Herskovits, Melville J.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1895-1963
The American anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits spent his long academic career at Northwestern University, from 1927 until his death in 1963. There he established the first program in African studies at a major U.S. university. Herskovits has been regarded as a pioneer for advocating the serious and respectful study of Africa and the African diaspora. In The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), perhaps his best-known book, he sought to document the strength of an African cultural heritage of which blacks in the United States could be proud; he felt that once this was known and respected, antiblack prejudice would diminish.
Herskovits was born in Ohio to European-Jewish immigrant parents. Briefly a student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he enlisted in the U.S. army during World War I (1914–1918). He later attended Columbia University, where he studied with Franz Boas (1858–1942), who was seen as the “father” of American anthropology. Herskovits did a library doctoral dissertation on the “cattle complex” of East Africa with a focus on culture areas, tracing the diffusion of cultural traits. (The “cattle complex” referred to the cultural meanings, economic functions, and politics associated with cattle in East African cultures.) He then undertook physical anthropological research among African Americans. With his wife and anthropological partner Frances S. Herskovits (1897–1972), he did ethnographic fieldwork in Africa, in Dahomey (1931), and among Afro-American groups in Suriname (1928 and 1929), Haiti (1934), Trinidad (1939), and Brazil (1941–1942), before turning his attention more fully to African societies and politics.
Beginning with his popular and professional writings in the 1920s, Herskovits sought to combat racism and nativism through the use of anthropology conceived of as a science. He furthered Boas’s insistence on the plasticity of “race” by arguing that the “American Negro” was a racially mixed “amalgam” (Herskovits 1928, 1930). When he turned to the cultural anthropology of the African diaspora, Herskovits initially held that African Americans evinced “complete acculturation” to (white) U.S. mainstream culture (Jackson 1986). However, influenced by ethnologists and historians from Latin America and the Caribbean, African American intellectuals, and others, he soon redirected his scholarship to the study of what he called Africanisms, viewed as cultural elements of African provenance (Yelvington 2006). For Herskovits, in the acculturative context of African diaspora in the Americas, where culture contact occurred between African, European, Amerindian, and other cultures, Africanisms shaped the behavioral responses of what he called the “Negro in the New World,” and were even to be found among whites and other groups (e.g., in cuisine and speech in the U.S. South). Africanisms, which could sometimes be identified by African ethnic origin, were conceived as cultural baselines, and they were thought to vary in intensity across the region and across cultural forms such as kinship, language, dance, and games— indeed, they could be charted on a “scale of intensity” continuum. They were found in folklore, but they were believed to be especially strong in religion (Baron 1994). In Suriname Folk-Lore (1936) the Herskovitses sought to demonstrate “correspondences” between Creole tales and tales of Old World origin; their work in Dahomey (Herskovits 1938a; Herskovits and Herskovits 1958) was concerned with the performance of narratives, creative expression, and the role of proverbs and riddles in enculturation, as well as with religion. In the 1930s Herskovits became interested in acculturation, or culture contact and culture change (Herskovits 1938b). In Life in a Haitian Valley (Herskovits 1937) he combined this interest with psychology, and introduced the idea of socialized ambivalence to describe what he saw as the conflictridden personalities that were the result of a dual cultural legacy. Syncretism, or the merging of two belief systems that still retain their identities, became important in Herskovits’s conceptual lexicon at this time. These concepts were brought together in The Myth of the Negro Past (1941). With Trinidad Village (Herskovits and Herskovits 1947), the concept of reinterpretation was used to designate how Afro-Americans retained “inner” behavior while giving new meaning to acquired cultural forms (Baron 2003). Herskovits’s promotion of cultural relativism and his mature ideas of cultural dynamics were elaborated most fully in Man and His Works (1948).
Herskovits was criticized by some such as Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987), main author of the landmark An American Dilemma (1944), and African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962) who, while joining with Herskovits’s goal of eliminating racism, could not agree with his theoretical stance.
Herskovits garnered an international reputation within the disciplines of anthropology and African diaspora studies, holding many positions of influence (Gershenhorn 2004) and publishing more than 400 books and scientific papers (Merriam 1964). Meanwhile, he trained a cadre of doctoral students at Northwestern University. His writings have inspired cultural and identity politics. All of which means that Herskovits’s work remains controversially relevant.
SEE ALSO Anthropology, U.S.; Boas, Franz
Herskovits, Melville J. 1928. The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1937. Life in a Haitian Valley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1938a. Dahomey, An Ancient West African Kingdom. New York: J. J. Augustin.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1938b. Acculturation: The Study of Culture Contact. New York: J. J. Augustin.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1941. The Myth of the Negro Past. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Herskovits, Melville J. 1948. Man and His Works: The Science of Cultural Anthropology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Herskovits, Melville J., and Frances S. Herskovits. 1936. Suriname Folk-Lore. New York: Columbia University Press.
Herskovits, Melville J., and Frances S. Herskovits. 1947. Trinidad Village. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Herskovits, Melville J., and Frances S. Herskovits. 1958. Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Baron, Robert. 1994. Africa in the Americas: Melville J. Herskovits’ Folkloristic and Anthropological Scholarship, 1923–1941. PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania.
Baron, Robert. 2003. Amalgams and Mosaics, Syncretisms and Reinterpretations: Reading Herskovits and Contemporary Creolists for Metaphors of Creolization. Journal of American Folklore 116 (459): 88–115.
Gershenhorn, Jerry. 2004. Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Jackson, Walter A. 1986. Melville Herskovits and the Search for Afro-American Culture. In Malinowski, Rivers, Benedict, and Others: Essays on Culture and Personality, ed. George W. Stocking, Jr., 95–126. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Merriam, Alan P. 1964. Melville Jean Herskovits, 1895–1963. American Anthropologist 66 (1): 83–109.
Myrdal, Gunnar. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Yelvington, Kevin A. 2006. The Invention of Africa in Latin America and the Caribbean: Political Discourse and Anthropological Praxis, 1920–1940. In Afro-Atlantic Dialogues: Anthropology in the Diaspora, ed. Kevin A. Yelvington, 35–82. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press.
Kevin A. Yelvington