Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

  • Premiered February 2, 2010

About the Film

Cultural relativism might be easier in theory than in practice. Take the case of Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American anthropologist of Slovak extraction who broke new ground in the definition and analysis of African-American culture. In the film Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, intellectuals and historians discuss the vast impact and heated debate Herskovits continues to inspire around our modern perception of cultural identity.

Herskovits was the first prominent white intellectual to declare that black culture in America was “not pathological,” but rather inherently African, and that it had to be viewed within that context. In positing this, he established himself among the anthropological vanguard in applying the principles of cultural relativism to ethnic cultures within the United States. He traced regional traditions in art, music, dance, and other expressions to a kind of persistent cultural memory in modern-day black Americans, most of whom are generations removed from Africa. His 1928 book The American Negro and the seminal 1941 tome The Myth of the Negro Past fundamentally challenged widely held assumptions about black people in America. In 1948, he founded the first interdisciplinary program at Northwestern University in African studies, and later formed the African Studies Association.

Herskovits’s academic work advanced the cause of ethnic equality in the United States, while also setting off a whirlwind of debate about race and identity. Some black leaders worried that Herskovits’s work might be a kind of intellectual colonialism, and that if African-Americans allowed a white man to define and record their identity, it would lead to further exploitation. Could, or should, a white man have the last word on the origins of a culture to which he didn’t even belong?

Complicating matters is the fact that in the years immediately following Herskovits’s death, The Black Panther Party used The Myth of the Negro Past to inform their activism. Could black activists both use Herskovits’s research to further their political aims and also challenge his right — and even his ability — to draw conclusions about their history? Did it matter that they tended to agree with his conclusions?

The filmmakers present Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness as an invitation to a deeper civic discussion about who has the right to define someone else’s identity, and what it means when the people being defined are excluded from the conversation.

The Filmmakers

Llewellyn Smith
Smith is the president of Vital Pictures, Inc. As a writer/producer, he has contributed to several PBS series, including Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years; as series editor for the PBS history series American Experience, he played a key role in the origination, development, and acquisition of more than 70 programs on American history. Smith was project director for the Peabody and Emmy award-winning series Africans In America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. He directed the final film in the series Judgment Day. For the PBS series RACE: The Power Of An Illusion, Smith produced the episode “The House We Live In.” Smith was a producer/director for the three-hour special Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. He was also producer/director for “Forgotten Genius,” the NOVA biography of Dr. Percy Julian, the pioneering industrial chemist and civil rights activist. “Forgotten Genius” was recently honored for broadcast excellence by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Smith was also co-executive producer for the PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

Christine Herbes-Sommers
Herbes-Sommers is vice president of Vital Pictures, Inc. She was senior series producer for Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? In recent years, she served as executive director of communications and media for the Big Picture Schools, an innovative public school network where she designed a comprehensive system of programming and produced a serial, long-form documentary called The Advisory. From 2001 to 2003, she produced the first hour of the acclaimed PBS series RACE: The Power of An Illusion. After living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her family in the early 1990s, Herbes-Sommers joined the educational programming department at WGBH in 1993 as senior producer, bringing six multi-part series and more than 50 hours of multiplatform programming to completion. In more than 25 years, Herbes-Sommers has produced a wide range of PBS documentaries and dramas, earning her an Emmy nomination, a duPont Columbia Award for her ground-breaking documentary Joan Robinson: One Woman’s Story, several Cine Golden Eagles, and many other awards.

Vincent Brown
Brown is the Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University. He is an award-winning author and media maker with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice. Professor Brown teaches courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery, and is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008), which received the Merle Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and the Louis Gottschalk Prize in 2009.


Film Credits

Producer & Director of Research
Vincent Brown

James Rutenbeck

Coordinating Producer
Wendy Riseborough

Associate Producer
Kelly Thomson

Original Music
Darryl Harper
Xavier Davis

Additional Music
OBT Music

Director of Photography
Tom Fahey

Still Photography
London Parker-McWhorter
Lolita Parker, Jr.

