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Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Jerry Gershenhorn

Publication Year: 2004

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge is the first full-scale biography of the trailblazing anthropologist of African and African American cultures. Born into a world of racial hierarchy, Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963) employed physical anthropology and ethnography to undermine racist and hierarchical ways of thinking about humanity and to underscore the value of cultural diversity. His research in West Africa, the West Indies, and South America documented the far-reaching influence of African cultures in the Americas. He founded the first major interdisciplinary American program in African studies in 1948 at Northwestern University, and his controversial classic The Myth of the Negro Past delineated African cultural influences on American blacks and showcased the vibrancy of African American culture. He also helped forge the concept of cultural relativism, particularly in his book Man and His Works. While Herskovits promoted African and African American studies, he criticized some activist black scholars, most notably Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, whom he considered propagandists because of their social reform orientation.
After World War II, Herskovits became an outspoken public figure, advocating African independence and attacking American policymakers who treated Africa as an object of Cold War strategy. Drawing extensively on Herskovits’s private papers and published works, Jerry Gershenhorn’s biography recognizes Herskovits’s many contributions and discusses the complex consequences of his conclusions, methodologies, and relations with African American scholars.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology

Title Page, Copyright

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Series Editors' Introduction

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pp. xi-xiv

Melville J. Herskovits was and remains a controversial figure in understanding West African and African diasporic (African American) cultures. Like some other of the later students of Franz Boas at Columbia, such as his friend Margaret Mead, Herskovits did some research within the United States but also carried Boasian cultural relativism and ...

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pp. xv-xviii

It is a pleasure to thank the women and men who provided assistance in the research and writing of this book. In my research, I had the good fortune to work with archivists at the Northwestern University Archives, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Columbia University Rare Book and ...

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pp. 1-10

We begin the new century like we began the last, debating the proper approach toward social and political concerns relating to race and culture. Yet the terms and the nature of the debate have changed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, race and culture were generally framed in hierarchical terms, with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants at the top of the ...

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1. The Making of an Anthropologist

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pp. 32-47

Melville Herskovits was born in 1895 and grew up during a time of tremendous intellectual and cultural change in American society. The period from the 1890s to the 1910s—Herskovits’s childhood years—marked a watershed in American history, with Victorian ideas and social conventions under attack and a skeptical modernist ethic on the rise. ...

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2. The Attack of Pseudoscientific Racism

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pp. 27-58

In the aftermath of World War I the Boasian attack on racial hierarchy and the emphasis on an environmental and cultural view of human development sparked a counterattack by biological determinists. Moreover, the rising tide of nativist sentiment provided support for promoters of racial hierarchy.1 Biological determinists denounced cultural anthropologists ...

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3. Transforming the Debate on Black Culture

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pp. 59-92

With the completion of his physical anthropology study, Herskovits undertook a series of acculturation studies that helped transform the debate on American cultural identity. Stimulated by his work on American blacks, he formulated a plan to study the cultures of diasporic Africans. This plan led to fifteen years of fieldwork in Africa and the ...

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4. Subverting the Myth of the Negro Past

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pp. 93-122

Herskovits’s fifteen years of research on black cultures culminated with The Myth of the Negro Past, the first publication of the Carnegie Corporation’s Study of the American Negro. The Carnegie study—the most extensive study of African Americans during this era—and the Herskovits work that emerged from that study set the terms of debate between ...

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5. Objectivity and the Development of Negro Studies

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pp. 123-168

After World War I the academy was transformed when many social scientists embraced a detachment from public policy, a development that had a profound influence on Herskovits, who was just beginning his professional career. Before the war, Progressive Era intellectuals had employed science as a way of achieving progress and curing society’s ills. ...

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6. The Postwar Expansion of African Studies

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pp. 169-200

America’s involvement in the Second World War and its emergence as a global power during the 1940s and 1950s transformed academic social science. The exigencies of war and the government’s need for foreign area experts convinced many social scientists, including Herskovits, to relinquish their earlier commitment to detached scholarship and serve their country. ...

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7. Foreign Policy Critic

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pp. 201-230

Herskovits’s prominence as America’s foremost scholar of Africa and head of its most celebrated African studies program thrust him into the role of foreign policy analyst during and after World War II. An outspoken advocate for African self-determination, Herskovits sought to encourage Africans ...

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pp. 231-240

Melville J. Herskovits died of a heart attack on February 25, 1963.1 Born into a world that devalued Africans and African Americans and their cultures, Herskovits devoted his life to the idea that all cultures have worth and to discovering the dynamism and strength of African and African American societies. He supported African self-determination ...


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pp. 241-304


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pp. 305-328


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pp. 329-339

Image Plates

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pp. 340-347

E-ISBN-13: 9780803203952
E-ISBN-10: 0803203950

Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology