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Out of Africa

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge
By Jerry Gershenhorn
(University of Nevada Press, 338 pp., $65) 

Melville J. Herskovits is best known today for his book The Myth of the Negro Past, which appeared in 1941, and argued that one could find among American Negroes "survivals" or "retentions" of their original African background. It was generally assumed at the time that all African cultural characteristics had been burned away by the fire of slavery. And so Herskovits's thesis was controversial then, and it is controversial today, despite Jerry Gershenhorn's effort to assimilate it to more recent notions such as the "black power" of the 1960s and the "multiculturalism" of the 1990s. But Herskovits was certainly a major figure in his time, involved in significant controversies over the natureof American black identity in the prewar years and writing voluminously on Dahomey (now Benin) and various groups of diaspora blacks in the New World.

Herskovits was also the chief figure in establishing African studies as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry in American universities in the postwar years. At Northwestern, which gave him his first regular academic post in 1927, and where he spent the rest of his career until his death in 1963, he created the first important center for African studies in the United States. He established the African Studies Association, and just a few months before his death he gave a plenary address at the First International Congress of Africanists in Ghana. One wonders whether a white (and Jewish) anthropologist could fill such a role today.

His scholarly career bridged two very different periods in the social sciences--an earlier era that we can scarcely envisage now, in which racist assumptions were dominant and respectable; and then the transformed academic world of today, in which black scholars dominate the studyof American blacks and of Africa. One is plunged by this biography into a world that is fascinating and strange, in which there were very few Jewish scholars in American universities, in which it was assumed that anti-Semitism would block an academic career, and in which the fight against racism among scholars was a major task.

Herskovits was born in 1895 in a small town in Ohio, into a family of Central European Jewish immigrants. Gershenhorn calls them "assimilated," and notes that the family "celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays." "The Jew has everywhere taken on the color of the culture in which he lives," Herskovits wrote in 1927, "and far from identifying himself with his own typical culture (whatever there may be ofit), he usually tries to become as completely acculturated as possible to the culture in which he finds himself." The article in which this observation appeared had been turned down by the Menorah Journal (we learn this from an earlier account of Herskovits's life and accomplishments by Walter Jackson) and was published in V.F. Calverton's radical Modern Quarterly. But Herskovits had not been fully divorced from his Jewishness: he attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati for a while, with the thought of becoming a Reform rabbi.

In World War I he enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, then returned to the University of Chicago, and after graduation he moved to New York. He had become committed to the labor movement, to socialism, and to modernism in thought. In New York he attended the newly established and progressive New School, and then Columbia University, where he wrote a master's thesis in political science defending persecuted trade unionists. Gershenhorn offers no reasons why Herskovits then decided to become a student of Franz Boas, a dominant figure in American anthropology. Ruth Benedict had followed the same trajectory, from the New School to Boas's classes; Margaret Mead and A. Irving Hallowell were fellow students. Boas was perhaps the most influential anthropologist in the United States, and his students--A.L. Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, Alexander Goldenweiser, Paul Radin, and many others--were fanning out, from Berkeley to Yale, to shape American anthropology. (I studied anthropology with Hallowell and linguistics with Zellig Harris, a student of Sapir's, so the Boas influence can be said to have descended also to me.)

It was a glorious moment for anthropology. Boas, educated as a mathematician and scientist in Germany, left his native country--some biographical accounts say it was because of anti-Semitism--and established himself, surprisingly, at Columbia. The cultures and the languagesof the varied American Indian tribes were then rapidly disappearing, and Boas saw it as his task to record the knowledge of these cultures and languages before they were gone. He dispatched his students to live and to work among the surviving Indians, and he was in large measure responsible for shifting anthropology from a library study of travelers' and missionaries' reports to a methodical discipline based on direct experience of the lives of preliterate peoples. It was a time when money for this kind of research was scarce, when the only foundations that supported research were the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, but Boas worked tirelessly to find research money for his students--much of it from a private patron, the anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons--and to establish them academically. This was no easy task, since so many of his students were Jews and women (some both), and the American academy was not friendly to either. Despite all these difficulties, there was great work to be done in anthropology in the days before preliterate and non-Western societies had been drastically transformed by contact with Western expansion--political, military, economic, and cultural. 

