Field Notes (page 1 of 3)

Field Notes is a forum for reflections on the state of the field of history of anthropology, broadly conceived. We welcome a variety of contributions including (but not limited to) short articles, theoretical musings, reports on cultural and academic events and displays, and discussions of intellectual resources of interest to our readers. If you’re interested in submitting such a piece, please email us at notes@histanthro.org.

Special Focus: Engaging ‘The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology’

Why have Black ancestors been largely excluded from anthropology’s intellectual history and canon? In this series of pieces, Tracie Canada talks with the authors of the 2018 volume The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. Based on interviews she conducted with eleven of the fifteen contributors, Canada’s dialogue with the authors addresses these many erasures and advances ways to center, celebrate, and engage with these essential figures. Drawing on a vibrant set of current conversations in the broader field of anthropology, this series– a collaboration between HAR’s Reviews and Field Notes departments– offers a richly textured vision for new histories of anthropology and new anthropological futures.

Begin with the Table of Contents

Author’s Introduction: Engaging ‘The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology’

Why have Black ancestors been largely excluded from anthropology’s intellectual history and canon? As a Black anthropologist mentored by several historians of the discipline, I have often asked this question. This is likely why I became so interested in The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology (2018) upon its publication. Edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams, The Second Generation presents the intellectual biographies of a cohort of fifteen Black anthropologists who earned their degrees between 1960 and 1969. It acts as the second volume to Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison’s African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (1999), which focuses on scholars trained after World War I.

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Reflection: Reorienting the History of Anthropology through Generations of Black Anthropologists

Friends of mine know that one of the first things I do when I buy a new academic book is read the acknowledgements. Learning about the people deemed important enough to the scholar that they are mentioned in their book—family, mentors, colleagues, editors, institutional partners—adds a textured layer to the scholarship that lies ahead. I’m always interested in those who influenced the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the work.

The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology (2018), edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams, has no formal acknowledgement section, save for a short musing from one of the three co-editors. Instead, I’d argue the entire book acts as an acknowledgement to an older generation of Black anthropologists. Through intellectual biographies, a more junior group of Black anthropologists recognizes a cohort who earned their degrees between 1960 and 1969. This book gives thanks to fifteen pioneers who shaped the discipline through their administrative and leadership roles, theoretical interventions and intellectual labor, activism on and off campus, and commitment to their students and peers.

Co-editors Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams at the AAA book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Erica Lorraine Williams.

This generous presentation of a previous generation inspired me to speak with the authors who profiled these pioneers. In October 2020, I organized group interviews with eleven of the book’s contributors. I was interested to learn how these scholars chose their pioneer, what they found surprising during the research process, and what drew them to participate in a project that highlighted an older generation. Over the course of the interviews, we discussed their own work, the work of the person they wrote about, the current state of anthropology, and why the research of these Black scholars matters. The intergenerational nature of my interviews informed conversations that were temporally and historically grounded.

The book acts as a call to recognize and reclaim Black anthropologists who studied and worked during a time not too long ago. This foundation lends itself to thinking of the various histories of anthropology and rethinking the discipline’s narrative of itself to center the intellectual labor of Black scholars. I have crafted an argument that combines the contributors’ interview insights with the book’s intellectual biographies to capture the parallels between the experiences of multiple generations of Black anthropologists. All of these scholars demonstrate their commitment to calling out the impacts of white supremacy, racism, and colonialism in anthropology, institutions of higher education, and US society.

The Need to Rehistoricize Anthropology

Notions of time, history, and what constitutes the past are complicated when considering experiences of Blackness. This is particularly true when analyzed through the lens of Black studies, given, as Christina Sharpe notes, “in the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (2016, 9). Through this frame, we can acknowledge the ways that events, narratives, and practices that took shape chronologically before us, particularly those rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy, have implications for contemporary Black life. Thus, living in the wake and the various afterlives of slavery (Sharpe 2016, Hartman 2007) disrupts normative notions of linear time because the past consistently reappears in the present.

The very real entanglements of the not-so-distant-past with the everyday, lived reality of Black folks has been explored ethnographically by a number of scholars. Their recent works include, but are not limited to, Deborah A. Thomas’s Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation (2019), Karla Slocum’s Black Towns, Black Futures (2019), Dána-Ain Davis’s Reproductive Injustice (2019), Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia (2019), and Laurence Ralph’s The Torture Letters (2020). This understanding of history, as necessary to quotidian life, further underlines the importance of The Second Generation. The stories in the book skillfully demonstrate how the discipline’s colonial and racist foundations, thought to be addressed by the liberal anti-racism of the Boasians (Anderson 2019), continued to impact Black scholars in the 1960s as they moved through the academy and larger society.

