Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge


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.


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 antiracism to analyzing cultural traits and lifeways beyond the borders of the United States.

Herskovits’s dissertation research, like Mead’s, was library ethnology, in his case, on cattle complexes in East Africa. He then followed Boas in using a primary tool of racist science, head-form measurements, to undercut claims about race as a stable category and about a”natural’’ hierarchy of races.

Having completed a major piece of research in what was then called “physical anthropology” (and now would be called”biological anthropology’’), Herskovits returned to analysis of cultural traits. The work for which he is most remembered insisted on the viability of”survivals’’ from what Herskovits considered a homogeneous West African culture. He visited Dahomey (now Benin) and stressed continuities between the West African homeland and the diaspora, making observations (though not doing sustained participant-observation fieldwork) in Brazil, Suriname, Haiti, Trinidad, and the American South.

The interpretation that African Americans were still to significant degrees African rather than American has, over the years, been welcome to those maintaining barriers to assimilation, first to white segregationists, then to Black Power separatists, that is, both to those seeing people of African origins as essentially backward and to those seeing spiritual superiority in an (always singular) African heritage. Although generally endorsing Herskovits’s positions, Jerry Gershenhorn chronicles criticism . . .

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