Segments in this Video

Herskovits, a Social Paradox (02:52)


Melville J. Herskovits demonstrates that African Americans are connected to Africans; he mainstreams ideas of African culture. We hear an audio recording of Herskovits asking, "What is a Negro?"

Finding a Place in America (02:56)

Photographs reveal Melville J. Herskovits, at the age of 15, following Pancho Villa. Anthropology helps one better understand cultural and racial difference; second generation immigrants struggle with identifying their place.

Looking for Social Justice (02:22)

Melville J. Herskovits is compelled by the life of the mind; he is a passionate idealist. Herskovits becomes an Army medic, his diary reveals his experience. Jean Herskovits recalls the only statement her father made about religion.

Cult Consciousness (01:33)

Jewish Americans and African Americans view the idea of belonging in a similar manner. One of the most anti-Semitic periods of history occurs from 1915-1935.

Melville J. Herskovits, a Young Radical (02:41)

Herskovits enters Columbia University and meets Franz Boas. During the 19th century, race is the central concept of anthropology; a physical difference from White European descent means an inferior race.

Undermining the Race Concept (03:21)

Melville J. Herskovits uses the techniques of physical anthropology to prove that biological inheritance does not determine cultural behavior. Experts discuss their experiences with racial identification.

Understanding Cultures From the Inside (01:56)

Melville J. Herskovits looks for behavior in cultural practice. African American culture in New York influences Herskovits' ideas. During the Harlem Renaissance, scholars believe assimilation will lessen discrimination.

Fascinated With Cultural Phenomena (03:28)

We see clips from Melville J. Herskovits' field footage 1928-34. In 1931, he makes his first trip to West Africa. American culture views Africa as uncivilized and unchanging. Herskovits builds an archive of ethnographic evidence.

Cultural Relativism (02:14)

Much of Melville J. Herskovits' field work relies on informants. He meets Francis Shapiro in New York; she becomes his major collaborator. Shapiro believes visual images of past African empires will improve the self-image of Blacks.

Formal Cultural Connections (02:24)

Melville J. Herskovits sees correspondences between the folklore and music. He uses audio and video images to compare cultural practices and behavior of movement. He believes African Americans are carriers of their culture.

Herskovits' Reign (02:38)

At Northwestern, Melville J. Herskovits establishes the first African studies center in the United States. Johnnetta Cole recalls thinking that it sometimes appeared Herskovits viewed Africa as his.

Authority is the Voice of the Universe (04:22)

Drawing attention to ones' identity undermines authority. Melville J. Herskovits sometimes has a complicated relationship with Black scholars, including W. B. Dubois. Herskovits tries to undercut Dubois' encyclopedia project.

Teaching Another Culture (01:18)

Mae Ngai and Jean Herskovits discuss the perception of one's race and the knowledge of other cultures.

Researching Race In America (02:44)

Experts are not eager to fund Black scholars. In the 1930s, philanthropists are interested in studying African Americans to stop possible violence. Experts discuss the Carnegie study and "The Myth of the Negro Past."

Debate Over African Culture (03:29)

Some African American elites resist the idea that their culture has roots in Africa. E. Franklin Frazier attacks Melville J. Herskovits' work. Frazier and Herskovits clash over African families and crime.

Agitating Colonial Rule (02:36)

In 1933, American Jews carefully watch Germany. Independence movements increase after WWII. Melville J. Herskovits establishes the first African studies program and makes contact with African heads of state.

Decolonization of Africa (02:47)

Melville J. Herskovits takes advantage of Cold War funding for area studies. Herskovits supports decolonization in Africa. President Kennedy considers him as the new head of the Bureau of African Affairs.

A Major Force No Longer on Earth (01:30)

Johnnetta Cole recalls the death of Melville J. Herskovits. Jean Herskovits recalls the impact of her father's death on her mother.

Racism, an Intractable Problem? (02:24)

We see footage of protesters in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Black militants use Melville J. Herskovits' "The Myth of the Negro Past" to provoke agitation.

Race in Anthropology (03:09)

In 1969, Black activists challenge the African Studies Association; they demand to be participants on the board.

Legitimizing Ideas (01:28)

Experts discuss projecting reality onto a culture because of personal ideas. Johnnetta Cole believes the real question is, "Who has access to understanding and explaining a people, and to what use?"

Credits: Herskovits at the Heart Of Blackness (02:13)

Credits: Herskovits at the Heart Of Blackness

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Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

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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? Is there a politics of knowledge? This program examines these questions through a look at the career of pioneering anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits. A son of Jewish immigrants, Herskovits played a decisive role in shaping modern African-American identities. He established the first African Studies Center at an American university and authored the seminal Myth of the Negro Past, yet much of his work was criticized by blacks and whites alike. This documentary traces Herskovits’s development as a scholar of the shared African-American and Jewish experiences of oppression to his establishment as one of the most controversial intellectuals of the 20th century. (57 minutes)

Length: 57 minutes

Item#: BVL49778

Copyright date: ©2009

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

2009 John O’Connor Film Award of the American Historical Association             


Best Documentary, Hollywood Black Film Festival     


“This very intelligent film provides a biography of one of the giants of early anthropology but, more, conveys important information about race and anthropology while raising enduring questions about the politics of race and the politics of knowledge.”  Anthropology Review Database

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