Friday, July 6, 2007

Friday Dead Racist Blogging: First Contact Edition

Stephen Jay Gould, reading up on the life of another Harvard scientist, Louis Agassiz, noticed that there were some discrepancies between the biographies of this Swiss scientist published by E. Lurie (Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science) and that of Agassiz's widow, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence). Investigating further, he noticed that the letters that Mrs. Agassiz published often had passages removed without even an ellipsis to make mention of it.
The first passage [that Gould considers], almost shocking in its force, even 130 years later, recounts Agassiz's first experience with black people (he had never encountered blacks in Europe). He first visited America in 1846 and sent his mother a long letter detailing his experiences. In the section about Philadelphia, Elizabeth Agassiz records only his visits to museums and the private homes of scientists. She expunges, without ellipses, his first impression of blacks—a visceral reaction to waiters in a hotel restaurant. In 1846 Agassiz still believed in human unity, but this passage exposes an explicit, stunningly nonscientific basis for his conversion to polygeny. For the first time, then, without omissions:
It was in Philadelphia that I first found myself in prolonged contact with negroes; all the domestics in my hotel were men of color. I can scarcely express to you the painful impression that I received, especially since the sentiment that they inspired in me is contrary to all our ideas about the confraternity of the human type and the unique origin of our species. But truth before all. Nevertheless, I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they are really men. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of the palms of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their faces in order to tell them to stay far away. And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than to dine with such service. What unhappiness for the white race—to have tied their existence so closely with that of negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact!

--Stephen Jay Gould, "Flaws in a Victorian Veil", The Panda's Thumb, pp. 172-73. The passage is also reprinted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man.

Now, some of you may wonder if Dr. Gould is being honest here—you know how he was. I happen to have a copy of the letter Agassiz sent to his mother, and the passage above is in there. And from what my brother and I could wrangle out, the translation is accurate. You just can't make up stuff like this.

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