The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Jewish Professor, Black Culture

Jewish Professor, Black Culture

About five years ago, Vincent Brown, a historian at Harvard, had to teach a seminar on the birth of black studies. Though the discipline has flourished since the 1960s, its origins were not well known, so Brown, an iPod-generation professor, thought a documentary on the topic might help. He was an amateur filmmaker himself, deft with a Camcorder, and figured he might try to make one on his own.

He knew he had some good material: in the 1920s, a young Jewish anthropologist named Melville Herskovits embarks on an expedition to Africa and finds striking similarities between the black cultures there and in America. The book he ends up writing, “The Myth of the Negro Past,” published in 1941, becomes legend, rocketing him to the peak of academic success, all the while debunking the long-held belief that black Americans had no ties to their ancestral past.

Herskovits “was one of the most important people you’ve never heard of,” Brown said in an interview from Cambridge, Mass. “But when it comes to the topic of African-American cultural history, he’s at the center of the debate.”

Herskovits’ idea — that African culture was not lost when blacks were taken as slaves to America — would have profound ramifications. Some leading black scholars in the 1930s and ’40s feared that the idea would be used to justify segregation. After all, it could be viewed as fodder for the segregationist claim that black culture was hopelessly at odds with white mores, thus necessitating a barrier.

Moreover, Herskovits’ students at Northwestern, where he taught for nearly four decades and established its African Studies Center, the first at a major American university, were often suspicious. “Professor Herskovits seemed to think sometimes that he owned Africa,” Johnnetta Cole, a former student of Herskovits, says in a new documentary about Herskovits. Titled “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness,” the film will have its premiere on PBS on Feb. 2, at 10:30 p.m.

In the end, Brown decided to ask a pair of highly regarded filmmakers — Llewellyn Smith and Christine Herbes-Sommers — for help. When he approached Smith and Herbes-Sommers with the idea, they knew they had a good story to work with. In addition, they had already collaborated on several Peabody- and Emmy-winning documentaries about race, most recently the 2008 film “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”

In a conference call from Boston, Smith and Herbes-Sommers said that Herskovits’ story was timely, too: “You could see that the issues are fairly current and contemporary,” Smith said, noting the election of a black president and the subsequent questions about race it has raised. Herbes-Sommers added that Herskovits’ personal conflicts were ripe narrative grist as well: “Those conflicts were intriguing for us to use,” she said.

One of them was Herskovits’ relationship to his own Jewish identity. He was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1895, to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Though not raised religious, his parents observed the major holidays and, in his teenage years, he even considered becoming a rabbi. “He clearly deeply identified with being Jewish,” Smith said. But after serving in the First World War, then finishing college at the University of Chicago, he decided to enter academia.

He became a graduate student of Franz Boas, the pioneer of modern anthropology then teaching at Columbia who, like Herskovits, was a secular Jew. At the time, Boas was revolutionizing the field of anthropology. He turned it away from a pseudo-science whose foundation lay in race and the assumption that social groups were unchangeable. Instead, he studied groups through the lens of culture, emphasizing a society’s learned behaviors that were always subject to change.

Herskovits took these ideas further, not only applying them to black culture, but also championing the idea of cultural relativism: that cultures should be understood on their own terms and not be viewed as part of any hierarchy of civilizations, where white ones are presumed to be more enlightened than others. Despite the novelty of his ideas, however, many universities would not hire him. “A lot of people said it was because of anti-Semitism,” said Jerry Gershenhorn, a professor at North Carolina Central University featured in the film, and author of “Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge” (2004).

A telling scene in the film reflects Herskovits’ ambivalence towards his faith. His daughter, Jean Herskovits Corry, now a historian of Africa, relates a story her father once told her about his decision to forgo a career in the rabbinate, after already enrolling at the Hebrew Union College seminary, in Ohio. One day, she recalls, Herskovits and God had a conversation about the nature of faith and reached an impasse. Irresolvable, they agreed to part ways, and ever since the two could not have been happier.

