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(cover picture) Smith, Llewellyn, Vincent Brown and Christine Herbes-Sommers
2009 Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel.

Notes: DVD, 56 minutes
Reviewed 24 May 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Herskovits, Melville J. - (Melville Jean), - 1895-1963
Anthropologists - United States - Biography
Anthropologists - Africa, West - Biography
Racism in anthropology - United States
Anthropology - Philosophy

ABSTRACT:    This very intelligent film provides a biography of one of the giants of early anthropology but, more, conveys important information about race and anthropology while raising enduring questions about the politics of race and the politics of knowledge.

There is an abundance of anthropological film out there but not as much film about anthropology (the video series “Strangers Abroad: Pioneers of Social Anthropology” offers episodes on the lives and careers of Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, Franz Boas, William Rivers, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, and Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard but it is now 20 years old, and the PBS video on Boas, “Franz Boas: 1852-1942,” is almost 30 years old). Thus, a new documentary exploration of Melville Herskovits is warmly welcome, especially because it brings to our attention again an anthropologist who is often not remembered quite at the level of these previously mentioned greats of the field and because it raises some truly profound questions about the politics of anthropology and the problems of representation and cultural possession.

“How did a white man come to know so much about black people?” asks one of the speakers in the film, virtually all of whom are African-American scholars and some of them students of Herskovits. Of course, Herskovits is best known for his work on Africa, specifically Dahomey, as well as on African-Americans, specifically his The Myth of the Negro Past, which demonstrated that contemporary African-American culture is connected to Africa. “He is like the Elvis of African-American studies,” one suggests, in that he took up certain notions that were available in the black community (but largely foreign and even anathema to the white community) and made them mainstream.

“What does it mean to ask, ‘What is a Negro?’” is one of the orienting questions in the film. Another is, does how you characterize a people determine their fate, and does it matter who does the characterizing? Ultimately, how is it that a white Jewish American became for a time the leading spokesman on African-Americans? The journey into Herskovits’ life begins with a photograph of him at age 15 in 1911, standing with Mexican children and soldiers: already by this age, he was curious about and collecting information on the Mexican revolution. His father had emigrated from the Austrian Empire, and he himself grew up in El Paso, Texas (because the dry climate was thought to be good for his tubercular mother). As the movie emphasizes, the second generation of immigrants often struggles with their identity and their place in society, and this seems to play a major role in Herskovits’ career and life. Herskovits had many subsequent experiences that would shape his personal and intellectual development, not the least of which was serving in World War I. In the highly racist and anti-Semitic years after the war (full of barely-remembered race riots and ethnic violence in the U.S.), Herskovits became increasingly aware of the similarities between Jewish and African-American circumstances, circumstances which helped to forge an alliance between Jews and the NAACP in those crucial years.

Herskovits is portrayed as something of a political radical in his early adulthood. Then he met Boas at Columbia, where Boas was doing his own influential work on race and culture. One of the most valuable elements of the film is its discussion of the relationship between race and the founding of anthropology (users of this film might also want to consider “Homo Sapiens 1900,” a more in-depth investigation into this issue, also reviewed on this site). Not only was race and the physical measurement of humans of central interest in early anthropology (or perhaps ‘proto-anthropology’), but difference was assumed to equal inferiority. The race concept then, as now, was also a slippery one, so that the Jews were increasingly seen as a race, not a community of faith. The film stresses Boas’ contribution in undermining the race concept, as most modern anthropologists will be familiar. Herskovits went further to use the tools of physical anthropology to show that bodily traits do not determine behavior, a project which the video recognizes as both scholarly and political. Herskovits, in the Boasian tradition, urged that the place to look for the causes of behavioral differences was culture, not bodies.

The movie also wisely notes that academic anthropology was not Herskovits’ only influence; he also happened to live in New York City at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Herskovits himself, the program claims, began his career as an assimilationist, like probably every other well-meaning white liberal, but many black thinkers of the day were identifying and celebrating a distinct black culture. Herskovits soon found himself making his first field trip to the African kingdom of Dahomey, at a time when the popular preconception was that Africa lacked any tradition of higher culture. Together with his long-time collaborator Francis Shapiro, Herskovits made major contributions both to the ideas of cultural relativism and of cultural continuity, determining that at least some New World black behavior was significantly affected by African culture. In this cause he employed a variety of forms of evidence, including film, sound, and photography to compare and contrast African and New World black cultures.

