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.
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?
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.
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.