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Arts & Entertainmeni
Celebrating Black History Month
PBS documentary recalls Jewish anthropologist
who redefined "blackness."
A first edition of The
Special to the
Jewish News ,,,
Myth of the Negro Past
(1941) by Melville J.
ike many a Jewish child
of Eastern European immi-
grants, Melville J. Herskovits
spent a good deal of time and energy
wrestling with what it meant — and what
it took — to be an American.
His personal answer lay in scholarship,
science, accomplishment and assimilation.
Generations of black Americans, how-
ever, have benefited from the pioneering
anthropologist's revolutionary view that
their ancestors carried cultural influences
with them from Africa.
Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness,
a dense and fascinating documentary
by Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes
Sommers and Vincent Brown, revisits a
man who left both a great irony and a great
controversy as his legacy, yet whose work
is largely unknown (if not forgotten) out-
side certain circles. The film airs Feb. 7 on
Detroit Public Television-Channel 56 and is
well worth checking out, although it leaves
us wanting more detail, depth and debate
than its one-hour length can accommodate.
On one level, this is the story of a turf bat-
tle in academia, which may not make your
heart go pitter-patter. And the impulse to
couch incendiary disputes in high-minded
rhetoric, a trait of our overly cautious public
television system, lowers the temperature
was not patho-
logical but in
fact grounded in
deep African roots.
another couple degrees.
But listen closely, and read between the
lines, and you'll be transported back to a
time when a fresh idea in the social sciences
had the power to alter the lives of millions.
Herskovits was born in Bellefontaine,
Ohio, in 1895 and raised in El Paso, Texas;
there are remarkable photos of him with
Pancho Villa's troops during the Mexican
Revolution. He was raised Jewish and had
notions of becoming a rabbi, although his
yen to travel was already apparent. After
enlisting in the Army and witnessing the
carnage of the last months of World War
I, Herskovits re-examined his relationship
with God and set out on a new path.
He did his postgraduate work in anthro-
pology at Columbia under the influential
Franz Boas and was attracted to Africa.
The film suggests that Herskovits practi-
cally had the field to himself when he
began traveling to the continent in the
1920s and '30s with his wife, Frances,
taking thousands of photographs and
recording hours of film and audio; and he
quickly established himself as a
The man doesn't look espe-
Melville Herskovits with various African objects.
cially tough in his glasses and
The controversial Jewish anthropologist gave vital
bow tie, but it required plenty of support to the civil rights movement and signaled
moxie to trek around Africa in
the rise of identity politics with his research and
those days. When Northwestern writings. But, ironically, he had no interest in his
made him its first Jewish pro-
subjects participating in the academic discourse
fessor in 1927, one gathers that about them.
it was a mild trial by fire in
While Herskovits' work was and is
The film depicts Herskovits as an idealist lauded by black scholars for its critique of
and scientist who labored to separate his
racism and its contributions to African-
work from politics. That seems naive in ret- American self-esteem, those same schol-
rospect, but it's as if he wanted to influence
ars object to the strong-willed professor's
other anthropologists more than the public. efforts to dominate the field — that is,
He certainly succeeded with the pub-
to exclude blacks from participating in
lication of The Myth of the Negro Past
the debate. Herskovits obtained grants to
(1941), in which he exploded prevailing
establish the first African Studies Center
perceptions that race (and any differences
on an American campus, yet opposed
between races) was the product of biology. W.E.B. Du Bois' fundraising efforts for an
The controversial Jewish anthropologist's
writings in the '40s and '50s challenged
Of course, anyone can use ideas once
widely held assumptions about race and
they are out in the world. So it was that
culture by insisting that we look at the
The Myth of the Negro Past became a key
world through each other's lives and histo- reference work for the Black Panthers in
ries. Herskovits argued that the similarity
the fraught years following Herskovits'
of dance movements between Surinamese
death in early 1963. ❑
men and black Americans, for example,
was evidence of a cultural connection.
(Curiously, Herskovits at the Heart of
Detroit Public Television-Channel
Blackness mentions the Nazis without cit-
56 airs Herskovits at the Heart of
ing their pseudo-scientific rationales for
Blackness 11:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7,
determining that every race was inferior
on PBS's Independent Lens series.
to the Aryan master race.)
l iout I
Special to the Jewish News
Faces And Races
Henry Louis Gates, the African
American Harvard scholar, hosts
wow PBS' Faces of America, a series that
explores the family history and the
DNA (genetic building blocks) of 12
famous Americans of varying eth-
nic and racial backgrounds. Faces is
a follow-up to two similar specials
hosted by Gates that featured African
As in Gates' prior programs,
researchers dig out what they can
about the celebrity's family history.
The celebs also take a DNA test — and
then they are told what percentage
of their ancestry is European, Asian,
African or Native American. Gates
February 4 » 2010
presents the findings to each celebrity
and elicits reactions. The findings are
spread out over four weeks, and we
get a piece of the family history of
each celebrity in each episode.
Olympic figure skat-
er Kristi Yamaguchi,
Longoria, TV chef
Mario Batali, Queen
Noor of Jordan, TV
doctor Mehmet Oz,
cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actress Meryl Streep
and director Mike Nichols.
Nichols, 78, was born in Germany
to a German-Jewish mother and a
Russian-Jewish father. His family fled
to America in 1939. He began as a hip
young comedian in the 1950s, team-
ing with Elaine May, now 77. In the
early '60s, he began directing theater
productions and, in the mid-'60s, he
started directing films. As a director,
he has won eight Tonys and an Oscar
Here are two revelations about
Nichols — he is related to a very
famous German Jew, and DNA tests
disclosed that he and another of the
series' celebrities share a common
ancestor within the last 250 years.
(Premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb.
10. The other episodes air at the
same time Feb.17, 24 and March 3.)
The upcoming episode of the Food
Network show The Iron Chef features
a cooking showdown between Duff
Goldman and Iron
Chef Michael Symon.
(10 p.m. Saturday
Feb. 6; encore 9 p.m.
Goldman, 35, a
master baker, hosts
the Food Network
show Ace of Cakes.
Born in Detroit, Goldman's first job
was baking bagels. He now lives
above his own bakery, Charm City
Creations, in Baltimore.
Symon, who isn't Jewish, found-
ed and runs two restaurants in
Cleveland, his hometown. In 2008, he
opened Michael Symon's Roast res-
taurant at the Westin Book Cadillac
Hotel in Detroit. The Free Press
named Roast the 2009 Restaurant of