Melville Jean Herskovits (September 10, 1895 – February 25, 1963) was an American anthropologist and pioneer of African-American studies. He believed that African culture was influential in America, both through those who had been brought from Africa and their descendants whose culture was not entirely assimilated into the ruling white culture as his contemporaries believed. He even claimed that American culture as a whole had been influenced by African culture, regarding African culture as making important contributions to world history, also unlike his contemporaries. In this way, Herskovits was quite ahead of his time, recognizing the significance of Africa to the world.
Melville Jean Herskovits was born on September 10, 1895, in Bellefontaine, Ohio, into the family of Herman Herskovits and Henrietta Hart, immigrants from Europe. Due to Mrs. Herskovits’ poor health the family moved first to Texas, and then to Pennsylvania. Melville finished high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1912.
In 1915, Herskovits entered the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, but the World War I interrupted his studies. He joined the Army Medical Corps and was stationed in France. Following the war he completed his undergraduate degree in history at the University of Chicago in 1920.
Herskovits went on to study anthropology at Columbia University, under the great German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. He also did some graduate work at the New School for Social Research under Thorstein Veblen. His fellow colleagues were Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Elsie Clews Parsons. He received his Ph.D. in 1923 with a dissertation entitled The Cattle Complex in East Africa. At the same time he started teaching at Columbia. In 1925 he married Frances Shapiro.
From 1924 to 1927 Herskovits thought at Columbia University, and in 1925 received the position of assistant professor of anthropology at Howard University. He stayed there for only few years, in 1927 accepting the position of assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University. At the time he was the only anthropologist in the department. In 1931 he became an associate professor, and in 1935 a full professor of anthropology. In 1938, he was elected as the first chairman of the newly founded department of anthropology.
During his time at Northwestern, Herskovits conducted numerous field studies. In 1928 he traveled to Suriname, work which resulted in two books, jointly authored with his wife Frances Herskovits, Rebel Destiny (1934) and Suriname Folk Lore (1936). In the late 1930s he did field work in Benin, Brazil, Haiti, Ghana, Nigeria, and Trinidad.
In 1941, Herskovits published his classic The Myth of the Negro Past, about the African cultural influences on American blacks. He also helped forge the concept of "cultural relativism," particularly in his book Man and His Works (1948).
After World War II, Herskovits publicly advocated African independence and also attacked American politicians for viewing Africa as an object of Cold War strategy. In 1948, he established and became the director of the Program of African Studies at the Northwestern University, the first African-studies program at a U.S. university. Northwestern appointed Herskovits the Chair of African Studies in 1961, the first such position in the United States.
Among his numerous achievements were the first presidency of the African Studies Association in 1957-58, and the organization of the First International Congress of Africanists held in Ghana in 1962. He held offices in the American Anthropological Association, the American Folklore Society, and the International Anthropology Congress. He also served in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1959-60).
Herskovits died in Evanston, Illinois, on February 25, 1963.
Herskovits remains famous chiefly for his study of African cultures and their influence on the African-American community in the United States. In his famous The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) Herskovits fought the “myth” about black Americans, according to which all cultural ties between Africans in Africa and those in America were severed, African-Americans being totally assimilated to American culture. In Herskovits’ time it was believed that African culture was "primitive," with limited or no contribution to the history of the world. Herskovits on the contrary, believed that African roots are still alive in the African-American subculture. Moreover, he claimed, white culture is influenced by those traits.
Herskovits claimed that African cultural influences on blacks were not so strong in United States as they were in Brazil or the Caribbean, mostly due to the predominant white culture. However, African survivals can be seen in music, dance, speech, worship, funeral practices, and many other aspects of life. The strongest influence of black on white culture can be seen in music and dance.
In his work Herskovits was strongly influenced by the Boasian approach to cultural anthropology. He studied cultures in their historical context, and regarded human behavior as absolutely learned. Any culture thus is the result of learned tendencies, and all standards of judgment are culture-bound. Herskovits was known as one of the strong proponents of ethical relativism. According to this, there is no absolute standard of justice—what is just in one culture might be unjust in another. In his book Cultural Relativism (1972) he wrote:
Cultural relativism is in essence an approach to the question of the nature and role of values in culture. It represents a scientific, inductive attack on an age-old philosophical problem, using fresh, cross-cultural data, hitherto not available to scholars, gained from the study of the underlying value-systems of societies having the most diverse customs. The principle of cultural relativism, briefly stated, is as follows: Judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation. Those who hold for the existence of fixed values will find materials in other societies that necessitate a re-investigation of their assumptions. (Cultural Relativism, 1972)
Herskovits was criticized for his views on both the formation of African-American subculture and cultural relativism. In Herskovits’ time, when the “melting-pot theory” was still regarded as valid and a highly desirable outcome, one could interpret Herskovits’ theories as saying that African-Americans were resistant to assimilation, and that black culture cannot adjust to white society. Herskovits’ opponents offered an alternative view, which suggested that due to oppression by the white culture, African Americans deliberately returned to their roots in African culture, as the way of resistance toward whites.
On the other hand, Herskovits was criticized for his extreme ethical relativism. If one applies Herskovits’ view that there are no absolute norms—all norms are culture-dependent, and can be judged only from inside the specific culture—then one could justify tyranny of one culture over other, or one regime over the other. Slavery or holocaust would then be perfectly justifiable.
Herskovits was a pioneer in African studies. He founded the first U.S. University Program in African Studies in 1948, and established in 1954 the Library of African Studies at Northwestern University. The library, which carries his name, is the largest separate collection of Africana in the world. Under his guidance numerous students graduated to became the new generation of American Africanists.
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