Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge


Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge

Jerry Gershenhorn

Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology Series

347 pages


September 2007


$29.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge is the first full-scale biography of the trailblazing anthropologist of African and African American cultures. Born into a world of racial hierarchy, Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963) employed physical anthropology and ethnography to undermine racist and hierarchical ways of thinking about humanity and to underscore the value of cultural diversity. His research in West Africa, the West Indies, and South America documented the far-reaching influence of African cultures in the Americas. He founded the first major interdisciplinary American program in African studies in 1948 at Northwestern University, and his controversial classic The Myth of the Negro Past delineated African cultural influences on American blacks and showcased the vibrancy of African American culture. He also helped forge the concept of cultural relativism, particularly in his book Man and His Works. While Herskovits promoted African and African American studies, he criticized some activist black scholars, most notably Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois, whom he considered propagandists because of their social reform orientation.
After World War II, Herskovits became an outspoken public figure, advocating African independence and attacking American policymakers who treated Africa as an object of Cold War strategy. Drawing extensively on Herskovits’s private papers and published works, Jerry Gershenhorn’s biography recognizes Herskovits’s many contributions and discusses the complex consequences of his conclusions, methodologies, and relations with African American scholars.

Author Bio

Jerry Gershenhorn is an assistant professor of history at North Carolina Central University.


"Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963) played a signal role in establishing African anthropology and African studies in the American academy. . . . Herskovits's Diasporic vision has shown remarkable staying power inside and outside the academy, influencing ongoing identity politics, regardless of any inherent originality or truth. For this reason, Jerry Gershenhorn's intellectual biography, which sets Herskovits in the context of the race issue in the United States, is a welcome addition to the debate."—The Times Literary Supplement

"Gershenhorn tells Herskovits’s important story with amazing insight and clarity."—John David Smith, The North Carolina Historical Review

"This portrait of Melville Herskovits is a valuable introduction."—Ethnic and Racial Studies

"[A] fascinating and brilliant intellectual biography. This lucid and engaging text belongs in every serious anthropology and African studies collection."—Choice

"Gershenhorn's volume will very likely stand the test of time and will become the standard by which biographies of the behavioral scientists who were bedeviled by the black-white paradigm will be judged. This volume has solid foundations based on in-depth research in all of the major repositories of Africana-related human science materials, and it provides a synthesis of the vast literature in the history of the human sciences."—Vernon J. Williams, Jr., Journal of African American History