The interconnectedness of the recent past and the present is woven through this book. In the first Pioneer volume, the editors write that “Anthropology’s critical reconstruction […] can be achieved only through a rethought historicism, a rehistoricization that repossesses both exposed and hidden dimensions of the past” (Harrison and Harrison 1999, 5). This continues to be the project of The Second Generation because of its focus on Black anthropologists who were attempting to create space for themselves only a few decades ago. As these pioneers are the “black classmates and counterparts of some of American anthropology’s most recognized and esteemed (white) anthropologists” (Harrison and Harrison 1999, 8), acknowledging their accomplishments reconfigures the stories that are often told of the discipline. When we center the narratives of Black anthropologists, we shift the discipline’s historical frame and reorient our views of what counts as decisive scholarly interventions.

As Elgin L. Klugh stated in our interview, these scholars were “coming into anthropology in a highly segregated society at a time when anthropology was not necessarily as committed to the ideals of inclusion.”[1] By focusing on the lived experiences and theoretical contributions of the Black pioneers, instead of their white peers, the contributors succeed in bringing attention to often erased aspects of twentieth century intellectual life.

The contributors spoke directly to this need to rethink the discipline’s history by bringing attention to the term “pioneer.” Perhaps most importantly, the use of the term in the title acknowledges the book’s predecessor, Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison’s African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (1999), which focused on scholars trained in the period after World War I. Pioneers are those who are “the first and are forging this path for us to follow,” says Alice Baldwin-Jones. One of the book’s co-editors, Erica Lorraine Williams, points to the significance of the pioneers’ accomplishments: “They were the first Black person to be tenured, or Black woman to be tenured, the first woman president. So, they’re still occupying a lot of different roles where they were the first to do certain things.” Bertin M. Louis, Jr. adds that these were pioneering scholars because of their roles in developing different institutions, programs, and disciplinary fields. Not only were those profiled in the book foundational in shaping certain institutions, they were also creating space for future generations by leading the way forward. By claiming these under-recognized scholars as pioneers, we force the discipline to rethink the intellectuals it frequently celebrates as its founders.

Riché J. Daniel Barnes and Faye V. Harrison at AAA in 2018. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

To further emphasize the importance of rehistoricization, consider the number of interviews included in The Second Generation. Nine of the fifteen pioneers—James Lowell Gibbs Jr., Diane K. Lewis, Niara Sudarkasa, Johnnetta B. Cole, Ira E. Harrison, Audrey Smedley, Oliver Osborne, Anselme Remy, and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan—were still living at the time that research was collected for the book. Therefore, rather than solely relying on an archive of texts to piece together a narrative, some contributing writers spoke directly with their pioneer and contributed interview data to their intellectual biography. The fact that this is partially an oral history project speaks powerfully to the relative newness of Black scholars in anthropology and shifts the frame of what we consider as historical and in the past.

Organizing in Professional Associations

Beyond exposing different histories of anthropology, The Second Generation highlights racist and anti-Black experiences within the discipline that are frequently written out of more liberal accounts. Many such narratives appear throughout the book. Charles Preston Warren II was a military forensic anthropologist whose work was purposely excluded from textbooks and stolen by other scholars. Diane K. Lewis experienced blatant racism and sexism at every level as she journeyed through the academy, which led her to study anthropology and contribute to the Black feminist movement. Niara Sudarkasa was initially denied promotion to full professor at University of Michigan because her courses were seen as only tangentially relevant to her department. 

It is because of these kinds of institutional and bureaucratic barriers that the Black pioneers came together in creative ways, despite their educational experiences and faculty appointments across various universities. Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson remind us that “anthropology’s resistance to the epistemologies of ethnic‐studies scholarship to examine disciplinary praxis led underrepresented anthropologists of color to create their own institutional spaces in the AAA [American Anthropological Association] from which to develop critical and theoretically informed scholarship” (2011, 551).

