Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Article excerpt

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge. By Jerry Gershenhorn. Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska, 2004. Pp. xvii, 337; 12 illustrations. $65.00/£49.95 cloth.

Gershenhorn presents us with an "intellectual biography" of Herskovits that is "also a study of the intersection of his work with racial politics" (p. 3). This is the first study to encompass Herskovits's entire career, and Gershenhorn uses this full-life perspective insightfully to trace how Herskovits's role in African and African American studies unfolded over rapidly changing times from the 1920s to the 1960s. In his earliest work Herskovits developed the reigning liberal position of the day on race. Posed against conservative and reactionary racist assertions of the incapacity of non-white races, Herskovits exposed empirical faults in racialist thinking, thus challenging claims that African Americans could be set apart. However, inspired in part by his work with Alain Locke's New Negro project, and especially by his fieldwork in South America, the Caribbean, and West Africa, Herskovits then moved to help pioneer a new liberal argument. Myth of the Negro Post (1941) presented the now widely accepted position that Africans in the New World continued to live within African cultural patterns and indeed injected these into American life more widely. Against denials that an African American culture existed, or assertions of its postslavery pathology, Herskovits gave substance to the recognition of the ongoing vitality of African cultural accomplishment not only in Africa, but also in America. Against Herskovits's intentions, however, this finding was used by both black and white segregationists as evidence of enduring African American difference, and some influential black and white liberals criticized him for empowering opponents of their campaign for equal rights. After World War II his promotion of African and African American cultural achievement became more widely appreciated, contributing (Gershenhorn argues) to the black cultural nationalist movement of the 1960s. In the context of African decolonization, Herskovits worked tirelessly to promote respect for Africans by developing African studies programs and founding the African Studies Association, and late in his career as an expert advisor to the American government. A consistent critic of racism and imperialism, he argued largely in vain that American policy and scholarly investigations in Africa should be governed by African needs and the inherent interest of Africa, rather than shaped by Cold War calculation. …

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