U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Elvis of Scholars

There is a new documentary coming out on Melville Herskovits. This preview makes it look fascinating.

The filmmakers call Herskovits the Elvis of scholars because on the one hand he appropriated what black scholars had already been doing, and on the other he popularized the thesis that black Americans had a cultural past from Africa. I’ve read a lot of his correspondence and I’m struck over and again by the way he personally interacts with black scholars. He wanted so badly to be accepted by them, and yet at the same time could not quite let go of white privilege. Ralph Bunche, for example, was frustrated that Herskovits never invited him to the all white faculty lounge at Northwestern. When another professor did, Herskovits greeted Bunche at the table with an intensity of embarrassment. In order for Bunche to return to Africa on an SSRC grant, four years after completing his first trip to Africa and receiving his award winning PhD from Harvard’s Political Science department, the SSRC mandates that Bunche study anthropology with Herskovits for a semester and then with Malinowsky at the London School of Economics for a year before going to Africa. Bunche’s personal diaries about this time (held at UCLA, unpublished except for his months in South Africa) document a man of remarkably good humor, despite being forced to study, as a tenure-track professor, with someone not much older than himself, but who had shot up the ranks of academia that Bunche could not then travel. I’m convinced that Bunche’s ability to get done what he needed to get done, despite any and all slights, coupled with his ability to befriend everyone (from African chiefs to white British MPs), was what led him into his thirty year diplomatic career with the United Nations and his Nobel Peace Prize.

I’m looking forward to the documentary because I’ve looked at Herskovits so often through the eyes of the black scholars that associated with him and had to depend upon his gatekeeping ways. It will be good for me to see the world through his eyes (have you noticed in your dissertation writing that there are ever more things on your to do list to master?)

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