For Black anthropologists, this process began in 1968, when pioneers Council Taylor, Delmos Jones, Diane K. Lewis, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Oliver Osborne established the Minority Caucus in the AAA. This group, formally institutionalized in 1970 as the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), was also led by pioneers Ira E. Harrison, Vera Mae Green, Sheila S. Walker, and Glenn Jordan. Transforming Anthropology, the flagship journal for the ABA, was established in 1990 by linguistic anthropologist Arthur Spears. Its roots can be traced back to ABA newsletters, Notes from the Natives and Notes from the ABA, which first appeared in 1973 and were spearheaded by Sheila S. Walker. Together, the creation of this association and its publications demonstrate Black anthropologists’ efforts to shift “the center of authority and legitimacy in research and scholarship from those established institutions which our people do not control to more democratically structured bases which embody the interests and priorities of ordinary Black folk” (Harrison 1990, 11). With these new institutions, there was space for Black anthropologists to come together, as thinkers and as writers, to critically consider structures of power that shaped both the discipline and their lived experiences.[2]

Riché J. Daniel Barnes, A. Lynn Bolles, and Marla F. Frederick, all past or present Presidents of the ABA, at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2014. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

Even 50 years later, the need for the Association of Black Anthropologists persists—perhaps even more so now. The current President of the ABA, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, spoke to the continued importance of the organization and her role in it, saying, “the reason why I was okay with being told to run for president was because of how much ABA has done for me and I wanted to be able to continue to do that for others, and even expand our offerings. Our ability to continue to mentor young anthropologists, to continue to help mid-career anthropologists get to associate and tenure, to support our applied anthropologists and make sure they have a platform as well within anthropology and especially within the Association of Black Anthropologists.” These aims, and more, are outlined as original goals of the ABA (Harrison 2010). It is through the leadership of the association’s Presidents, several pioneers included, that the organization has been so successful over time.

Betty J. Harris, Alisha R. Winn, and Rachel Watkins at the AAA book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Erica Lorraine Williams.

Black anthropologists are still working to bring representation to the field’s subdisciplines. Biocultural anthropologist Rachel Watkins recently referred to this discrepancy during a SAPIENS/Wenner-Gren panel discussion. “Western science, as an extension of western knowledge creation, is largely about racial ordering in relation to a human standard that puts people who are not white, cis, hetero, able-bodied, on the margins,” she explained. “So the people’s remains who are in laboratories and institutions reflect being on those margins. By extension, western science and western knowledge also racially order what roles different groups of people play in the production of knowledge relative to where they are to the center or the margins. Given that legacy, I think that’s a large part of the reason why there are so few folks of color in archaeology and biological anthropology, in particular.” This contemporary concern is particularly reflected amongst the pioneers, as most of the second generation were cultural anthropologists. Only a few were affiliated with subfields or subdisciplines, with Oliver Osborne in medical anthropology as a trained nurse, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan in linguistic anthropology, and Charles Preston Warren II in military forensic anthropology. 

In response to this discrepancy, groups for anthropology’s subdisciplines were recently developed. This is an interesting call back to the organizing work done by the pioneers to form the ABA. It also speaks to the importance of creating space for scholars to thrive outside of, but alongside, organizations that are racially unmarked, but coded as white:

Hope and Optimism for this Critical Moment

I ended each group interview with a question about hope. At a time of overlapping crises rooted in anti-Black racism and state and police violence which recall struggles experienced by earlier generations of Black scholars, what might be the potential of this particular moment?

The contributors’ answers addressed the chaos that has been added to the already taxing experience of being a Black anthropologist and educator. For example, Angela McMillan Howell explains that putting “out fires for Black students who are struggling right now,” as they deal with COVID-related illness, mental illness, food insecurity, and academic struggles, is a “very practiced and applied” process. Riché J. Daniel Barnes added that because of how these moments converge, “I’m trying to do so much and I think many of us are trying to do so much to move things in these moments,” but “it’s very difficult to believe in a longer lasting movement or change.” They noted how challenging it can be to remain hopeful when Black people are consistently under attack and disproportionately at risk of experiencing systemic, state-sanctioned violence. 

Still, the contributors displayed optimism. For example, they considered the idea of letting anthropology burn (Jobson 2020) to be one of great potential. “I think a lot of the new work coming out by people like Savannah Shange and Ashanté Reese is thinking about anti-Blackness in really critical ways,” said Erica Lorraine Williams. She continued, “In terms of highlighting white supremacy, highlighting Black resistance, highlighting all these different things, they’re building upon the past and the contributions and the things that we’ve learned from the past.”

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. added, “I see it as not really like anthropology burning, but more as a moment of restructuring. In the ashes of not just the discipline but also of the world that’s burning now to hopefully do something better with this. I think Black studies and Black anthropologists have a lot to say about this tradition of not just preserving Black life, but preserving our species.” He continues by saying that simultaneous to arguments for restructuring, “we also need to pay attention to these folks who are part of this Black anthropological lineage and what they do with their anthropological knowledge outside of the discipline to affect other parts of academia and society.” Antoinette Jackson agreed: “If you let anthropology burn, you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. So, you don’t want to throw out people like Vera Green, who spent her life inside of the academy. These are things we need to highlight and maybe we’re throwing out the canon, but not Anthropology.”

