Saturday, January 30, 2010

Identity and Academics: Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

It was a life of apparent paradoxes. The Jewish-American anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits was largely responsible for shaping African Studies as a distinct academic field. Though his work would eventually inspire the Black Power movement of the 1970’s, Herskovits vocally opposed the politicization of scholarship. As influential as he was controversial, Herskovits’s career raises many questions of identity and legitimacy explored in Llewellyn Smith’s Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens, following its recent screenings at the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Drawing parallels between his own experiences and those of African Americans, Heart emphasizes Herskovits’s own outsider status growing up Jewish in El Paso, Texas. While he found a somewhat more hospitable environment at Columbia University, he often had to endure his colleagues’ disdain. However, anthropology, his chosen field of study, was experiencing a sea-change, thanks to the work of his mentor Franz Boas, whose famous students also included Margaret Mead and novelist-folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. What had been a discipline dominated by the obsessive measuring of body parts to form rather sweeping race-based generalizations was refocusing on culturally based inquiries, with a pronounced reliance on field work and empirical data. Herskovits would excel in these areas.

This revolution in anthropology is explained quite lucidly in the film, slyly illustrating the point with several of the on-camera commentators posing in scenes of early Twentieth Century anthropologists’ scientistic (and more or less racist) measuring sessions. However, given its relatively short hour-long running time, some episodes of Herskovits’s eventful life seem to get short shrift, particularly his efforts on behalf of European Jewry during WWII.

In truth, Heart seems more interested in the lasting influences and ideological implications of Herskovits’s work, than the actual details of his life. He is credited with popularizing the concept of cultural relativism in academic circles, but as his critics argue, it was a principle he did not apply to National Socialism. His work had the effect of affirming the value of African and African-American cultures, highlighting the obvious (but then controversial) links between the two. Yet, evidently many students and colleagues divined in Herskovits a possessive attitude towards African culture in general and African Studies as an academic field in particular.

Despite the hot-button racial issues under discussion and Herskovits’s own radical political sympathies, Heart is surprisingly restrained. While it presents Herskovits in a political context, it does so matter-of-factly, with very little proselytizing or advocacy, as such. Aside from a few debatable off-hand remarks from its talking heads, most of the film’s more pointed contentions come in critiquing anthropology’s now thoroughly discredited past practices.

A film about early to mid Twentieth Century anthropology might sound dry, but Heart is actually quite intriguing. With a manageably short running time, it never has time to get bogged down in academic minutiae, and makes a good faith effort to avoid ideological bombast. An interesting way to spend an hour, it airs Tuesday (2/2) at 10:30 pm on New York’s Thirteen and Wednesday (2/3) at 7:30 pm on WLIW World.