Herskovits as the Heart of Blackness


Herskovits At the Heart of Blackness. DVD. Produced by Llewellyn Smith, Vincent Brown, and Christine Herbes-Sommers. San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel, Vital Pictures, 2009.  Reviewed by Lila Corwin Berman, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In her autobiography, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker wrote, “Among the reasons for choosing to be an anthropologist—to step in and out of society to study it—are those connected with family background and personality.”(1)  Born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, children of Jewish immigrants, students of the black experience in the United States, Powdermaker and Melville Herskovits shared more than a profession.  For both, anthropology was an act of reflexivity, a way of coming to know the self by way of an other.  I have long wondered why Herskovits like Powdermaker chose to train his anthropological eye on black experience (African American and African).  The masterful film, Herskovits At the Heart of Darkness, persuasively suggests that the complexities of how power works—how one attains power and how one distributes power—has everything to do with understanding these Jewish anthropologists’ attraction to social scientific inquiries into blackness.

Filled with the voices of leading scholars of anthropology, history, and philosophy, Herskovits At the Heart of Darkness offers a visually provocative biography of Herskovits.  Intertwining video footage from Herskovits’ trips to Africa, animated clips of American cartoons, and dramatized scenes imagined from the history of anthropology, the film leads the viewer to confront the contradictions and hypocrisies embedded in Herskovits’ anthropological project to bestow true culture and civilization upon African Americans.  Most memorable in this regard is Herskovits’ former student, Johnnetta Cole, who eventually served as president of Spellman College and Bennett College.  Cole, an African-American woman, recalls her frustration with the experience of sitting in a classroom in the late 1950s and listening to a white and Jewish man lecture her about African and African-American culture.  Yet Cole, like K. Anthony Appiah, Vincent Brown and others, is not simply dismissive of Herskovits’ efforts to unmask Africa and African culture.  After all, one of his motivations, certainly, was to give African Americans their cultural due.  And, in this regard, his efforts met with some very practical success.  In the film, Herskovits’ daughter, Jean Herskovits Corry, smiles as she recalls seeing black radicals clutching copies of her father’s book, The Myth of the Negro Past.

"It may seem ironic that Herskovits did not expend more effort thinking about his own Jewishness, since he might have come to understand something of how difference could and should work in the United States by doing so."  


Herskovits died in 1963, well before the ethnic revival became an historically significant movement.  Yet the film depicts him as presaging that movement in his assumption that all Americans had to have an identity beyond their Americanness.  It may seem ironic that Herskovits did not expend more effort thinking about his own Jewishness, since he might have come to understand something of how difference could and should work in the United States by doing so.  Instead, he looked toward that group that was imagined most culturally vanquished—African Americans—and, as if posing the question to its logical extreme, assumed that if he could find a cultural heritage for this population, then one could safely conclude that all Americans possessed distinctive cultural heritages. 

As the film progresses, Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton, and Brown, a professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard, offer reflections on their own cultural identities.  Both explain that their own identities and appearances often disrupt people’s assumptions about categories of cultural and racial belonging.  Individuals destabilize cultural and racial assumptions, making it impossible to correlate a single culture or race to any individual or group.  This, the viewer comes to understand, is precisely what Herskovits could not appreciate.  And this is paradoxical, because he (an assimilated Jew who may have been perceived by colleagues as thoroughly Jewish but who never perceived himself through that monolithic category) lived it as a reality.

The film attempts to educate its audience about the history of anthropology, race science, black history, identity politics, and the cold-war turn in the social sciences, but it does so subtly.  In only a few places did it feel as if I were sitting in a lecture hall.  (For instance, I wondered why the editors included an unnecessarily lengthy discussion about what cultural relativism means).  Still throughout the film, I wondered to whom the film was intended to speak.  I worried, especially during the scenes that were dramatized and not drawn from any historical record, that some viewers would walk away confused by the very aesthetics of the film.

In the final decade of his life, Herskovits became a policy academic, joining state officials in their efforts to re-understand the United States after World War II and during the escalating cold war.  He stepped into a role of state power, the expert.  The film concludes ominously, reminding us that when we purport to own knowledge over another group of people, we may come to believe that we own that people.  Images of killing fields, torture devices, and war-torn landscapes flash.  The viewer is left to contemplate how the history of evil acts is intertwined with the history of knowledge and power.  Herskovits’ voice becomes a voice of state-craft, and one wonders if the heart of blackness, rendered as the title of the film, is an ethical void, where the observations of the anthropologist are translated into hegemonic policy.


Lila Corwin Berman
Associate Professor of History
Temple University

Volume XII, Table of Contents

1. Hortense Powdermaker, Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist (New York: Norton, 1966), 15.

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