David Simmons, Ira E. Harrison, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, Tony Whitehead, and Johnnetta B. Cole at the ABA Legacy Awards Ceremony in 2009. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

The most consistent hopeful response referred to the “critical mass” that currently exists within the discipline. This exact wording was repeatedly used to speak to the relative power Black anthropologists have gained through their heightened presence and intergenerational solidarity and mentoring. “We now have a critical mass of scholars who can bring attention to these things and talk about these things within anthropology,” begins Rachel Watkins. “I think that the fact that a number of the contributors to this volume are people in my cohort, in terms of when you’re in school, the fact that we’re all in anthropology departments is a manifestation of the labor that the previous generation poured into us. What they poured into us allowed us to be able to secure those positions.”

Alisha R. Winn, Elgin L. Klugh, and Erica Lorraine Williams at the AAA book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Erica Lorraine Williams.

Elgin L. Klugh continues reflecting on changes in the profession, “It’s been interesting to see that critical mass that Rachel’s talked of, these newcomers, these young folks. I see more people at the AAA conference and not just more, but more people in the subdisciplines. For example, Justin Dunnavant, the archaeologist, doing this interesting underwater archaeology. I had him come and speak to Coppin State because he’s from Maryland and he’s a graduate of Howard University. The idea that we’re actually getting so big in number we don’t even get a chance to know each other, quite frankly, and just integrating into all the various nooks and crannies of anthropology.” In short, the greater number of Black scholars with doctoral degrees in anthropology has helped to create a space in the discipline for their scholarship and voices.

Further, Alisha R. Winn points out that key to this critical mass is the visibility of Black anthropologists in various leadership positions. This provides an opportunity to take “advantage of the positions we are in to voice, or encourage, or push for incorporation.” For example, several of the contributors currently act as department chairs (Angela McMillan Howell, Antoinette Jackson, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, and Erica Lorraine Williams), department administrators (Elgin L. Klugh and Bertin M. Louis, Jr.), company founders (Alisha R. Winn and Deborah Johnson-Simon), and members of leadership boards of AAA sections (Riché J. Daniel Barnes and Bertin M. Louis, Jr.). It matters that there are more Black anthropologists present in the discipline and in these positions because it creates opportunities to guide structural change.

Emulating the Pioneers

Rachel Watkins stated that the contributors in various leadership positions are “actually emulating the pioneers” because “it was their kind of radical imaginings of anthropology that allowed them to claim anthropology, while they were doing all of these things that within the context of Western knowledge production, were not anthropology.” Watkins speaks directly to institutional and disciplinary barriers that determine what is included and excluded as anthropological theory and knowledge. Because of their positioning in relation to other disciplines, particularly Black studies, and their critiques of the need to remain “objective” to contribute critical interventions, Black anthropologists have been able to shape conversations within the field to stretch the narrow boundaries of what is classified as worthy of study and who is able to conduct this research– a potential intensified when Black anthropologists hold positions of authority.

Irma McClaurin, Johnnetta B. Cole, Bianca C. Williams, Corliss Heath, and Rachel Watkins at AAA in 2013 after presenting on a panel together. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

Their desire to reimagine the field is just one of the ways that the experiences of the pioneers and contributors mirror each other. Another is in the way that both cohorts prioritize working with and connecting with local communities, given their shared understanding that research is not meant to be circulated just within the walls of the academy. Consider, for example, Elgin L. Klugh’s work with the Laurel Cemetery project, Angela McMillan Howell’s participation in The Hill Community Project, and Antoinette Jackson’s commitment to The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.  

One of the book’s co-editors, Deborah Johnson-Simon, believes that the local Black community is integral to her work and research in Savannah, Georgia, especially because of her commitment to museum anthropology.  She desires “to work with communities enough so they see that the things you’re interested in are all the things that are of interest to them. I think that should be our guiding piece because that’s the only way we’re going to get young people to be able to come into this field and make any kind of difference. It’s to take seriously that we need to engage with communities in really meaningful ways that are important to them.”

This kind of approach is one that Cheryl R. Rodriguez credits to pioneer Diane K. Lewis: “she encouraged Black anthropologists to work in Black communities. Those ideas that Black anthropologists should work in Black communities and not only take from Black communities to create scholarship and knowledge but also contribute back to them. She talked about applied anthropology and the ways in which we should be contributing to Black communities and that has been a legacy among Black anthropologists. Many of us have really tried to do that.” Another exemplary pioneer in this respect is Vera Mae Green; Antoinette Jackson said “we’re producing and reproducing Vera Green all time” in the applied anthropology program at the University of South Florida. Through such public-facing projects, the contributors are working against a form of anthropology that extracts knowledge from people and communities in order merely to perform its theorization in the academy. As anthropologists, we should constantly be circling back to the people and the places we work with and learn from.

