Talking About our Selves

Melville FrancesIn a recent article about the anthropologist of the African Diaspora Melville J. Herskovits, Forward Arts and Culture Editor Dan Friedman writes:

Since he (Herskovitz) made it, his case that African-American culture was its own vibrant form of North American culture with crucial African aspects that had survived the traumas and dislocations of the Middle Passage has never seriously been questioned.
And yet he was a white man, who had largely shelved his Jewishness and his politics in order to have access and to set up institutions to study race in America…Brown, whose research underpins this documentary, asks, “Does the right to describe and define a people give you power over that people?”

Perhaps, and it also gives you power over yourself. Herskovits’ biography and ideas must be seen within the context of Jewish culture in the first half of the 20th century. The opposite context is fooled by a claim that Herskovitz was “shelving his Jewishness and his politics in order to have access and to set up the institutions to study race in America.” Fooled, we accept the assumption that Herskovits did actively shelve his Jewishness. However, Herskovits was born a Jew, thought about becoming a rabbi before a loss of faith as a medic in World War One, married a Jewish woman with whom he conducted research, and had Jewish children. His ideas about Diasporic Blackness were his own perception of Jewish culture in reverse. Herskovits didn’t believe there was such a thing as “Jewish culture.” This is a striking idea for a Jewish anthropologist. Playing on the stale notion that one exchanges their Ashkenazi Jewishness for American Whiteness obscures an important tension. Friedman continues:

Herskovits traded in his politics and peoplehood for the scientific credibility necessary to undermine the pseudo-science of race: He deserves not sensationalist speculation but real discussions of the types of services he and others have rendered, albeit from outside, to African-American culture.

We must see Herskovitz’s biography, and the critical reaction it has provoked, as a window onto how Jewish identity is wrongly conceptualized in our land. Herskovits’ “politics and peoplehood” were not “traded in for the scientific credibility necessary to undermine the pseudo-science race.” They coexisted in Herskovits, even as his professional success gave him power over the discipline he created. Herskovits is not a typical Jewish-American success story. The Jewish culture within Herskovits was as complex as the black one that propelled him to greatness. Even if he was inclined to believe, as so many of our youths today, that it didn’t exist. Herskovitz is our Okonkwo.

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