Claudia Zaslavsky

(January 12, 1917 – January 13, 2006)

Educator, Multiculturalist, Anti-Racist, Ethnomathematician

Claudia Zaslavsky, an educator who advanced the study of the links between mathematics and world cultures, died on Friday, January 13, 2006, at the Harlem Community Hospice. She was 89 years old and lived in New York City. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Claudia Cohen (later Cogan) was born in New York City, and always attributed her first interest in the practical application of mathematics to her experience as a child helping in her parents' dry goods store in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She studied mathematics at Hunter College and statistics at the University of Michigan. Her interest in mathematics in African culture developed when she was a teacher at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, New York and sought materials that would encourage her African-American students to regard mathematics as part of their cultural heritage. Carrying forward this research as a project for a course at Teachers College of Columbia University, she discovered that little of what was known about this topic was available in accessible sources.

Thus began a years-long project of assembling, organizing and interpreting a vast amount of little-known material on expressions of mathematics in diverse African cultures including number words and signs, reckoning of time, games, and architectural and decorative patterns. Her field work on a trip to East Africa in 1970 was assisted by the photography of her husband Sam and travel guidance from her son Alan, then teaching in Kenya. Further materials were collected on a trip to Nigeria. In 1973 she published her major work, Africa Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture, which remains the classic reference on this topic and has been translated into French and Hungarian.

After publication of this work, Ms. Zaslavsky continued to publish articles in professional journals on African mathematics, multicultural mathematics, and mathematics education, over 50 in all. However, she turned her book-writing energies to bringing the message of the universality of mathematical thinking to a young audience through three children's books (including Count on Your Fingers, African Style and Zero: Is It Something? Is It Nothing?) and four resource books for teachers and parents (including Math Games and Activities from Around the World, published in seven languages including Chinese, Japanese, and Russian). She also wrote books for adults: Fear of Math: How to Get over It and Get on With Your Life, and for parents: Preparing Young Children for Math: A Book of Games.

Ms. Zaslavsky's efforts found a home in the burgeoning field of ethnomathematics, the study of the ways in which mathematical concepts are expressed and used in the everyday life of diverse cultures. As she wrote, "scholars of ethnomathematics examine the practice of mathematics from an anthropological point of view". She was a mentor to many younger scholars and activists in this field. As such, she always kept foremost the importance of recognizing the mathematical accomplishments of groups who are underrepresented in the world of mathematics, including women and people of diverse cultures, remembering her own struggles with discrimination against women and Jews in the professions during her formative years in the 1930's and 1940's. She was also a lifelong activist in movements for civil rights, peace and social justice. Her last request was to listen to a recording of Paul Robeson, a life-long hero for his progressive activism.

Ms. Zaslavsky is survived by her husband Sam, her sons Thomas of Endwell, New York, and Alan of Cambridge, Massachusetts, grandchildren Clara Zaslavsky Correia of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and David, Sarah and Katherine Zaslavsky of Endwell, and sister Lucille Dames of New York City. A half-brother, Emil, died around 1957.

A bibliography is located at A Google search will also give an indication of the reach of her work.


Click here for a list of publications in ethnomathematics, multicultural math education, etc., by Claudia Zaslavsky. Click here for a list classified by topic with selected additional items by other authors.