barber (or perhaps Reynold's own servant) supplied what might be regarded as an empty typology. 


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University of Kent,
United Kingdom


Contact: Caroline Rooney
School of English


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