As the winner of the 2009 John O’Connor Film Award, and the Hollywood Black Film Festival’s Best Documentary, “Herskovits, At the Heart of Blackness” is a fascinating film that recalls the life and work of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963) while raising important questions about race, “objective” scholarship, and politics.
A pioneer in the field of African Studies, Herskovits was a Jewish American anthropologist who traveled extensively throughout Africa, documenting the everyday activities of Africans, such as dance, body movement, family structures and the roles of both men and women in African societies. In analyzing his mountains of film and field notes upon return to the States, Herskovits concluded that cultural ties to Africa existed in the African diaspora across the New World, including the United States, the Caribbean, and the Creole of Central and South America. This theory, known as cultural retention, was not a new one. It was commonly accepted at that time that most, if not all of the American Negros had lost their cultural connections to their African roots during the agonizing period of middle passage during the height of American slavery. Herskovits did not agree. Margaret Wade Lewis documented some of the connections Herskovits made between Africa and Harlem in his field notes in The Impact of the Turner~Herskovits Connection on Anthropology And Linguistics.
As a Jew, Herskovits was very familiar with the excluding nature of race and the struggle to incorporate race into identity in America. The film suggests it was this understanding of exclusion and the need to understand and “own” his identity that guided Herskovits’ interest towards anthropology. Herskovits struggled with his Jewish identity throughout his career, and wrote: “drawing attention to your identity is a way of undermining your authority because authority does not have an identity. Authority speaks with the voice of the universe.” Was Herskovits to be a Jew, a Jewish American or just an American? Did these labels affect his identity? The same can be said for the American Negro. Negro? Black? African American or just American? Did it make a difference? That, according to Herskovits, depended on what those labels meant to the Western World, and ultimately the Black Americans who were struggling to live there.
At the turn of the century, anthropologists were entrenched in the concept of race, and were actively seeking physical evidence rather than cultural evidence to empirically prove the superiority of one race over another. Known as scientific racism, this methodology peaked at the height of the Nazi regime during World War II. Working quietly back in the U.S., Herskovits concluded that differences in races by no means equated to inferiority between races. Herskovits advocated cultural anthropology over physical anthropology, and felt that the world could not be adequately interpreted through “western eyes.” Known as cultural relativism, this heuristic of understanding a culture “from the inside” was clearly promoted by Herskovits, and was the beginnings of what is known today as critical cultural theory. Can a scholar objectively study another race? Can a member of race objectively study it’s own race? The film ends with the question “Who has access to understanding and explaining a people and to what use?”
Of much interest to my own personal understanding of current race relations within the United States was the debate between Herskovits and E. Franklin Frazier that the film and Africanisms in American Culture detailed. A sociologist, Frazier aggressively disagreed with Herskovits about the concept of cultural retention. Frazier feared that pointing out differences between black and white Americans would only perpetuate segregation and undermine social change. Of great interest to me is the discussion between the two about the failure of the matriarchal household as it translated to the western culture, crime, and the poor living conditions of black America. Are these examples of cultural retention? If so, how could cultural retention be of any benefit to black Americans? I hope to explore this in greater depth as this course continues.