The Atlantic Daily: What Are the Legal Rights of Deceased Black Americans?

Posted by on September 16, 2021 7:00 pm
Categories: Everything Else

Tamara Lanier’s search for information about her ancestors brought her to Harvard, where she viewed two playing card–size daguerreotypes. She believes that the two people in the images are her great-great-great grandfather and his daughter.

They had been commissioned by a Harvard professor hoping to find evidence of physical differences between Black enslaved people and the white masters who owned them. Since the images were rediscovered in 1976, they have been reprinted, used in conference programs, presentations, and books.

Lanier is suing for ownership of the daguerreotypes and punitive damages.

Her 2019 lawsuit was dismissed, she appealed, and now the case rests with the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The case, Latria Graham writes in a sweeping new essay, has “helped surface an ethical issue that has long accompanied images of Black people’s bodies: Their presentation and exploitation still, in many cases, outweigh individual ownership and autonomy.”

“There is a direct line between historical exploitation and the ongoing commercialization of and profiting from images of dead Black people, over which their descendants often have little control, few claims, and few rights,” Graham explains.

The Harvard case is just one example.

Lanier’s fight “is an important front in a war over the ownership of images of Black bodies,” Graham writes. It’s being waged not just at universities, but also on TikTok: Consider a controversial montage that uses technology to reanimate the images of Black lives lost to racism and police brutality, including Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland.

“At a time when Black bodies are treated as teaching moments for the larger culture, are those whose bodies were broken—by the whip of an overseer or the bullet of a police officer—ever afforded the opportunity to rest in peace?” Graham asks.

Read the full essay on our site.

This story is part of “Inheritance,” our ongoing project about American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory. Today, we launched its third chapter, a recognition, a celebration, and a reclamation of the Black body.

See the full project, and sign up to be notified when new stories publish.

A black and white photo of Joe Biden. The background is blurry and the image cuts off at his shoulders.
Samuel Corum / Bloomberg / Getty

The news in three sentences:

(1) Idaho is beginning to ration health care statewide because of an ongoing surge in COVID patients. (2) France is reportedly upset about the U.S.-Australia submarine deal. (3) A federal judge ruled that the Biden administration cannot rely on a COVID-19 public-health order to turn away migrant families at the border.

One question, answered: What can we expect from tomorrow’s big FDA committee meeting on boosters?

Our staff writer Katherine J. Wu sets the scene:

The White House already announced a plan to make COVID-19 booster shots widely available to the public starting as early as Monday. But that call—made weeks ago—still depends on an authorization from the FDA and a recommendation from the CDC.

Tomorrow, the FDA will finally get its chance to weigh in: It’ll be poring through data that reveal how the vaccines are currently performing, and deciding whether the protection we have needs to be souped up with an additional injection.

It is all, frankly, a mess.

Experts remain very divided over the booster question, though what’s definitely clear is this: The vaccines are, as of right now, protecting very well against severe disease and death. (That also happens to be what most vaccines are best at.)

Infections have been creeping up among the vaccinated, but that’s to be expected; many of them are less consequential, thanks to the immunity the vaccines confer. That means that, for the young and healthy in particular, boosters might be an unsound investment at this time, especially while so many billions around the world remain completely unvaccinated. A first shot will always make more difference than a third, and there’s a lack of evidence that the few boosters that have been given out make a significant protective impact long-term.

Note, though, that boosters could be more important for particularly vulnerable populations that didn’t respond as well to their first shots. (Moderately to severely immunocompromised people have already been green-lit to get their third injections; these are, perhaps, less “boosters” and more “completions of their first rounds of shots.”) There’s some evidence that certain protections might be waning faster in older people, for instance.

All of this puts the FDA in a tough spot: Given the limited evidence, will it disagree with the White House, or not? We’ll have some sense of this by the end of tomorrow.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Wonderland Eurasia was supposed to be “Europe’s biggest theme park.” It now sits abandoned. Tour the site in photos.

A break from the news:

Every dog is a rescue dog.

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