Another task to which Boas and his students were devoted was the fight against the racist orientations in the social sciences of the day, the ordering of races on the basis of their physical characteristics, and the assumption that this ordering, based on inherent and unchanging biological qualities, determined intelligence and culture. When Herskovits began to study with Boas, the restrictive legislation that banned Asian immigration and sharply reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe was coming into effect, and the Ku Klux Klan was a major force in American politics. Clark Wissler of the American Museum of Natural History, a major anthropologist of the time, and Robert Yerkes, the Yale psychologist who managed the Army's intelligence tests in World War I, were members of the eugenicist Galton Society, along with Madison Grant, author the racist best-seller The Passing of a Great Race. Wissler and Yerkes were also influential members of the Committee on Scientific Problems of Human Migrations of the National Research Council (established during the war to assist the government with scientific knowledge). This committee, Gershenhorn writes, was "formed in 1922 to finance anthropometric studies of race that would promote immigration restriction." It was this committee to which Boas had to look for research support for his students.

Racist interpretations in social science loomed particularly large because the huge database of intelligence tests of young men drafted for World War I showed a regular order from the favored "Nordics" at the top to blacks at the bottom, and this was taken as direct evidence that race determined intelligence. To counter the arguments for the racial inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans, Boas had earlier conducted a famous study of head shape (a principal measure at the time in differentiating what were considered different major races) in Italian immigrants and their children, and showed that this measure, assumed to be fixed biologically from generation to generation, changed from parents to children in the American environment. Gershenhorn reports that many years later another look at Boas's data revealed "observer discrepancies"; perhaps head shape did not change as much as Boas thought. But no matter: at the time, and for decades thereafter, this study was seen as a major setback for racist social science.

Boas, and Herskovits with him, believed that studies of the physical anthropology of the American Negro would undermine the racist assumption of Negro inferiority. They also believed that racist social scientists would support anthropometric studies. If that was where the money was, that was where they would go. Boas managed to secure financing for Herskovits for a three-year study of American blacks. In those distant days, before we knew anything about differentiating people by heredity using blood types, and before the discovery of DNA, physical measurement of body shape and skin color was the favored scientific approach to determining affiliation to a racial stock. Herskovits measured blacks in Harlem, at Howard University, and elsewhere. He used no fewer than thirty different measurements, which today read like high comedy ("nose height," "nose width," "nose depth," "distance from crease to tip of nose," and so on). More helpfully, he also recorded genealogies from his subjects. What the initial hypotheses to be tested by all these measurements were is not really clear from Gershenhorn's account, but Herskovits in the end concluded from his measurements and his genealogies that there was a great deal of mixture of white in the Negro population and a great deal of variation within the Negro population. He published his findings in The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing in 1928, and in a more technical account, The Anthropometry of the Negro, in 1930.

Did this undermine racism? Gershenhorn's efforts to explain how it did verge on incoherence: "If race was defined as a group with similar physical traits and if a group that was proven to be of mixed racial origin demonstrated physical homogeneity, then racial categories (defined in biological terms) were rendered meaningless." Or: "In the context of racist views of mulatto infertility or biological degeneracy ...Herskovits' characterization of African Americans as a distinct or homogenous population group or type represented an anti-racist position....Herskovits' findings that most black Americans had a mixed racial heritage and constituted a stable physical type--one with low physical variability--refuted the racist position." Or again: "Any assumptions of racial inferiority would be undermined because generalizations about a group of people with diverse heritage would lack validity."

