Thursday, March 04, 2010

Justice League; Black Holes; Herskovits

Well, once again, I want to wish happy birthday to my mom and to take a moment to remember Jeff Wilson today, on his birthday. I already jotted out a quick note in the post below, but I just wanted to repeat myself in case people didn't see it.

What else? Not much.
I watched an animated movie over at Ryan and Jamie's house last night called Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. It was pretty good. Parallel dimensions where there are alternate, evil versions of Earth's most famous superheroes and where our traditional supervillains are heroes who fight to defend humanity. Pretty cool.
I also watched a show about Supermassive Black Holes on the Science Channel. I just can't believe that those things are actually real. Galaxies filled with stars and solar systems spinning around holes in reality that are just sucking everything into them. Sort of just blows my mind.

I also watched an episode of Independent Lens that was on my DVR called Herskovits: At the Heart of Blackness. Now maybe I'm just revealing my own embarrassing ignorance and everyone else knows this, but I'm not even sure I had even heard of Melville Herskovits before I watched this documentary, but now I'm kind of intrigued by the guy. Melville Herskovits was a Jewish anthropolgist from New York who primarily built his reputation by way of studying and analyzing the culture, society, and traditions of African Americans in the United states. Herskovits is primarily known (apparently) for being one of the first serious anthropologists to seriously study and examine the culture of African Americans in the United States. Prior to the work of Herskovits and a few of his colleagues, it had largely been assumed that black people in the United States had no real culture of their own- that any sense of cultural identity and tradition that they had had been destroyed when they had been snatched for their homeland in Africa and transported, against their will, to the United States as slaves.
Herskovits studied black culture in the United states as well as the culture of black peoples in Africa (he spent much time travelling around Africa and recording his observations), and he came to the conclusion that significant portions of African cultural heritage had survived the Middle Passage to America, and the many elements of African life could still be seen in black culrue in 1941, when Herskovits wrote The Myth of the Negro Past.
Herskovits was controversial. On the one hand, he helped to carve out African American studies as a serious field of intellectual, scholarly knowledge. Herskovits was an early proponent of the theory of cultural relativism (which stated that scholars should be careful not to judge the practices of one cultural using the standards of a different one), and he endorsed a form of anthropolgy which put much more value on cultural characteristics when studying groups of people as opposed to simply trying to categorize and understand people by way of common physical characteristics (this seems pretty commonsense today, but previous anthropological theory had spent a considerable amount of time trying to consistently tie behavior patterns to physical traits). In addition to taking these positive steps, Herskovits truly believed that he would help to improve the self esteem of black Americans, as a culture, if he could show that they weren't devoid of a cultural history (it wasn't as if all cultural heritage was destroyed on the Middle Passage), but that they were, in fact, simply a new branch of a set of ancient, complex African cultures.**
So we have Herskovits, a Jewish anthropolgist, serving as one of the forefathers of African American studies. Even today he ramins recognized as one of the most prominent early pioneers of this field of study.
But the controversy started to get more heated up as black Americans managed to become increasingly educated (as a group) and began to question exactly why it was that a white, Jewish anthropologist had been given the power to define the cultural identity of African Americans as a people. Up through the 50's and 60's, black Americans became increasingly resentful of the fact that the majority of anthropolgists and sociologists who studied black culture were white. Black Americans didn't really want to simply be seen as a subject to be studied. Instead, they wanted to be active participants in studying their own people- in effect, helping to define their own culture. Some black Americans saw the attempt to tie their culture to Africa as just another mechanism by which white people would be able to justify segregation and oppression. If black Americans were really just Africans, the argument went, then white people would feel much more confortable branding black people as outsiders and foreigners who were not to be entirely trusted.
Anyway, eventually black scholars and political activists demanded equal participation in the scholarly study of African American culture, and they won positions that made them at least equal partners in that particular field. This was kind of a big deal, because, to at least some extent the works of these scholars were helping to define exactly what it meant to be a black person in America.
So I really found all of this pretty fascinating. In particular, I was sort of captivated by the story of Herskovits himself. In his own time he was a pretty progressive guy- trying to demonstrate that African Americans came from a cultural history that was every bit as rich and colorful as that of whites, endorsing ideas like cultural relativism, and focusing on the study of race as a study of culture and its influences as opposed to simply focusing on the biological makeup of a given people. On the other hand, I understand why black people might be seriously annoyed by the thought of a white man studying them as subjects (rather than collaborating with them) and then trying to define their culture and telling them who they really were.
Herskovits was a true progressive in his own time and thought that he was doing serious work that might help black people, but by the end of his life Herskovits was looked upon as a man who had held back the progress of blacks to some degree. And their might be some truth to both arguments. I just find it interesting that, while doing largely the same type of work, the man was viewed as a progressive during one part of his life and as something of an outdated anachronism later on (and one who may have somewhat held back the progress of civil rights to some degree, at that).
Well, I gotta go. Sorry to have likely bored everyone. I just found the whole thing really interesting.

** P.S.: It occurred to me later (after writing this post) that I never mentioned the fact that apparently Herskovits was drawn into the study of black American race and culture in substantial part because he felt that American blacks had a persecuted, oppressed history in a way that somewhat paralleled the history of the Jews in Europe and the United States. Being Jewish himself, it's been said that Herskovits developed an interest in African American culture because he felt a certain form of empathy for the prejudice and discrimination that they experienced (anti semitism was fairly rampant in the U.S. and Europe throughout much of Herskovits' career).
I just thought this motivation on Herskovits' part was really important, but I totally neglected to include it in my original post.

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