To Tamara Lanier, the image of the white-haired black man, emaciated, stripped of his clothing, and staring unflinchingly into the camera, Papa Renty—a South Carolina slave who learned to read and held clandestine Bible classes despite the dangers on the plantation…To Harvard University, the image is part of its collection of daguerreotypes, among the oldest known pictures of enslaved people in the United States. They were commissioned in 1850, by one of Harvard’s most renowned and controversial scientists, Louis Agassiz, and used to bolster his belief in white biological superiority.
—“Harvard Sued over Slave Photos,” Boston Globe,
March 21, 2019
What is his name? Renty?
you must stand perfectly still. Look there
at the camera and do not move
so much as a finger until I tell you
you are done.
Do you understand?
The old slave murmurs, yes sir, I understand sir.
Papa Renty sets his lips together, swallows
the glory horns blowing,
rising from his chest to his eyes, rising,
and does not breathe.
He fixes his gaze on the unsouled glass eye
and the man fused with the machine
under the hood
with such a mighty stillness,
that a perfect image is preserved
of each hair, each facial crease,
each blood vessel freed from wall of muscle,
his eyes opened like Bible tablets
in immortal storm.
All around him creation shivers—
He is nailed to light.
Louis Agassiz regards his evidence—
the frame honed by hunger,
the burnished iron skin,
unbarbered white hair and patchy beard,
the incandescent eyes hitched to God.
He turns to his select audience lounging
in the wood paneled room—
As you see, Gentlemen,
I prove that the African is not human.
Mary Birnbaum was born and raised in New York City. She was educated at the Cooper Union Art School and the New School for Social Research. She has studied poetry with Fred Marchant, Martha Collins, and Bruce Weigl at the Joiner Institute in UMass, Boston. Mary’s translation of the Haitian poet Felix Morriseau-Leroy has been published in the anthology Into English (Graywolf Press). She hosts a reading series with the Jamaica Pond Poets in Massachusetts.