Richard Lee: The Politics, Art and Science of Anthropology

By Gailey, Christine Ward | Anthropologica, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Richard Lee: The Politics, Art and Science of Anthropology


Gailey, Christine Ward, Anthropologica


Keywords: ethnological theory, foraging societies, political anthropology, primitive communism, Richard Lee, San

No Festschrift is complete without providing readers with a sense of the person and the emergence and development of the themes that occupy the scholar's intellectual life and social and political engagement. With the objective of portraying the person behind the work, politics and scholarship, I arranged a meeting with Richard to record some biographical details. The following is based on our taped exchanges which took place in Riverside California, March 14-15, 2002.

Early Cultural Milieu

Richard Borshay Lee was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 20, 1937. His sister Rhea was 16 years older, born to his mother in her first marriage. Although Rhea married when Richard was only five years old, they have remained close throughout their lives and share a love of Yiddishkeit(1) and Major League Baseball.

Richard's parents were in their thirties at the time he was born. They had met in New York in the 1930s when both were active in left-wing circles. Anne Borshay worked for AMTORG, the Soviet-American trading company; Charles Liberman (later Lee) worked for the Longshoreman's Union as a bookkeeper. In early 1942 they decided to move to Toronto, "where my mother's family had settled after emigrating from Minsk, Russia at the turn of the century."(2) One of his earliest memories was crossing the U.S.-Canadian border in a vintage automobile, driving "to our new life in Canada."

Politics and Culture: Toronto in the 1940s and 1950s

For Lee, being the child of progressives became "the core of my consciousness." In Canada they moved to the edge of a well-to-do Toronto suburb, Forest Hill Village, which later became part of Toronto proper. Richard's father became a CPA and built up a modest practice. Lee went to the local public school, "South Prep," where he became aware that most of his schoolmates' families were far better off than his was:

I had vivid memories of my mother and father saying, "Well, always remember, Richard, the poor, the working people are the salt of the earth, and so you have nothing to be ashamed of or apologize about," and that's the way I grew up...our family culture was classical music and literature while [some of my richer classmates' families] were going on gambling junkets to Havana....

Still, in the late 1940s the institutions of Jewish community life in Toronto were relatively progressive. For several summers Lee went to Camp Northland through the YMHA, where the counselors taught the campers Woody Guthrie and labour songs. The era was, for these 12 and 13 year olds, exciting and full of hope for the future:

The world of fascism had been defeated, the New World was being created, the quarrels of the Cold War hadn't really taken hold, and so there was a lot of optimism and progressive politics among the youth. This contributed to my basically optimistic view that revolution is possible, change is possible, and the condition of oppression under capitalism is not the natural state, not the inevitable state of humankind.

But alongside this enthusiasm, he realized that geopolitical struggles were real and could scar the lives of individuals. He recalls that one wealthy woman who lived in the exclusive Rosedale neighbourhood invited him and his parents to her home to meet Paul Robeson, who made a lasting impression on them. He followed Robeson's

...epic battles with the Immigration and Naturalization Department...we weren't in Vancouver, but we heard about when he came to Blaine, Washington and they wouldn't let him travel out of the U.S. into Canada, and so he stood on the US side at the Peace Arch and gave a concert across the border for several thousand people who had gathered on the Canadian side.

Because of their involvement in progressive causes, the dynamic in his natal family was less transnational than internationalist. …

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