In 1927, when Melville Jean Herskovits became Northwestern University's first anthropologist, there wasn't much scholarly interest in the African roots of black American culture. The few people thinking about it assumed those roots had been lost when Africans were ripped from their homelands and sold into slavery. As W.E.B. DuBois noted, the prevailing opinion early in this century held that "the Negro has no history."
Herskovits thought otherwise. His mentor, Franz Boas, had taught him that culture was learned behavior that evolved and persevered. Herskovits made it his life's work to demonstrate how African culture, in spite of unprecedented efforts to eradicate it, survived in the lives of African-Americans.
Born in Ohio in 1895 (to a woman who had just read Moby-Dick), Herskovits was a rabbinical school dropout who began studying history when he was stranded in France after serving in World War I. He got an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, then went to Columbia University, where he fell under the spell of Boas, the nation's preeminent anthropologist. While Herskovits was at Columbia he also met Frances Shapiro, who would be his lifelong collaborator; they married in 1924.
Boas's ideas ran counter to established theories that posited a racial (or genetic) basis for cultural differences. He had been studying Native Americans and inspired his students (including Margaret Mead) to look for other cultures where they might put his theories and methods to work. Herskovits wrote a dissertation on East Africa but couldn't obtain the funding needed to travel there. He conducted physical anthropology research at Howard University that had him measuring heads but quickly became interested in the broader subject of cultural connections between African-Americans and Africa.
Over the next 15 years he and Frances traveled, conducted field research, and wrote together, producing a body of work that traced the survival of African culture in Suriname, Haiti, Trinidad, Brazil, and the United States. Their collaborative efforts also produced a daughter, Jean Frances, born in 1935 and promptly integrated into their fieldwork team. Now a professor of history at the State University of New York at Purchase, Jean remembers her parents' persistence in the field, citing as an example a trip to Brazil. "We got there in September '41, and of course Pearl Harbor was in December. In Rio, before we ever got to Bahia, my father had his first heart attack. He was only 46. They went ahead anyway. Those were not days when you could get grants so easily that you just threw it all over and went home."
Originally hired by the sociology department, Herskovits struggled and thrived at Northwestern. He founded the school's department of anthropology in 1938 and its African studies program ten years later. The extensive library of African studies at Northwestern is named for him. But his work elicited its share of controversy. According to his daughter, his most influential book, The Myth of the Negro Past, was not universally well received by black scholars when it was published in 1941. Jean Herskovits says Howard University professor E. Franklin Frazier and others doubted the strong African cultural connection her father had described. Jane Guyer, current director of Northwestern's African studies program, explains, "For 25 years after the publication of The Myth of the Negro Past, the popular ideal was the cultural melting pot. Activists were more interested in achieving political and social equality than in addressing cultural differences."
Jean followed her parents into African studies. By the 1960s, a few years after her father died, she was teaching African history at City College in Harlem. "I was really touched to see that a number of the black students at that time were carrying around copies of The Myth of the Negro Past. I wasn't assigning it--no one was as far as I know--but there it was. I just wished that my father could have seen that the work he did was being appreciated in that way.
"Now," she adds, the once controversial thesis of that book is so widely accepted "it's a cliche."
"Living Tradition in Africa & the Americas" celebrates the 50th anniversary of Northwestern University's African studies program. It includes photographs, films, and recordings made by the Herskovitses during their fieldwork, and items from their collection of art and artifacts. The show continues through August 9 at the university's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 1967 South Campus Drive in Evanston. It's free. Call 847-491-4001.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frances and Melville Herskovits archival photo uncredited; Rebel Destiny book cover.