Independent Lens: Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

Early in his career, Herskovits probably thought that if only people knew more about Africa and more about black people, they would be less ignorant and that racism would wither away. But by the end of his career, he understood that racism was a much more intractable problem than that.

Vincent Brown

The story of Melville J. Herskovits is at once familiar and peculiar. “I think of him as kind of like the Elvis of black American studies,” says Harvard historian Vincent Brown. Like Presley, he appropriates from an existing culture, in his study and support of black Americans at a time of overt racism and oppression, the 1930s–’50s. But even as he “mainstreams some of these ideas about the relationship between Africa and African American culture,” Herskovits also misunderstands, exploits, and evaluates his object of study. And so his relationship to that object remains vexed.

The anthropologist himself becomes an object in Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, premiering this week in PBS’ Independent Lens series. Llew Smith’s 58-minute film traces Herskovits’ career, from his early interests in “others” as a child (his daughter Jean Herskovits Corry shows a 1911 photo of her then 15-year-old father alongside Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries, suggesting that he “must have been in the thick of battle”) to his to work with Franz Boaz at Columbia to his founding of the first major American program in African studies at Northwestern, in 1948. When, in 1961, John Kennedy considered (but did not select) Herskovits to head a new bureau of African Affairs, the film indicates that his support of decolonization in Africa — not to mention his membership in some 17 groups judged “communist front organizations” by HUAC — thwarted his appointment.

Herskovits helped to develop the concept of cultural relativism, as he tried to see his objects — primarily African and American “Negro” communities — without the bias of his own background. His book The Myth of the Negro Past made the controversial case that black Americans maintained African traditions, and further that race was a cultural and sociological construction, rather than biological.

Re-enactment of facial measurement

The film submits that Herskovits ran into more trouble, of a different sort, when his theories conflicted with those of E. Franklin Frazier, a sociologist whom Herskovits biographer Jerry Gershenhorn describes as having “kind of a Marxist perspective.” While Frazier’s 1939 book The Negro Family in the United States asserted that vestiges of slavery — economic, social, and political — affected subsequent family structures adversely, Herskovits argued that a tendency toward matriarchy was intrinsic to African familial and social structures and “strengthened by the influence of slavery.” Frazier worried that Herskovits’ argument for the difference of “Negro” culture from Caucasian supported segregation. (And indeed, the debate would be revisited in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dreadfully consequential report in 1965, concluding that young black men would benefit from military service — in Vietnam — as they had grown up in single-parent homes, without proper masculine guidance.)

Smith’s film presents Herskovits as a dedicated researcher and thinker, with an experiential understanding of prejudice (he openly worked to “refute anti-Semitic propaganda” during WWII). Still, it allows that his view was limited. Sometimes this case is stated outright: noting that W.E.B. Dubois had written about black families and the legacies of slavery decades before Herskovits (see: The Philadelphia Negro, 1899), Brown points out that Herskovits enjoyed a certain academic privilege “because he’s white.” And sometimes the point is made more obliquely: during montages representing Herskovits’ research — he spent years in Africa (Dahomey [now the Benin Republic], the Georgia Sea Islands, Ghana, Haiti, Nigeria, Suriname, and Trinidad), gathering data and recording what he found in photos, films, and diaries — “native drumbeats” sound on the audio-track, not unlike those grievously racist Tarzan movies popular at the time.

Herskovits tried to appreciate and even support what the film, following Conrad, terms a “heart of blackness.” Still, both his limits and insights were, like those he perceived in others, a function of his time and place. Anthony Appiah observes that he “entered academics at a time when the dominant voices were white voices, but they didn’t see themselves as white voices. They saw themselves as voices of the truth.” But even as Herskovits made use of his own advantage to put forward ideas that troubled some of those other “voices of the truth,” white academics were generally alarmed when the objects of their study — for instance, graduate students and professors of color — argued that they should be subjects, “full participants,” too.

Indeed, Johnnetta Cole, once Herskovits’ student and now director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, maintains that scholars of color must be “at the center of this discourse.” And yet, the film proposes, prejudice and limited vision continue to shape “American” study, policy, and politics. “Everybody does this,” states Brown. “We take pieces from life, we take all of these different pieces of evidence, and fit them into the story that we pretty much already want to tell.” Cole sees that current U.S. efforts to “understand” populations and traditions in Iraq and Afghanistan do not typically include Iraqi sociologists, informants or experts, what Cole calls “anthropologists of the people themselves.”

Under photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and skulls piled high by the Khmer Rouge, Brown concludes, “Once you can say, ‘Look, I know you, right, and you have nothing to tell me about what I know,’ you can pretty much legitimate anything you want to get away with.” So-called “knowledge” — however decent the intentions of those gathering or chronicling it — will be codified and institutionalized, then used or abused, by those who purport to own it.

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