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. (more…)