The American anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits (1895-1963) is famous for his research on Africa and his pioneer studies in African American ethnology.
Melville Herskovits was born in Belefontaine, Ohio, on Sept. 10, 1895. He received his education at Columbia University. Later he founded the program of African studies at Northwestern University, where many of the first American African specialists were trained. When the African Studies Association was formed, he became its first president.
Herskovits is chiefly famous for his much-debated thesis that African American culture owes much to the African way of life, expressed in his Myth of the Negro Past (1941). The "myth" that he tried to destroy was that the ancestral cultures of blacks were primitive, with Africans making no contribution to the history of the world, and that under the slave regime of the antebellum South virtually all traces of African culture—except, perhaps, certain survivals in music and the dance—had been destroyed. Not only did Herskovits maintain that Africanism existed in a black American subculture, but he argued that certain of these cultural traits had been transmitted to the whites.
Herskovits held that African survivals were less common in the United States than in Brazil or the Caribbean because of the higher proportion of whites to blacks in the American South and the absence of mountain or jungle retreats where escaped slaves could have developed stable communities without white interference. African survivals were thus strongest among the inhabitants of the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia because of their relative isolation. He tried to show that their speech and syntax, once thought to be derivative from archaic dialects of 16th-century England, were derived from Africa. Although the African influence upon black music and dance, both of which in turn influenced white culture, was recognized and accepted, Herskovits contended that much of black folklore, magic, and folk medicine could also be traced to African origins, as could their mutual aid societies and funeral practices.
African American scholars and liberal whites involved in bettering race relations at first opposed Herskovits's thesis on the existence of a black subculture in North America. The inescapable implication of his thesis was that African Americans were an unassimilable group, unable to adjust to white middle-class society, a group immalleable to the "melting pot." In opposition to Herskovits's thesis, his antagonists attempted to explain the existence of the black pattern of culture not on the basis of African derivations but on the basis of social oppression and economic degradation. With the rise of the black power ideology and such movements as the Black Panthers, the difference or uniqueness of African Americans was gloried in, and the notion of a black subculture was exalted. Herskovits's theories thus enjoyed a tremendous revival as African Americans sought the origins of their identity. Thus it appears that the validity of his theories remains to be determined at a time when they are not so emotionally involved in contemporary political movements.
Herskovits is also known as one of the leading exponents of ethical relativism in politics, the position that maintains that there is no objective order of justice, but that what is just in one culture may be unjust in another. Thus he wrote that "the relativist point of view brings into relief the validity of every set of norms for the people whose lives are guided by them." One of the objections made to this position is that it would make the set of norms which guided the lives of most Germans under Hitler valid. Thus, it would be "immoral" to judge another culture (such as Nazi Germany) by one's own moral norms since morality is determined by the culture, and a member of that culture could not do other than what he did do.
Further Reading on Melville Jean Herskovits
Information on Herskovits is in Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958), and Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Simpson, George Eaton, Melville J. Herskovits, New York, Columbia University Press, 1973.