This letter is in response to your recent editorial. Seems to me that the referenced article masks the deeply emotional assault on African Americans and the societal harm done by this “prominent” scientist. Maintaining the street name celebrates someone whose life work, or a huge portion thereof, abhorrently disregarded the humanity of African Americans, and just serves to further hamper the centuries-long African American struggle for recognition of racial injustice.
There are ways to correctly shine a light on past hatred-based deeds (intended and unintended) while being sensitive to how we wish to shine that light. Are we saying Agassiz’s life’s work had honorable value? To a growing portion of Falmouth residents and to a diversity of town visitors, maintaining a street name in “honor” of someone who focused upon and fostered racial hatred of African Americans continues the racist narrative. Falmouth now has many and various groups discussing human rights and bringing the fight for diversity and racial justice into focus. To be effective, discussion must translate into committed “supportive” action. No doubt, first steps that further actualize the honest and valid concerns of these many groups can sometimes be decidedly tough for some of the comfortable, status quo.
I agree with you, we can’t change the actions of the past. Yet it has now fallen upon us, as stewards of the future, to vocalize and stand up now to erase present day indicators of racism, in all its insidious and insulting forms. The street name was meant to and, as long as it persists, will serve its initial intent...to honor the Agassiz name. There are many occasions when a street name is referenced just in writing or vocalized, so the goodwill suggestion of an ancillary sign or plaque would not be evident and so would not maintain the associated correction. It would not serve your stated intent. Street names bestow an honor. The current street name is tantamount to continuing to raise the Confederate flag which, at least to African Americans, is an indirect and highly offensive visual way to celebrate the South’s, and for some, a current-day belief in the tenets of slavery.
No, we can’t erase history, but we can make the history taught to and seen by our upcoming generations reflect the rightful treatment of African Americans. Then the true test when assessing efforts in erasing racial injustice might be to ask ourselves and for future generations to also ask, would a review of such history cause us to name streets or erect statues that celebrate such a person?
Are we fully committed to being sensitively aware of and to eliminating racial injustice? Can we not begin with the many ways in which such racial insensitivity is now evident? Can we not take this step forward? Can we not even turn racial injustice discussion into action, by renaming a street? Indeed, let the history books tell Agassiz’s story, not a place of perpetual honor such as a street sign that is meant to bear witness to a person’s honorable and moral life’s work. The street sign should never have been named after Agassiz. Mistakes happen; it’s what we do about them that counts.
We can’t erase history; however, we can correct how we celebrate it.
Dale M. Kapp