The contributors also emulate the work of the pioneers through their prolonged commitment to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The pioneers were deeply rooted in HBCUs: Ira E. Harrison was a graduate of Morehouse College and conducted research at Hampton University, Anselme Remy taught at Fisk University, Johnnetta B. Cole served as the president of Spelman College and Bennett College, and Niara Sudarkasa was president of Lincoln University. Not only are several in the contributors’ cohort HBCU alumni, including Alisha R. Winn, Rachel Watkins, Elgin L. Klugh, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, and Angela McMillan Howell, but several have also joined the faculty at these institutions, either previously or currently, including Alisha R. Winn, Erica Lorraine Williams, Deborah Johnson-Simon, Angela McMillan Howell, and Elgin L. Klugh. Connections to HBCUs demonstrate how important these institutions remain in educating Black undergraduates, introducing them to anthropology, and creating a pipeline to graduate programs in the discipline. 

Alisha R. Winn, Ira E. Harrison, Flordeliz T. Bugarin, Deborah Johnson-Simon, Claire Greene Crooks-Harrison, and Angela McMillan Howell pose outside after their AAA panel presentation on HBCUs in 2011. Photo courtesy of Alisha R. Winn.

An AAA panel about HBCUs and anthropology organized for the 2011 Montreal meetings included several of the contributors. Alisha R. Winn participated in the panel and explained that “we were describing the importance of having anthropology programs and anthropology courses at HBCUs because for the majority of us, anthropology was introduced to us through these HBCUs.” Despite how important these institutions have been in introducing anthropology to young Black scholars, there are now only one or two trained anthropologists employed at these institutions. This makes it difficult for the few who are there to encourage interest in the discipline and to be the discipline’s sole representatives to large groups of undergraduate students. Deborah Johnson-Simon noted that “you have to fight with people to get more anthropology. The only thing we can keep is intro, so I do everything with intro. I do it all.” Referring to the critical mass suggested by others, Elgin L. Klugh added, “I’d like to see the growth of the fields within HBCUs. I understand some of the historical context as to why anthropology is not necessarily present in HBCUs, but now is the time where that critical mass can start to spill over into that arena, too.”

Johnnetta B. Cole, Bianca C. Williams, Bertin M. Louis, Jr., Omotayo Jolaosho, David Simmons, and Karen G. Williams at an ABA mentoring event in 2012.  Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

A number of networks surfaced when tracing the intergenerational and institutional connections between the pioneers and the contributors to the volume. Johnnetta B. Cole was president of Spelman College when Riché J. Daniel Barnes was an undergraduate. Subsequently, the former was a distinguished presidential professor in anthropology at Emory University when the latter attended graduate school there. Because of his connection to Morehouse College, Ira E. Harrison was a mentor to Elgin L. Klugh. Rachel Watkins was introduced to biological anthropology at Howard University through W. Montague Cobb’s Black scholar activist tradition and Michael Blakey’s continuation of this tradition, and she also worked with Delmos Jones at that time. Antoinette Jackson and Alisha R. Winn were the first winners of The Vera Green Publication Award, an award named for the pioneer to highlight the work of public anthropologists. Alisha R. Winn and Ira E. Harrison were both archivists for the ABA, with the latter mentoring the former while she held the role. Alice Baldwin-Jones worked with Yolanda Moses as an undergraduate at City College of New York, during which time she learned of Laurence Foster, and then she worked with George Clement Bond as a graduate student at Columbia University.

This is just one way to consider the threads that link the pioneers and the contributors. By coding their institutional connections in this way, it becomes clear that the pioneers were committed not only to their own success in the academy, but to nurturing, supporting, and mentoring forthcoming generations in ways that have continued to shape the discipline.

Honoring Dr. Ira E. Harrison

When discussing mentors, I would be remiss if I did not focus on Dr. Ira E. Harrison, who passed away in April 2020. Dr. Harrison was a co-editor of both Pioneer volumes and was also profiled by Alisha R. Winn in The Second Generation. He was described as “a historian and preserver of history” with a commitment “to locate and identify past and present African American anthropologists. As the ABA’s first archivist, Harrison sought to ensure that the accomplishments and works of ABA members as well as ABA events and meetings were recorded and preserved” (Winn 2018, 121). Angela McMillan Howell affectionately referred to him as “the dean of all things Black anthropology.”

Almost every contributor shared a story about him; they collectively narrate a lighthearted personality which shines through in his love of photographs and poetry, his spirit of inclusiveness and collegiality, his unmatched approach to mentorship and community-building, and his persistence to the project of reclaiming Black scholars.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. noted, “He was very special in the sense that he did a lot of the behind the scenes work that put things together that you don’t necessarily hear about or is published about. But he did all this behind the scenes work that kept the ABA going and he contributed something that was much bigger than himself.” As an example of this background work, several contributors described how Dr. Harrison quietly bestowed upon them a pioneer to research during the AAA meetings in Montreal in 2011. It appears that when the panelists met to discuss the relationship between HBCUs and anthropology, Dr. Harrison was already tinkering with the idea of a second Pioneers book. Co-editor Deborah Johnson-Simon describes his years-long dedication to seeing the book come to fruition as a “real labor of love.”

To celebrate Dr. Harrison’s life and legacy, Riché J. Daniel Barnes said that we must “make sure that the Association of Black Anthropologists continues to do the work of being that voice within American anthropology and also continuing the mentoring of those that are coming behind us.”

Moving Forward

It is because of this ongoing legacy that I found my conversations with the contributors to be so powerful: the President and President-elect were present as we discussed those who provided the foundation for the Association of Black Anthropologists in the 1960s; Dr. Harrison’s presence was made clear through the comments of others; anthropologists both in the academy and in the public space participated in the interviews; and, through the pioneers, the contributors, and me, sixty years of Black anthropology was represented.

Savannah Shange notes that “writing is ancestor work” (2019, ix) and this truth was felt throughout the various layers of this work. On every level, this project is an acknowledgement of the brilliance that Black anthropologists, as intellectual contemporaries, elders, and ancestors, offered a discipline that continues to participate in the erasure of their work. It is a concerted effort to write against the fact that, according to Cheryl R. Rodriguez, “we as Black people, as African Americans and as Black people throughout the diaspora, we had been so misrepresented by anthropologists, so exploited.” Even more, “Black women were brutally misrepresented or just completely invisible in anthropology.” Because of how it chronicles the pioneers’ experiences, The Second Generation is a bold and necessary celebration of all that Black anthropologists have accomplished.

But there’s still work to be done to ensure that Black anthropologists are adequately recognized for their theoretical interventions, intellectual contributions, and labor in and beyond the academy. When describing the project of anthropology for Black students and scholars, Rachel Watkins says, “There’s an intellectual prowess associated with the challenge of having to theorize yourself into humanity on a daily basis.” It is with this in mind that we must work to recognize scholars, narratives, and histories that continue to be taken for granted. 


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Works Cited

Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56.

Davis, Dána-Ain. 2019. Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth. Anthropologies of American Medicine: Culture, Power, and Practice. NYU Press.

Harrison, Faye V. 1990. “From The President.” Transforming Anthropology 1 (1): 10–11.

Harrison, Ira E. 2010. “The Association of Black Anthropologists: A Brief History.” Transforming Anthropology 18 (2): 120–27.

Harrison, Ira E., and Faye V. Harrison, eds. 1999. African-American Pioneers in Anthropology. University of Illinois Press.

Harrison, Ira E., Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams. 2018. The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122 (2): 259–71.

Ralph, Laurence. 2020. The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Duke University Press.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.

Slocum, Karla. 2019. Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West. University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2019. Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair. Durham: Duke University Press.

Winn, Alisha R. 2018. “Ira E. Harrison: Activist, Scholar, and Visionary Pioneer.” In The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams, 114–25. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


Endnotes

[1] Volume contributors’ names are bolded throughout these pieces and, unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from the interviews that form the basis for this series as described in the author’s introduction.

[2] The association’s fiftieth year and the journal’s thirtieth year were marked in 2020. To celebrate these anniversaries, the October 2020 issue of Transforming Anthropology honors the fiftieth anniversary of the ABA through commentaries that reflect on the elders’ contributions to the discipline. The volume’s cover art includes a drawing rendition of Ira E. Harrison.

Interview Highlights: The Book’s Contributors Describe the Pioneers

When given the opportunity to describe something surprising or particularly interesting about their pioneer, the contributors to The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology offered rich accounts that spoke to various aspects of their lives and careers. These answers echo observations that appear in the book, but in our conversations, the contributors were able to ground their insights within the context of their own experiences and those of other contributors. The fact that these were group interviews allowed the contributors to be in conversation with one another. 

These highlights are arranged in the order they appear in the book, with the corresponding chapter listed alongside the names of the contributor and the pioneer profiled. The interviews were transcribed by Alissa Rae Funderburk and these snippets were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Alice Baldwin-Jones on Charles Preston Warren II (Chapter 2)

“I guess in today’s lexicon, Charles Warren would be considered an applied anthropologist. He went to school at the University of Chicago and then he did some ethnography in the Philippines. He worked in a museum in the Philippines as well, and then he was in the military, and he worked for the military as a forensic anthropologist at the birth of forensic anthropology—so, learning and developing the methods as he went along. I think one of the things that I found surprising is we often hear these stories in school that Black people are not smart. And then I’m reading Warren’s papers, and there it is. He’s basing his [academic] work on his work for the military in identifying the dead in the Vietnam War, the Korean War. He goes to Korea. He goes to Japan, and he’s coming up with all these methodologies, but because he’s working for the military, the military has all these rules and regulations, and he can’t publish his work. He’s presenting the methodologies that he came up with during his work and oftentimes he’s working with a Japanese forensic anthropologist as well. I mean, this was the beginning of forensic anthropology, because the military made an executive order that all its war dead must be identified. Then he’s going to conferences, he’s sharing his work and then he sees his work being published by the top forensic anthropologist at the time. So, he’s having to work with people who are stealing his work and publishing it as theirs.”

Cheryl R. Rodriguez on Diane K. Lewis (Chapter 4)

“Diane Lewis is a very courageous, very brilliant, and determined woman who had such a vision for her work as an anthropologist. I wasn’t surprised at how brilliant this woman is. I am a Black person living in America who grew up with brilliant people so I know what Black people are capable of. That’s not anything I’ve ever had to be convinced of. But, more than that, what really struck me was her determination to stand up to racism and sexism, which she experienced quite vividly during her undergraduate years. And this was all in the 1950s and 60s, so you can imagine just how frustrating it must have felt for a Black intellectual at that time to be trying to break down these barriers in the midst of so much oppression and not enough protection, not enough legal protection, not enough policy protection. But one of the things that also impressed me about her was just the kinds of writing that she did. She wrote this article, “Anthropology and Colonialism,”  which has been cited so many times because she published that in 1973. It conceptualized and analyzed the historical relationship between anthropologists and the non-white people that they study. She was really looking carefully at what anthropology really meant, even though she was a part of it. She looked at its colonial context and she looked at that in many different ways. Another article that I wrote about here is her piece called “A Response to Inequality: Black Women, Racism, and Sexism” (1977), which was really pioneering at its time. This article has been published in several different places and a lot of people don’t even know that this exists, that she wrote this before many other Black feminists actually wrote about the intersection of gender, race, and class for Black women.”

Elgin L. Klugh on Delmos Jones (Chapter 5)

“To this day, I use Delmos Jones’s “Social Responsibility and the Belief in Basic Research: An Example from Thailand” (1971) in my teaching when I’m in the section about ethics. When I teach ethnography, what I want to convey to students is who you are as the ethnographer matters in terms of the kind of relationships you’re able to form in the field, the kind of information that people feel comfortable sharing with you, and the kind of biases and predispositions that you bring to your research and you’re thinking about the individuals. Delmos Jones, being somebody who was born in a sharecropping family in the South, throughout his career, his perspective was that he was able to identify with poor and marginalized people no matter where they were on the planet, whether they’re Native Americans, Australians, or individuals in the highlands of Thailand. And he put their well-being first in a real way that trumped his career goals. I find that is a really good case study that students can identify with when I’m trying to drive home the point of the personality of the ethnographer and also this right, this duty to our populations that we study. The ideas of really doing no harm and putting your people first, it’s a great example for those.”

Erica Lorraine Williams on Niara Sudarkasa (Chapter 6)

“Niara Sudarkasa was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her original name was Gloria Marshall and her parents and grandparents were from the Bahamas. I feel like her early work made really important contributions to feminist anthropology because her work pushed back against the generalization and the universalization of the feminist anthropologists who would say that “this” is how gender plays out in the world. Her work in Nigeria showed that actually, it doesn’t really play out like that. After she finished her PhD, she worked. She was assistant professor at NYU, and then she went to the University of Michigan. She was the first Black woman to earn tenure at the University of Michigan and she was also involved in the Black Action Movement, which was led by Black students who were really mobilizing and organizing on Michigan’s campus. Speaking of the impact of racism and sexism, she was actually initially denied tenure. That was really interesting to look at; I did research in the archives. There was a rich kind of documentation of the process, the different letters that were written by her pushing back against the decision because a lot of the things that the anthropology faculty said were racist. So, she ended up earning tenure and becoming full professor. And then she became the first Black woman, or the first woman, president of Lincoln University, which is the oldest HBCU in Pennsylvania. In her later work, she did a lot of work on extended families and pushing back against the universalization of the nuclear family, pushing back against the idea that Black families, single mother households, or different things like that were stigmatized. She argued that there were certain values implicit in them, that they were multi-generational, different things like that. A lot of her work was really pushing back against these dominant narratives.”