Well, it is not easy to think one's way back into the logic of the arguments of another era, a logic that may not be either attractive or plausible to a later age, and Gershenhorn is not very good at helping us do so. Otto Klineberg and Margaret Mead, for whom Boas got money at the same time from the same committee to study Negro intelligence and Samoan adolescents, had rather better projects. We can still understand and make sense of what they discovered, and why it could undermine racist assumptions of group inferiority. (As the Boas students spread out for their research assignments, Herskovits was unable to sublet his friend Margaret Mead's apartment in Manhattan because the landlord did not rent to Jews.) The publication of The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing did not convince racist social scientists that anything significant or substantive enough to undermine their position had been established. W.E.B. DuBois was extravagant in his praise, but Carter Woodson, the eminent black historian, attacked the use of anthropometry, or physical measurements, to distinguish the races. The very method, he contended, gave support to racism. "Differences in progress," he wrote, "[are] due to environment and opportunity." Boas and Herskovits would have agreed, but they had somewhat unthinkingly followed a traditional approach that could not at the time undermine racist assumptions, which was their principal objective. They could prove that no race was pure, but this did not overthrow racism.

Why Herskovits moved from this kind of work to the more fruitful study of the black diaspora in the New World and its origins in Africa, and how he developed an increasing conviction that African culture had in various ways shaped and been retained in American Negro life, is not clear from Gershenhorn's account. Gershenhorn places this next and major phase of Herskovits's career in the context of the prevalent debate about American identity, and how it was influenced by the huge immigrant waves that were coming to an end in the 1920s. The issue could be phrased in terms of the conflict between the desirability of assimilation or Americanization versus the maintenance of particularist group identity. This latter was given its most effective formulation by the philosopher Horace Kallen, who argued for "cultural pluralism" and the value of immigrant cultures, for the immigrants themselves and for American life. Herskovits knew Kallen at the New School. At the same time John Dewey and Jane Addams were also defending pluralism and distinctive immigrant culture; it was then a new and radical position to argue that these cultures could influence American culture to its benefit, just as American culture influenced the immigrant. 

Where did the American Negro fall in this debate, and where did Herskovits stand? Initially, he stood at the assimilationist end; recall his comments on Jewishness. Africans had become assimilated, and he saw no reason why this was not a salutary development. In this view he was allied with prominent black intellectuals who asserted that the American Negro was an American, forged in America--that the American Negro was indeed the American, connected to no remembered or meaningful past in the Old World, as even the Americans of highest prestige, those of English origin, were. On the other hand, there were those who argued that a distinctive black culture had been created on these shores, that what had happened to blacks was very different from what had happened to immigrants and to the cultures that Kallen wished to preserve. It was true that blacks, in contrast to European and Asian immigrants, had no serious connection with Africa, their continent of origin; but in the harsh circumstances of American slavery, the anti-assimilationists believed, something new and different and valuable had been created.

There is a subtle and complex interplay between these concepts of assimilation and particularism. They come in both crude and sophisticated forms. There was Marcus Garvey's "back to Africa" movement; but there were also the sentiments of identity of the Harlem Renaissance.Gershenhorn writes that "Herskovits began to feel a dissonance between his assimilationism and the embrace of cultural pluralism by many ofhis intellectual friends, including the Harlem Renaissance writers." Alain Locke, the philosopher from Howard, was particularly influential here.James Weldon Johnson directed Herskovits's attention to a possible African influence on the songs of black Americans. A German musicologist named Erich von Hornbostel entered into a long correspondence with Herskovits on a connection between African and African American "motor behavior." Herskovits told Hornbostel about his assistant Zora Neale Hurston and her "distinctive speech, singing, and motor behavior."

So was there, after all, a memory of Africa incorporated in current African American culture and behavior? Herskovits decided he would have to study those black diaspora communities in the New World that could be presumed to be closer to Africa, and which might have retained more in the way of African influence than the black communities in the United States. Beginning in 1928, and using his summers and leaves from teaching at Northwestern, he and his wife Frances conducted research in Suriname among the "Maroons," black communities in the interior created by escaped slaves; in West Africa (the Gold Coast, Nigeria, and in particular Dahomey); in Haiti; in Trinidad; in Bahia, Brazil.Herskovits became America's leading white authority on Africa and on black diaspora communities.

