Winner, 2009 John O'Connor Film Award of the American Historical Association
Winner, Best Documentary, Hollywood Black Film Festival
Is there a politics of knowledge? Who controls what knowledge is produced and how it will be used? Is there "objective" scholarship and, if so, how does it become politicized? These questions are examined through this groundbreaking film on the life and career of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), the pioneering American anthropologist of African Studies and one of the most controversial intellectuals of the 20th century. How did this son of Jewish immigrants come to play such a decisive role in the shaping of modern African American and African identities? Herskovits emerges as an iconic figure in on-going debates in the social sciences over the ethics of representation and the right of a people to represent themselves.
This quick-paced, carefully researched documentary traces Herskovits' development as a scholar to the shared African American and Jewish experiences of exile, exclusion and political oppression. Faced with resurgent racism and persistent discrimination in the early 20th century, black and Jewish intellectuals grappled with a common question: could they retain their distinct ethnic identities and still participate as equals in American life? Prominent scholars like Princeton philosopher, K. Anthony Appiah, and Columbia University historian, Mae Ngai, explore this paradox not only in historical and contemporary terms, but through their own experiences as people of color.
Lee D. Baker, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University, locates Herskovits at the heart of a transformation in anthropology which continues to this day. 19th Century anthropology grew out of European colonialism and too often provided a pseudo-scientific justification for its subjugation of non-Western people. Physical anthropologists drew specious correlations between anatomical features and supposed behavioral traits of the various "races."
By the time Herskovits arrived at Columbia University, the Jewish anthropologist, Franz Boas, was revolutionizing the discipline. Boaz used impeccable research to demonstrate that different didn't mean inferior. Herskovits became a vigorous advocate for "cultural relativism," the idea that cultures should be understood from the inside, on their own terms, not the anthropologist's. This provided strong academic backing for the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the day and laid the groundwork for today's critical cultural theory.
In the late 1920's, Herskovits turned his attention to Africa at a time when other white scholars insisted there was nothing to learn there. During field work in Benin, Surinam and Trinidad, he shot thousands of feet of film (some shown in this documentary) revealing undeniable similarities between African and New World planting techniques, dance, music, even everyday gestures. Harvard historian and co-producer, Vincent Brown, explains how this proof of cultural retention across the African Diaspora refuted the common wisdom that all ties to Africa had been lost in the traumatic rupture of the Middle Passage. Johnnetta Cole, President Emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges, current Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and an early student of Herskovits, recalls how empowered she felt by Herskovits' "discoveries," even though black scholars had been writing about these same ideas for decades.
But a number of African American intellectuals like sociologist E. Franklin Frazier openly attacked Herskovits' contentions. They worried if black Americans were seen as distinctively "different" it could provide a further rationale for the segregationist policies they were fighting. For example, if, black, female-headed households were a continuation of African matriarchal tradition, as Herskovits contended, not the result of persistent discrimination and poverty, the struggle for progressive social reforms might be undermined.
North Carolina Central University historian, Jerry Gershenhorn, author of Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge, explains that Herskovits, despite his left-wing sympathies, insisted scholarship should be "objective" and apolitical. He even secretly sabotaged W.E.B. DuBois' life-long project, the Encyclopedia Africana, on the grounds that it would be propagandistic. The film reveals, however, that American anthropology was often entangled with political power. During the Cold War, wealthy foundations and government agencies funded the development of "area studies" to support "anti-insurgency" and neo-colonial "nation-building" strategies in the Third World.
In 1948, Herskovits established the African Studies Center at Northwestern, the first at an American university. And he became openly political, campaigning to head the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs. But he was denied a security clearance on the grounds of membership in 17 "communist front organizations" as defined by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
By the end of his life, Herskovits' own research had become a tool for social movements he could not have anticipated-and might not have welcomed. His daughter, historian Jean Herskovits Corry, recalls how his seminal work, The Myth of the Negro Past, was embraced by the Black Panther Party and Black Nationalist students of the '60s. Ironically, Herskovits may not have understood the scope of his own influence. When he asked the great Martinican poet and philosopher, Aime Cesaire, the meaning of negritude, the world-wide political-literary movement known as the "Great Black Cry," Cesaire replied:"You yourself are one of the fathers of negritude. Read The Myth of The Negro Past!"
The film raises unsettling questions, asking who has the authority to define a culture, especially if people from that culture are denied the opportunity to engage in the scholarly discourse of defining themselves. Vincent Brown provocatively sums up Herskovits as "the Elvis of anthropology," a man who appropriated African culture, but simultaneously mainstreamed its study into the American academe and popular consciousness.
Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness will challenge students to think of "knowledge" as a socio-political construct, shaped by the implicit values and underlying power dynamics of the society in which it is produced. It calls on each viewer to ask "Who controls my cultural identity?" As a result, the film promises to become a core text in Introductory Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology of Knowledge, African Studies, African American Studies, and Race Relations classes.
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