Additional Camera
Stephen McCarthy

Sound Mixers
Clint Bramesco
Giles Morin
G. John Garrett

Production Designer
Amy Strong

Set Dressers
Darren Beaudet
Christopher Plummer

Costume Designer
Rosa Colon

Nydia Colon

Lighting Designer
Stephen T. Kaye

Makeup & Hair
Rachel Padula-Shufelt
Jill Sanders

Boston Casting

Production Assistant
Yetunde Abass
Hermela Aregawi
Lucas Frank
Juma Inniss
Eben Lasker
Laura McClam
Matthew Sarsfield
Mohan Singh
Zachary Stuart

Susan Chien
Brian Duffy
Handcranked Productions
Kara Nasdor-Jones
Jenny Olson
Laura Pirano

Assistant Editors
Ken Hebert
Korynn Rielly Kirchwey
Ace Salisbury

On-line Editor
Michael H. Amundson

On-line Facility
The OutPost

Sound Mix
Richard Bock

African Art Courtesy of
Hamill Gallery of African Art

“Dahomey Suite for Oboe and Piano”
by Mieczyslaw Kolinski and Lois Wann
and documentary Dahomey songs courtesy of
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Archival Stills Courtesy of
Joel and Jody Altschule
American Museum of Natural History Library
American Philosophical Society
Anti-Defamation League
Anti-Slavery International / Panos Pictures
AP Images
Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin-Dahlem
Archives, The City College of New York, CUNY
Beacon Press
Cambridge University Press
Morgan Carey
Johnnetta Cole
Columbus Jewish Historical Society
Daily Mail
Department of Defense
Detroit Publishing Company
Corinne Dufka
Federal Bureau of Investigation
George Eastman House
German Federal Archives
Getty Images/Time & Life
Globe File Photo
Guo Lei
The Granger Collection
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Hebrew College Library
Jean Herskovits Corry
Human Rights Watch
The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives
Library of Congress
Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University
Mimi Mollica
Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
Museum of Jewish Heritage, NY
Museum of the City of New York
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
National Library of Medicine
National Museum of African Art
The New York Public Library
Northwestern University Archives
Panopticon Gallery
Parker Digital Imaging
Photographs by Connie Thomson
Royal Anthropological Institute
Damir Sagolj
Allon Schoener
Smithsonian Institution
Marc Sommers
David Turnley
Kohei Uchida
ullstein bild
UN Photo
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
University of Iowa Archives
Steven D. Van Meter
W.E.B. Du Bois Library
Werner Forman Archive
Ernst C. Withers
Yackety Yack, Inc. / UNC
Michael S. Yamashita

Archival Footage Courtesy of
Buyout Footage
Warren L. d'Azevedo
Footage Farm
Getty Images
Historic Films Archive
Michael Holman
Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution
INA – Institute National de l’Audiovisuel
Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division
MacDonald & Associates
Northern Light Productions
Northwestern University Archives
Streamline Films, Inc.
Thought Equity Motion
University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives
University of South Carolina Newsfilm Archive
Warner Bros.

Historical Advisor Kevin Yelvington

Special Thanks
Erika Bourguignon
Jennifer Coor
John Corry
Pryia Giri Desai
Hasia Diner
Mark Dugas
David Easterbrook
James W. Fernandez
Peter Frumkin
Kathy Giangreco
Harvard University Department of African and African American Studies
Harvard University Film Study Center
Austin Hoyt
Ann Kim
Kevin B. Leonard
Salem Mekuria
Jacob Olapuna
Janet Olson
Geeta Patel
San Dieguito United Methodist Church
Adia Singh
Allen Streicker
Ajantha Subramanian
Kath Weston
The Charles Warren Center, Harvard University

Fiscal sponsorship provided by
The Center for Independent Documentary

Funding provided by
Ford Foundation
Milton Fund of Harvard University
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Leo Model Foundation
Harvard University History Department

And others. A complete list is available from PBS

Executive Producer for ITVS
Sally Jo Fifer

Herskovits At the Heart of Blackness is a co-production of Vital Pictures, Inc.
and the Independent Television Service (ITVS),
with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This program was produced by Vital Pictures, Inc.
which is solely responsible for its content.

© 2009 Vital Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.

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