Melville Herskovits was one of a number of Boasian anthropologists. Like Kroeber, and a plethora of Boas’ other students, Herskovits founded an anthropology department. He wrote economic anthropology and cultural relativism. He is not really mentioned in theoretical overviews (such as in High Points in Anthropology) and I hardly ever heard him in mentioned in anthropology classes. Where his name did come up was in African-American Studies classes. This is largely due to his classic book The Myth of the Negro Past. Prior to Herskovits, there seemed to be this notion that African-Americans were a people without a cultural past or rather that there was a clean cultural break, caused by the Middle Passage, between Africa and African-Americans. The voyage across the Middle Passage combined with the horrid effects of slavery were enough, it was felt, to completely eradicate any trace of African culture from the African-American. Of course, the African culture itself was deemed to be static and unchanging and the documentary illustrates this, to great effect, using clips from old cartoons and Tarzan movies.
Herskovits, although not the first, disagreed and argued that there was cultural continuity between the cultures of African and the far flung members of the African Diaspora. He based this, in a large part, on fieldwork in Africa, South America, and the West Indies. Which brings me to an upcoming episode of the PBS Series Independent Lens.
The episode, entitled Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness examines the impact Herskovits and his work on African-Americans had on anthropology, politics, and history – among other things. The documentary is the work of Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbs-Sommers, and Vincent Brown and features commentary by Herskovits’ daughter (herself an anthropologist) Jean Herskovits Corry, Vincent Brown, Mae Ngai, K. Anthony Appiah, Lee Baker, Johnetta Cole, Gelya Frank, and Jerry Gershenhorn. The documentary revolves around the question of who has the authority to define identity and more importantly who has access to understanding and explaining a people? Given this framework it would have been easy for someone of a rigidly ideological or polemical bent to content themselves with the standard post-modernist critique of anthropology. The makers of this documentary realized that the subject was more subtle and required a more nuanced approach. Herskovits and his book are a perfect example of this. Herskovits founded, and was the first president of, the African Studies Association. Later his book was partial inspiration for African-Americans seeking a voice and a larger role in that organization. Political power played a role as well, and Herskovits, by virtue of his early presence in the field that later became African-American Studies, came into quite a bit of it- at one point he was up for a position in the Kennedy administration. There were, of course, political reasons for studying African (decolonization) and African-American (“race problems” or “race relations”) culture. Politics also played a role in Herskovits’ conflicts with W.E.B. Du Bois and E. Franklin Frazier.
One of the more interesting comments came from Mae Ngai where she talks about how there seems to be an implicit assumption that she can only teach about Asia and Asians. This is a crucial point and mirrors some questions being asked in anthropology. If, say, a Navajo anthropologists studied the Trobriand Islanders How close would their analysis be to Malinowski’s? Would they even ask the same questions or interpret, say, kinship relations in the same way? This is really the question being asked by the documentary. Herskovits was Jewish and there are some similarities, in terms of prejudice and diaspora, or as Vincent Brown put it similarities in ways of thinking about history and belonging between Jewish people and African-Americans.
The documentary has a lot of material to cover and the one weakness is that it is only an hour long. Two or three hours would have been better. At any rate the documentary was an engaging piece of work that sparkles with intelligence, humor, and sympathy. I highly recommend it.
There is a companion website and the program airs February 7, 2010 at 10:30 in St. Louis. Check your local listings for the time in your area.