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Anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits died on this day in 1963, after a career in which he established African and African-American studies as an academic discipline. One of Franz Boas’ cohort of influential students at Columbia University (Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Zora Neale Hurston and numerous others), Herskovits founded Northwestern University’s department of anthropology in 1938 and its Program of African Studies in 1948 — the first such program in America. In 1957, he became the first president of the African Studies Association. Collaborating with his wife Frances Shapiro, he studied many aspects of African culture, including its influence on the Americas during slavery and after emancipation. His Myth of the Negro Past (1941) undermined the notion that Africa was “primitive” when slavers arrived there, and he helped pioneer the view that race is a sociological more than biological category. Herskovits’ scholarship was controversial among African-Americans as they pursued integration and assimilation, but he planted seeds for the blooming of Black nationalism in the late 1960s. In 1961, when President Kennedy recruited him to head up the new Bureau of African Affairs, the House of Un-American Activities blocked the appointment. Nevertheless, he became an important advocate for African self-determination.
“[A] scientist’s responsibility does not end with unearthing new facts. He has an obligation to society. He must come out of his ivory tower and help put the information to use.” — Melvin Herskovits, 1948
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.