Herskovits moved to Northwestern University in 1927, where he established the first African studies center in US; the video deeply examines his influence on his students. Sometimes, one African-American former student recalls, it appeared that Herskovits thought he owned Africa, or at least that it was his to study and to pronounce upon: “Why weren’t there more African and African-American scholars at Northwestern?” Just asanti-Semitism obstructed Herskovits’ early career, so black scholars were excluded from academics generally, including the very publications and archives that made research possible. At this point, the film explores the troubled relationship between the greatest black academic of the era, W.E.B. Dubois, and Herskovits: while cordial in public, Herskovits dismissed Dubois as a propagandist and political activist, rather than a serious scholar. Apparently the academic community in general agreed, since institutes and philanthropists would not fund Dubois. The view then (and no doubt since, as well) was that black scholars were partisan but whites could be objective.

Inevitably the film turns to Herskovits’ The Myth of the Negro Past, which found remarkable dynamism and complexity in traditional African culture and continuity between it and contemporary African-American culture. (Dubois, interestingly, is admitted to having made similar points earlier but did not have access to data like Herskovits did to advance a serious scholarly case.) Of course, Herskovits’ work was political immediately, some black thinkers attacking the notion of continuity with Africa as a possible tool for segregationists who could use it to block integration—asserting that African-Americans were not real Americans or had their own indelible cultural habits. One of the key sites of struggle, then as later, was “the black family.” Herskovits believed that the broken black family was a survival of the authentic African matriarchal family. Some black scholars disagreed, finding the origin of the broken family in the history of slavery and discrimination: if dysfunctional families are an “Africanism,” then could not other undesirable behavior be explained by “Africanism” too? Herskovits argued in response that such black thinkers were merely afraid of their own African past—a position which must have offended more than a few.

As World War II and the later decolonization and civil rights movements progressed Herskovits remained near the center of thought on Africa specifically and race in general. In the face of Nazism he worked to refute its racist propaganda, to organize cooperation between Christians and Jews, and to get Jewish scholars out of Europe. As post-war African resistance to colonial rule coalesced, Herskovits established himself as the leading American scholar on Africa and associated himself with the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights and with African political leaders. The Cold War raised new funding opportunities for cultural research, but Herskovits again was perceived as too liberal and radical for many (especially in the McCarthy-ite 1950s: Ford Foundation, for example, wanted to sponsor political work, not anthropological work). Besides, Herskovits had argued that Nazism was an extension of Western colonialism, and he was considered dangerous for this decolonization stand. It was found that he belonged to various liberal/political organizations, which cost him the important position as head of the Bureau of African affairs.

Herskovits died in 1963, in the midst of the civil rights movement. The film continues to consider his impact on the movement and on more radical movements like negritude which were indebted to him in ways. Even more radically, his work inspired black militants to challenge white domination—some literally carried a copy of The Myth of the Negro Past. The film concludes with a fruit of Herskovits’ labor, a meeting of the African Studies Association in 1969 at which black students disrupted the conference, demanding that the organization address black political issues: they refused to accept the position of passive objects of study but insisted that they be included as full participants. “Where are the people who are being studied in doing the studying?” a guest commentator asks? As they appreciate—and as all anthropologists appreciate today—there is political power in claiming to understand and speak about and for another people. The ultimate question, one that anthropologists struggle with and which probably has no final resolution, is “Who has access to ‘understanding,’ to explaining a people, and to what use?”

As stated at the outset, “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness” is a very welcome project. It provides a glimpse into the formation not only of a career but a discipline. It also raises important and enduring questions not only about race, identity, cultural continuity, and politics, but it reminds us that the work of anthropology is not and cannot be intellectually and practically neutral. To be sure, the worst atrocities in history have not been committed by anthropologists—arguably they have been committed not only by non-anthropologists but by anti-anthropologists—but this does not exonerate anthropology completely from the charge of taking advantage of culture, of taking credit for culture, and, more than occasionally, from taking culture.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, history of anthropology/anthropological theory, anthropology of race and ethnicity, and African-American studies, as well as general audiences.


Herskovits, Melville J. 1941. The Myth of the Negro Past. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers.