Baker, Lee D. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of the Race, 1896-1954. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.


Lee Baker’s From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 highlights the consequential role of anthropology in the development, dissemination, and critique of hegemonic conceptions of race.

Using the diametrically opposed Supreme Court rulings Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) as his landmarks for reckoning the changing nature of race relations in US politics, Baker documents the ways in which anthropology has been appropriated by politicians, popular media, and the courts to affirm, and later to challenge a racialized worldview steeped in Social Darwinism and eugenics. Importantly, Baker identifies a notable shift in this history. During the 1890s, amateur and professional anthropological thought, encapsulated in the works of Josiah Nott, Daniel G. Brinton, John Wesley Powell, and Frederic Putnam, affirmed the presumed racial inferiority of African Americans codified in Plessy. With care and precision, Baker shows how by the mid-20th century, African American intellectuals and leaders selectively appropriated anthropology­—specifically, the work of Franz Boas—in their efforts to affirm notions of racial equality. Thus, From Savage to Negro documents the paradoxically liberating and normalizing potentiality of anthropological thought.

Relevance Today

Baker’s interventions in the history of anthropology are numerous. However, two of his contributions with the greatest impact involve his ability to nuance our understanding of the political salience of the American anthropological tradition and highlight the underrecognized contributions of African American scholars to the Boasian paradigm. A typical move in critical literature on American anthropology has been to stamp Boas and his students with the blanket label of “salvage anthropology.”[1] The problem with understanding Boasian anthropology solely through this prism is, as Regna Darnell suggests, that such characterizations “rarely consider the dynamic of [Boas’s] engagement with such hot-potato issues as immigration policy, anti-Semitism and antiracisim more generally.” [2] Baker steers clear of such reductive thinking by exploring how Boas’s support for the cultivation of African American folklore functioned as a significant node within the broader struggle for black cultural empowerment (106–123). Furthermore, he carefully unpacks the ways in which Boas’s critique of the biological foundation of race indirectly inflected the arguments of NAACP lawyers as they pursued racial equality in the courts (150–157). Additionally, Baker brings much-needed attention to the role of marginalized intellectuals within the Boasian paradigm and the ways in which they challenged and shaped the status quo. Fueled in part by Boas’s support for folkloric studies, African American scholars such as Arthur H. Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, and Irene Diggs debunked stereotypes and celebrated the rich and complex traditions of African Americans. Both aspects of Baker’s account—the nuanced view of the political consequentiality of cultural relativism and the efforts of African American intellectuals in the history of anthropology—presage current attempts to analyze Boas as a public intellectual and the roles played by colonized and racialized individuals in the formation of anthropological discourses.[3]

Selected Reviews

Harrison, Faye V. American Anthropologist 102, no 4 (December 2000): 928–29.

Jackson, John P., Jr. Isis 90 no. 4 (December 1999): 855.

McKee, James B. Contemporary Sociology 28, no. 6 (November 1999): 674–76.

Williams, Vernon J., Jr. The Journal of American History 86, no. 4 (March 2000): 1834–35.

White, John. Journal of American Studies 35, no. 1 (April 2001): 134–35.

[1] In this tradition of American anthropology, the primary objective was to reconstruct pre-colonial Indigenous life ways largely through the elicitation of memories and oral traditions of Native elders; see Kent G. Lightfoot, Indians, Missionaries, and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 32. This method has been rightly critiqued for its inability to acknowledge the colonial formations in which Indigenous people were living and its tendency to portray native ways of life as ossified vestiges of an ancient past. Thomas Buckley, “Kroeber’s Theory of Culture Areas and the Ethnology of Northwestern California,” Anthropological Quarterly 62, no. 1 (1989): 15–26.

[2] Regna Darnell, “Historiographic Conundra: The Boasian Elephant in the Middle of Anthropology’s Room,” in Franz Boas as Public Intellectual: Theory, Ethnography, Activism, ed. Regna Darnell et al. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), xxii.

[3] Regna Darnell et al., eds., Franz Boas as Public Intellectual: Theory, Ethnography, Activism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015); Isaiah Lorado Wilner and Ned Blackhawk, eds., Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

Nicholas Barron: contributions / website /