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Beloved: Legacy of Slavery is a collection of portraits, simple pictures of 14 children, each captured in a single moment of time. Individually, the children are beautiful, and yet tragic in their own way. The weight in their faces and the burdens on their small shoulders is plain for us to see. Eleven of them were enslaved, and three were not, but practically speaking, they were all trapped in a world that was dominated by color and the accident of birth. Collectively, they offer us a window into the second half of 19th century America and illumine for us issues of race that we continue to address more than a century later. What can we learn from the Beloved? That remains to be seen, but it is certain that they offer us a springboard, a starting point for reflection and conversation that can perhaps move us beyond our own preconceptions.
There have been many obstacles to drawing the Beloved: Legacy of Slavery. Firstly, there are very few quality photographs of enslaved children in existence. Photography was invented around 1840, and commercial photography in the 1850s and 1860s was available almost exclusively to wealthy people. Photographers were not taking portrait photographs of enslaved people, much less enslaved children. Ironically, however, some slave owners had their own portraits made with a slave standing behind them, thus providing us unknowingly with a perfect image. Newspapers and photographs of military camps provide us with two other very limited sources. Secondly, in the few available photographs, the enslaved individual is rarely, if ever, named, nor location given. Words such as, “Taylor, Slave of Colonel Hamilton” scrawled on the bottom of a photograph represent a treasure trove of information. And so, our portraits are in some instances anonymous and in others, very minimally identified. A third obstacle presents itself in that the few photographs that do exist are often mislabeled or used without citation to illustrate articles. One can find the same photograph labeled as being two different individuals living in two completely different locations and sometimes residing in collections of different institutions. No infringement of copyright, if such exists, is intended in this work in any way. Every effort has been made to identify the Beloved accurately, but the difficulties and confusion are themselves a commentary on slavery. Slaves were a commercial commodity, entirely unimportant as unique individuals, and that fact is eloquently illustrated by our inability to name and place them with absolute certainty. And so we are left with the faces of 14 children, speaking to us powerfully across time and space. May we hear them.