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  • 7. Mark Hanna WatkinsAfrican American Linguistic Anthropologist
  • Margaret Wade-Lewis

One of the underrated scholars in anthropological linguistics is Mark Hanna Watkins. His story is largely untold because the historiography analyzing the contributions of persons of African ancestry to the field of anthropology and linguistics has been for the most part neglected and only recently explored systematically (Harrison and Harrison 1999:8). Since the 1980s, however, members of the Association of Black Anthropologists have broken ground in reconstructing and interpreting their intellectual histories (Harrison and Harrison 1999:5–6).1

Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison elaborate on the societal constraints under which these scholars labored: "African Americans, and subordinate-group analysts generally, have occupied a largely peripheral and, using W. E. B. Du Bois' insightful metaphor, veiled or hidden position within the hierarchical order of knowledge that anthropology represents. As a consequence, much of the scholarship they have produced has been rendered largely invisible in the texts and discourses that define anthropology as the authoritative—yet overwhelmingly Eurocentric and masculine—study of humankind" (1999:1). Despite the constraints, Watkins and others have struggled mightily to expand the boundaries imposed on them by the racist patterns and practices of the academy and American society, to interpret the patterns of domination imposed on people of African descent, and to define the patterns of resistance, adaptation, and cultural continuity and processes of cultural ingenuity and innovation.

Watkins's journey through life was a historic one. He was a first in a number of ways—one of the first known black Americans to receive a PhD in anthropology (Moses 1999:85–100), the first American to write a grammar of an African language, the first anthropologist to participate in the creation of an African studies program in the United States, and the first black member of many professional organizations, among them the Society of the Sigma Xi.2 He was one of the founding fathers of anthropology and linguistics in America. According to the late Joseph Applegate, [End Page 181] a linguist and one of Watkins's colleagues in African studies at Howard University, "Watkins was on the ground floor of American anthropology and linguistics. By becoming the first American scholar to write a grammar of an African language and one of the first to utilize a structural linguistics format, he established a precedent and pattern for others to emulate. Like his contemporaries, he conducted extensive, productive fieldwork in both the Americas and Africa. Furthermore, for his entire career, he continued to write exemplary articles and play an active role in the organizations of the profession, serving as a shaper of the American anthropological linguistic tradition" (author's interview with Joseph Applegate, Washington DC, June 21, 2002).3 Watkins was also a model scholar/activist who saw no dichotomy between scholarship and community service. His contribution can now be assessed since his papers are housed in the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University, Bloomington (Watkins Archive, hereafter WA).4

This essay illuminates Watkins's contributions as a linguistic anthropologist, connecting the 19th with the 20th century, serving as an "ambassador" between the worlds of black and white scholars, between the world of South American indigenous people and the U.S. government, and between the world of Africans and that of African Americans. He was one of the founders of the first African studies program in the United States and fostered links between African Americans and Africans by facilitating faculty and student exchanges between Howard University and African universities through the African Language and Area Center.

Watkins was by no means the only African American in academia to serve as a scholar/activist. Rather, he is one symbol of an excellent, socially responsible cohort of men and women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who shaped their academic disciplines, and indeed American society, through teaching, research, publications, and social activism.

The Early Years

At the dawn of the 20th century, Watkins was born in Huntsville, Texas. He was the family's Thanksgiving gift, born November 23, 1903, the last of fourteen children of Walter Watkins, a Baptist minister, and Laura Williams Watkins, a homemaker, both natives of Huntsville, Texas...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5138
Print ISSN
1557-637X
Pages
pp. 181-218
Launched on MUSE
2008-10-30
Open Access
No
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