Fifty-some years ago, the foundational work Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives was edited by Norman Whitten and John Szwed, in the lee of a controversial symposium held in several sessions at the meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1967. The book included contributions from nonparticipants who had entered into the lively discussion, including a masterful overview of the papers by Sidney Mintz. As the editors indicated in their preface, they sought papers that would judge the impact of Melville Herskovits's The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) on subsequent scholarship. Herskovits was portrayed as a troublemaker who carried an assimilationist point of view into his fieldwork in many African and Afro-American communities. His insistence on not neglecting African cultural patterns in studies of black communities in the New World fostered a general feeling among those on the soft Left that honor should be paid, as often as possible, to the African ancestry of any New World practice that showed signs of some sort of cultural continuity. He sent a call out to the social sciences in general, and especially to those engaged in ethnographic fieldwork of some sort, working and living in Afro-American communities. He was a faithful student of Franz Boas, who had advocated fine-grained reporting of the lifeways of non-Europeans. Herskovits was also politically committed to encourage the secular cosmopolitan ideas that had been inherited from the Enlightenment, but he did not fall into the trap of the social Darwinists, who insisted on studying a version of the civilizing process that derogated anyone without good table manners and the ability to schmooze effectively. He did not respond with enthusiasm to anthropological approaches that privileged structure and systematic practices--especially kinship systems and other forms of organized power. As a musician he both heard and felt the power of performances of drumming, dancing, and storytelling. And, like Boas, he pursued the study of language and culture in diffusion. Implicitly, he furthered the philological and morphological manner of studying cultures not only in stabilized and bounded communities, but in comparison with contiguous studies. His political position, once its implications could be understood, stressed a pluralist and assimilatonist agenda. Groups should be, to use Greg Dening's wonderful term, ethnogged--that is, studied at ground level in terms of the systematic behaviors which could be observed in daily life (Dening 2004). Under such a regime, the systematics of a culture would emerge from the ways in which power and responsibility were put into practice.
Herskovits, like Boas, wanted students with open minds who would accord sympathy, even dignity, to whatever peoples each ethnographer chose to study--with the supposition that all humans lived in groups with shared values and practices. Again, like Boas, he wanted something like social and political parity for all self-designated communities. Like Boas, once more, he urged the ethnogging of Hispanic, Francophonic, Native American, and Negro communities (the term in general use in their day).
His comparativist approach underscored historical continuities where they could be teased out. And most pugnaciously, he insisted on the cultural parity of blacks. When he and his wife decided to study African and Afro-American communities, in effect he created tout court the idea of the black diaspora--though as the son of a rabbi, he would not have used that word.
This was one of the primary concerns of the group of ethnographers that met in 1967 at the meetings of the AAA. With no little passion, the editors of the book that emerged from that conference, Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, urged those ethnographers writing on black communities to remember that each had its own customary ways, which could be reported on in such a way that comparative analyses might be carried out. …