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  • Nation, History, and the Idea of Cultural Origin in Melville Herskovits1
  • Eleni Coundouriotis (bio)
Eleni Coundouriotis
University of Connecticut
Eleni Coundouriotis

Eleni Coundouriotis is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut—Storrs. Her book Claiming History: Colonialism, Ethnography, and the Novel was published by Columbia University Press in 1999. She is also the author of "Authority and Invention in the Fiction of Bessie Head" (Research in African Literatures, 1996) and of other articles including "Dracula and the Idea of Europe"; "Landscapes of Forgetfulness: Reinventing the Historical in Ben Okri's Famished Road"; "Materialism, the Uncanny, and History in Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie"; and "Writing Stories about Tales Told: Anthropology and the Short Story in African Literatures."


1. I would like to thank Clare V. Eby for her helpful comments on my analysis of Veblen.

2. For a discussion of the ways in which Herskovits's thinking continues to inform the study of diaspora, see Apter. Herskovits is widely acclaimed as the founder of African studies in the United States. He created the African Studies program at Northwestern in 1947 and founded the African Studies Association in 1957, becoming its first president (Jackson 123). Herskovits's enduring influence is also felt in the continuing use that scholars make of his anthropological data. Two outstanding examples of this reliance on Herskovits's anthropology are Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s discussion of the trickster in the Signifying Monkey, which is based on evidence from Herskovits's Dahomean Narrative (Herskovits and Herskovits), and Sterling Stuckey's discussion of the "circle," the ring dance ceremony (12, 16-7). Stuckey draws from Herskovits's work on Dahomey and Surinam, as well as on The Myth of the Negro Past.

3. For a discussion of Herskovits's study of the Saramaka of Surinam, see Scott. Herskovits considered the Saramakas to have retained the most of their African ancestry; Scott argues that to see themselves as the "New World Negro," the Saramakas needed a discourse such as anthropology, "a science of culture, to provide them with the foundational guarantee of an authentic past" (268).

4. Baker is describing Zora Neale Hurston. Boas had assigned Hurston as Herskovits's assistant at Columbia (Jackson 107). George Hutchinson believes that the influence of Hurston and Arthur Huff Fauset may have pushed Herskovits to look at African retentions (76).

5. The resistance to French rule took place on two fronts. There was labor unrest in reaction to the "prestations," the forced labor policies of the French colonial government, and an antagonistic relationship had developed between the native bourgeoisie and the French. At the time when Herskovits was in Dahomey in 1931, the colony was at an economic turning point. According to Patrick Manning, the state almost doubled in size between 1929 and 1930. The French had intensified their efforts at public works and there was a sharp increase in taxation (249). The prestations (the literal meaning, "loans," quickly became a euphemism) had systematized forced labor as a form of tax since 1912: everyone owed the government a certain amount of labor for public works (Conklin 215). Taxation, furthermore, was used as a way of forcing the population to grow cash crops that benefited the colonial government. By raising taxes, the government forced hardship on the people, who had to raise money to pay the tax and hence had to change their traditional method of agriculture, and its balance of cash and subsistence crops, in order to raise more cash crops (Crowder 186). Moreover, through taxation the colonial government forced the people to enter a money economy and thus enhanced the capitalization of the colony while also putting in place policies that severely impoverished the population (Suret-Canale 59-61). The native bourgeoisie sought to take advantage of the improvements in technology and exploit the capitalization of Dahomey for its own benefit. The French, however, viewed the ambitions of the native capitalist class as a threat to their political authority, and by 1930 they began systematically to pursue capitalization in their own interests, trying to shut out the native capitalist class (Manning 259). The French sent out of the country the goods and income produced (including a good...


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