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A Taste of Tufts: Nina Gerassi−Navarro discusses controversial work of Louis Agassiz

Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 01:02

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Courtesy Cindy Stewart

Associate Professor Nina Gerass-Navarro discussed 19th-century scientist Agassiz at “Taste of Tufts.”

Gerassi−Navarro said that Agassiz, unlike his wife, used the trip to augment his interest in the origins of races, specifically by looking to prove the racial inferiority of the people of indigenous and African descent in Brazil. “Agassiz himself believed that he could observe the deterioration consequent upon an amalgamation of races, which he said was more widespread in Brazil than in any other country in the world and which was rapidly effacing the best qualities of the white man, the negro and the Indian,” Gerassi−Navarro said. “He took crass photographs . . . [where] he made the subjects of his photographs start undressing,” she said. “These photographs were found interspersed with postcards of Greek statues, which reflected a ‘superior race.’ To him, these photographs were going to document how inferior the other races were.”

Today, much of Louis Agassiz’s legacy has been discredited. A Cambridge elementary school north of Harvard University, as well as its surrounding neighborhood, used to be named in his honor. However, in 2002, the school’s name was changed to the Maria L. Baldwin School due to concerns about Agassiz’s racism although the neighborhood still bears his name. Harvard is also extremely sensitive about sharing his photos, Gerassi−Navarro said.

However, Gerassi−Navarro maintained that it is important to use Agassiz’s work to gain insight into the cultural and scientific advancements of his time.

“With the reading of the text, the letters surrounding the photographs avoid a one−sided interpretation,” she said. “There are different meanings — there is always more than one reading. It’s important for us to be able to take a photograph or a text and not discredit it, but see how much it can teach us.”

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