Melville J. Herskovits

Authored by: Kevin A. Yelvington

Routledge Handbook of Afro-Latin American Studies

Print publication date:  November  2022
Online publication date:  November  2022

Print ISBN: 9780367691431
eBook ISBN: 9781003159247
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter examines the career and theoretical positionings of the US anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits (1895–1963), who taught for many years at Northwestern University. A student of Franz Boas at Columbia University, Herskovits did physical anthropological fieldwork among African Americans and ethnographic fieldwork among Afro-American groups in Suriname (1928 and 1929), West Africa (1931), Haiti (1934), Trinidad (1939), and Brazil (1941–42), before turning his attention more fully to African civil and political affairs. Herskovits has been regarded as a pioneer for advocating the study of the African diaspora within the discipline of anthropology. A champion of cultural relativism and a positivist-scientistic approach, he earned praise for his courage in daring to study African Americans in a serious way and to attack racism in the context of a palpable upsurge in white racism and nativism in the United States of the 1920s and 1930s. Herskovits held important positions of influence within the discipline and was deeply involved in transnational scientific networks with ethnologists in Latin America and the Caribbean. He often used his position to act as a scientific gatekeeper. He also trained a cadre of doctoral students at Northwestern, including students from Latin America, institutionalizing a theoretical paradigm he called “Africanisms,” or African cultural survivals, in the study of a unit of analysis he defined as the “New World Negro.” This chapter traces his life and institutional locations and presents a critical appraisal of his theoretical legacy.

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