In the 1930s the Carnegie Corporation began to consider a major research study on American Negroes. Herskovits was approached about conducting it, but he had a reputation for difficulty, and in the end the corporation chose the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, who eventually produced the monumental An American Dilemma. Herskovits may have played a role in the decision to select Myrdal when he insisted to the Carnegie Corporation that the director of the study, if he was not to be an American, should come from a country without colonies. One aspect of this large study was to commission a number of initial monographs to guide Myrdal. Herskovits was commissioned to write one of these (and so was Ralph Bunche, a student of Herskovits). This provided the occasion for Herskovits to pull together his years ofstudy of African diasporas in the New World and their presumed African homelands, and with great alacrity he wrote the book with which he would be most closely identified, The Myth of the Negro Past. Different as it was from his anthropometry-based The American Negro, it nonetheless leaves us with the same ambiguity about its possible impact on racism and racist thinking, and its value in improving the positionof the American Negro in American thought and consciousness, which was one of Herskovits's principal objectives. Herskovits thought it helped. Others, including leading black intellectuals, were not so sure.

What did it profit the American Negro to be more closely identified with Africa? And what was Africa in the American mind? Herskovits knew that there had been large organized black states in Africa; that there were complex cultures there, and magnificent art, and fully developed religious orientations--but Americans in general did not know this, nor could they see the complexity and the richness of preliterate cultures in the manner of an anthropologist. Myrdal certainly was unconvinced. (He was quoted by Ralph Bunche as saying that "Mel Herskovits is rather crazy at present. He sees everything in the light of African inheritance.") Black scholars were divided. DuBois and Woodson praised Herskovits's effort. E. Franklin Frazier attacked it. Having recently published his magnum opus, The Negro Family in the United States, Frazier saw nothing of African survival or retention in the black American family. He also feared that the Africanist thesis would give support to black nationalists and white racists. For Frazier, as for many black scholars and intellectuals, Negroes wanted to be Americans, fully accepted as such, and nothing more.

And yet Herskovits's book remains in print more than sixty years after its publication. It presents an approach to black difference that Afrocentrists can seize upon, though the major thrust of multiculturalism is quite different. For multiculturalism generally, the black difference has been made in America, and it owes little to presumed African origins. In any event, Herskovits had been established as America's leading authority on black diasporas and on Africa. He was also, with less justification, considered a leading authority on American blacks, and involved in all the major projects to study American blacks. In one such project, to create an "Encyclopedia of the Negro," an enterprise close to DuBois's heart, Herskovits played a somewhat underhanded role in undermining it. 

In the postwar world, with African colonies becoming independent, Herskovits's advice was regularly sought out by foundations, and he became something of a gatekeeper for research on Africa. Black scholars of today do not look kindly on a white man who was more influential with foundations and government than contemporary black scholars of equal or greater worth, and this part of Herskovits's story is fully laid out by Gershenhorn. Herskovits was a critic of colonialism, one who supported self-determination for the African colonies and argued against viewing American interest in these new states only from the point of view of the American stake in the Cold War. He died shortly after the explosion of independence for African colonies, and long before anyone could judge what the effect of independence would be for them.

Gershenhorn has produced a full account of his fascinating subject, based on rich archival material, but his book is pedestrian in writing and conception. Walter Jackson's briefer study, which appeared in 1986, is in many respects preferable, especially about the intellectual contextof the times. There is much in Herskovits's career that remains of great interest when one considers African American culture today. His search for African survivals and retentions had to be in the nature of the case speculative rather than determinative, but it led him to record in great detail the actual surviving cultures of diaspora communities and the African areas from which they had come, at a time when these realities were changing rapidly. One wonders if he could have envisaged before his death what Africa became to African Americans: a matter for recovery rather than retention. If we see African clothing, African elements in popular and classical music, African art themes, and holidays with African names among African Americans today, this is not because of any direct memory of or continuity with Africa, but because African Americans are creating a culture, and they wish to include African elements within it. This is an affair of choice, not of authenticity.

One is led to think again of the whole Boasian project and its fate. Having recorded Indian languages as spoken by their last native speakers, American anthropologists were astonished to discover in recent decades that their work had become the texts for American Indians who wanted to recover their lost languages and customs. The record preserved by anthropologists permitted them to recover, to some degree, custom and language. Cultures are not only inherited; they are also constructed. Even when we do not directly receive the beliefs and the practices of our ancestors, we may elect to recover them and even to practice them.

This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.