Herskovits showed shades of ambivalence towards secular Jewish culture, too. He wrote a few mostly forgotten essays that denied any uniqueness to Jewish culture, a position that seemed at odds with his views on black culture. “It’s more than an irony; it’s a real internal irony,” Herbes-Sommers said.

Scholars disagree among themselves about why he downplayed Jewish cultural difference. Some argue that it was a latent form of self-hatred, while other say it was meant to defend against anti-Semitic claims that he was an ethnic chauvinist. As Gelya Frank, a scholar at the University of Southern California and author of a paper on Herskovits’ Jewish identity, wrote in an e-mail: “I believe that his insistence that Jews did not have any defining characteristics was more or less a contrarian’s rhetorical stance that he adopted to stymie any would-be anti-Semitic arguments.”

Whatever the case, Herskovits’ commitment to justice did not waver. During the Second World War, he fought hard to get Jewish scholars out of Europe. The rise of Nazism also deepened his mistrust of race as a credible scholarly pursuit. And his entire career could be seen as driven by moral convictions learned from Jewish ideals, the filmmakers say. “The justice that he came to do for black Americans is an expression of his Jewishness,” Smith said.

Herskovits’ struggle with his Jewishness is given a significant airing in the film. But Smith and Herbes-Sommers said that they had to cut more than they would have liked from footage related to that struggle in order to make room for the black-white conflicts. Throughout the film, Herskovits is shown perpetually in conflict with one or another black scholar. His main intellectual adversary at the time was Franklin Frazier, a black sociologist who argued that any unique characteristics found among African Americans were caused by racial oppression. Crime, broken families, drug abuse: all were symptoms of a racist white culture.

Herskovits disagreed. He was careful not to make any connection between African cultures and the uglier aspects of black society in America. But he still showed how certain “Africanisms” — dances, songs, religious practices, farming methods — could be found on both sides of the Atlantic. All the while he maintained a public air of political indifference, contending that his was a scholarly pursuit, objective to the core. Even today, Brown said, “there will always be a week on the Frazier-Herskovits” debate taught in black studies seminars.

Herskovits’ indifferent attitude towards politics also led him to secretly sabotage the work of ostensible cohorts like W.E.B. DuBois, one of the few black scholars tolerated by whites at the time. DuBois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, and later became a co-founder of the NAACP. But his blend of scholarship and activism was an anathema to Herskovits, compelling Herskovits to prevent funding for one of DuBois’ greatest hopes, the creation of a “Black Encyclopedia.”

DuBois did not know about Herskovits’ scheming, and though he never lived to see the encyclopedia created, later scholars would take up his mission. In 1999, more than three decades after Herskovits’ death in 1963, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton with African roots, and Henry Louis Gates, the African American Harvard scholar (and recently of Obama “beer summit” fame), published “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.”

In the film, it is clear that Herskovits always knew his work could have a profound, (he hoped positive), influence on America’s racial problems. In any event, as his scholarly renown increased he gradually eased his opposition to politics, and even applied for a job in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. His application was denied, however, because of his affiliation with liberal groups, which, during the McCarthy era, were deemed too Communist-friendly.

While his work is still championed by black intellectuals today — Brown and Smith, for instance — the film points out that other black groups would later use Herskovits’ ideas to for their own more overtly political, even militant causes. The Black Power movement made Herskovits’ “The Myth of the Negro Past” a canonical text, a fact the filmmakers hope will highlight the ever-present potential for scholarship to become politicized. Whether that is the price of academic freedom, or whether, in fact, scholarship has always been politicized is another question. And it’s one Brown seemed happy to invite: “That’s one of the things that makes Herskovits so interesting,” he said. “People are still debating what he said.”

“Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness” will air on PBS on Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 10:30 p.m. The documentary will be repeated throughout next week. Visit for details.

read more: