During my formative years as a student of anthropology, I studied just about all the important pioneers of the history of American and European anthropology. Pardon the name-dropping, but for example, Jean LaMarck, Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, Lewis Henry Morgan, Herbert Spencer, E. B. Tyler, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Maus, Max Weber, Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, Edward Sapir, Robert Lowie, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Bronislav Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, Max Gluckman, Julian Steward, Marshall Sahlins, Elman Service, Leslie White, Marvin Harris, Roy D’Andrade, Robert Burling, Dell Hymes, Charles Frake, E. Hammel, James Spradley, V. Gordon Child, Montelius, Christien Jorgensen Thomsen, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, Renato Rosaldo and several of the modernist and post-modernist. However, (and this is a big however) I never had the opportunity to study any of the great black anthropologists that were doing research, writing papers, teaching, and lecturing in the field of anthropology. Men and women such as Zora Neale Hurston (…a classmate of Margaret Mead’s who also studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University), Jean Price Mars, Louis Eugene King, Katherine Dunham, W. Montague Cobb, Caroline Bond Day, Allison Davis, St. Clair Drake, Fernando Ortiz, Arthur Fauset or Irene Diggs. These scholars were active during the same time periods as many of the traditional pioneers in anthropology.  But why weren’t they mentioned in college and university anthropology courses across America?  I know that Franz Boas and W.E.B. DuBois collaborated at times but outside of that – nothing. Does the higher education system in the US have a blind side that just doesn’t acknowledge their contributions to the field of main stream, status quo anthropology? Let us take a look at the longer and broader perspective. Do European and Asian universities that teach about American anthropologists include these black anthropologists in their courses?

For this reason, I would like to present some excerpts from what I consider an extraordinary article by a distinguised bioarchaeological anthropologist, Michael L. Blakey who provides insight into the early origins and contributions of black anthropologists and historians entitled, “Bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas: Its Origins and Scope.”  Also, there is a great book by social anthropologist, Faye V. Harrison entitled “African American Pioneers in Anthropology” that’s also very important. I hope you find the following interesting and informative:

The record of the human experience of Africans in the Americas during slavery is sparse, afforded mainly by the initial writings of people who had themselves been enslaved. Its Anglophone beginning (1772–1815) is as narratives about slavery (with comments on life in Africa), of the humanity of blacks and the inhumanities foisted on them by whites, in the works of freed and escaped captives such as Morrant, Gronniosaw, Cugoano, Equiano, and Jea (Gates & Andrews 1998), often arguing their cases with moral fervor…

Later, the narratives of abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass (1950) exemplified his life in slavery and damned the institution in a more analytical vein. In 1854, in a speech to scholars at Western Reserve University, he also attacked the racial determinism, craniometry, and racist Egyptology of Morton, Agassiz, Nott, and Gliddon (Nott & Gliddon 1854). With Douglass’s “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered” (1950), an African-American genre of critical, dialectical, environmentalist, vindicationist, and activist scholarship had begun that would form a fundamental distinction of Diasporan scholarship. And it would emerge in opposition to the new genre of physical anthropology and African(Egyptian) archaeology, which Douglass claimed to be merely an attempt to justify slavery. Other African Americans were going to Africa and bringing back reports to elevate an understanding of Africa and its relationship to U.S. blacks for either missionary or nascent Pan-Africanist motives (see Delany 1861, Crummell 1861). Haitian leader and scholar Ant´enor Firmin (1885) wrote a 600-page anthropological treatise, De l’´egalite des Races Humaines, in 1885, countering arguments of de Gobineau’s adherents among the members of the Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris, which Firmin had penetrated as one of two black members (Firmin 2000). No white American, British, or French anthropologist of the nineteenth century opposed racial determinism and ranking (Fluehr-Lobban 2000, Gould 1996)…

The African-American research was nearly always critical, in that it began from the observation that white racism had distorted the historical record that reinforced a sense of whites’ entitlement, obscured their inequities, and inculcated a sense of inferiority in blacks. Du Bois (1915) begins an early study of Africa and its diaspora by saying that the “time has not yet come for a complete history of Negro peoples. Archaeological research in Africa has just begun, and many sources of information in Arabian, Portuguese, and other tongues are not fully at our command; and too it must frankly be confessed, racial prejudice against darker peoples is still too strong in so-called civilized centers for judicial appraisement of the peoples of Africa.” The problem of an ideologically distorted Africana past continued to inspire a search for information by Diasporan scholars, creating an enormous body of “vindicationist” literature...
During the first part of the twentieth century, Zora Neal Hurston conveyed the complexity of African-American and Caribbean cultures through literary works based on ethnology and folklore. The Haitian Marxist ethnologist Jacques Roumain (Fowler 1972) helped found the Negritude movement, which paralleled the Harlem Renaissance in Francophone Africa and the Caribbean, writing about Haiti in a humanistic vein similar to Hurston’s. Another Haitian scholar activist, Jean Price Mars, founded the Society of African Culture and helped found Presence Africaine, the scholarly organ of black Francophone intellectuals. It was here in 1955 that Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop first published portions of what would become, among African and diasporic readers(Anta Diop 1974), the most influential classical archaeological and linguistic analysis of the Africanity of ancient Egypt. Another African-American anthropologist, Katherine Dunham, through the vehicle of dance, studied and performed the common and deviating threads of African diasporic culture and religion in Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, and the United States. African-American anatomist and physical anthropologist W. Montague Cobb focused on issues of evolution, race, racism, and health care in the United States in the middle third of the century, also combining his biology with humanism and politics (Rankin-Hill & Blakey 1995; see also Caroline Bond Day physical anthropologist, under Hooton in Ross et al 1999). Fernando Ortiz conducted both bioarchaeological and ethnographic work on the African influences of Cuba (1929, 1947). Black anthropologist Irene Diggs, having worked with both Ortiz and Du Bois, covered a broad range of U.S. and Latin American subjects (see Bolles 1999). African-American historian William Leo Hansberry had been the first to write a thesis in African studies at Harvard before taking a faculty position at Howard, where in the early 1920s he advocated for African studies and archaeology programs. It was Melville Herskovits, however, who would start the first African studies program at Northwestern University following a brief visiting position at Howard, where he studied “race crossing”(Herskovits 1928). In 1916, historian Carter Woodson, also at Howard University,established the Journal of Negro History. The organization for which the Journal was principal organ, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (today the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History), began “Negro History Week” (today Black History Month) in order to disseminate the history of peoples of African descent. Work by the Fisk- and Harvard-educated historian John Hope Franklin (1947) should also be noted among these pre-1960s contributions to diasporic studies...

This is but a small sample of the prolific contributors of that period, suggestive of the breadth and focus of domestic and international work toward diasporic studies. With the exception of the enigmatic Hurston, all were involved in political activism, and many were involved in the Pan-Africanist movement, which sought to free the continent of colonialism and to unite it and its diasporic peoples. Their scholarly efforts were to preserve and report on African cultural persistence and creativity on the continent and in the Americas, to revise what they saw as Eurocentric distortions of the Africana world, and to foster an understanding of common cultural identity, albeit at times incorporating an essentialized racial identity, not unlike contemporary European romanticists.

Today, it is somewhat relieving to find that a few (…a very few) universities have taken on the challenge of teaching about the black pioneers of early anthropology. This movement seems to be spearheaded by a coalition of brilliant, black, female anthropologists that are seeing to it that the younger generations are finding out about these pioneers. One thing that makes me proud to be an American though, in spite of the shortcomings of American society, is our ability to mature – that is, to recognize our deficiencies, resolve and eventually overcome them.

Taken from: Blakey, Michael L. “Bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas: Its Origins and Scope.” Annual Review in Anthropology, no. 30 (2001): 387–422.

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Excellent post. Thanks.

Prejudice makes powerful blinders.

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