Riché J. Daniel Barnes on Johnnetta B. Cole (Chapter 7)

Johnnetta B. Cole and Riché J. Daniel Barnes at the AAA in 2017, as the two celebrate Dr. Cole’s retirement from the Smithsonian. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

“My pioneer is Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole and she has been my long, long, long time mentor and scholarly everything. One of the things that was really cool to me was the way that she changed her perspective about sexuality. It was her friendship with Audre Lorde that helped her to understand Black sexuality in a broader context. And that was really something that I would not have known to ask about because my perspective of her, having known her since I was an undergrad, has always been that she’s just been very open to every way in which you can show up as a human being. And not that she wasn’t prior. She talks about how she grew up with these images, these ways of being in community with people but had not really interrogated her own thinking around those things. And for Spelman to now have this endowed chair that is about doing work on Black sexuality, the groundwork for that kind of thing was laid while she was there because she was working with Beverly Guy-Sheftall to make those things happen. I uncovered her impact in all of these arenas, and how she got to the place of being able to unpack those things and make a substantial contribution in those arenas. And then, of course, there’s the frustration of seeing that she’s not recognized as an anthropologist. She’s recognized as an educator and now, of course, as someone in the museum world, and has always been recognized as a Black woman leader. But it’s so hard, you know, for her and so many others to be recognized as anthropologists.”

Deborah Johnson-Simon on John Langston Gwaltney (Chapter 8)

“A lot of what I did with Gwaltney was because he appeared on another list for me that I was studying with Blacks in museums and I was surprised by that directory that I received that there was even a category among museum professionals that was anthropologists. Because of his tutelage, I was able to use that with my students at an HBCU, where a lot of students coming into that class had never even heard the word ‘anthropology.’ So, they didn’t know what they were signing up for and by the end of a semester students had coined the term ‘Gwaltneyites’ because they were so passionate about the way he went about doing his work. They want to be Gwaltneyites. And doing that native anthropology and becoming African American museum anthropologists, I mean it was just amazing what you get from learning with these pioneers. So, they’re more than just theories and they become real to you when you start to do the work, when you write it, and then you start to feel like an anthropologist. And that’s what I wanted my students, even though they were just taking an introduction class, to come out of it feeling like: that they were doing something and that they could contribute to the field.”

Alisha R. Winn on Ira E. Harrison (Chapter 9)

“I didn’t know Dr. Harrison was a poet. He was like a big-time poet, he had written so many books of poems and every time I talked to him, he would quote some line in his poetry. Every single time. Or he would make up a poem right on the spot that included me, or whatever we were talking about, or something encouraging. Or as we get off the phone, he would leave me with a line. I expected it every time. He’s literally a pioneer in such a great way. [He accomplished] so many things. I didn’t know that he did a lot of his research and particularly his dissertation on the desegregation of churches and storefront churches. And that’s because he thought, initially, he was going to go into the ministry. And so, he still got a chance to look at faith and religion by doing his research on that extensively and by serving on boards related to church work in Ohio and in other places. And so, I learned that about him, being a poet and initially wanting to go into the ministry, which I found fascinating. But also, how he used all of that to build in his profession and in his life’s work. So, they weren’t these separate things. Even though someone from the outside might say, ‘Oh, he did this and this.’ No, all of those things connected together. His work with looking at HBCUs in anthropology and how Hampton got its program started in anthropology. I mean, all of these things connected to his curiosity and his pioneering work of wanting to make sure that African American anthropologists are recognized for their contributions. And so, his work is so broad, but is a holistic work that tells so much of a life’s work of someone who embodies all these things in one.”

Ira E. Harrison and Alisha R. Winn at the book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Alisha R. Winn.

Rachel Watkins on George Clement Bond (Chapter 11)

“We all kind of come to our research by way of exploring who we are, in some ways. I knew that I would learn about George Clement Bond as part of learning about his research and learning about his research would allow me the opportunity to do what I love to do, which is to be a biologically oriented anthropologist who’s learning more about the subfields. Bond is an Africanist anthropologist, whose work extended into education and he was based at Columbia University in the Teachers College. What I learned about him is that he was very much so a generalist. He started out as an Africanist and he used the research that he did and his particular departure from structural functionalism, he used his particular way of thinking and doing research to extend that to other questions. He thought about, ‘Okay, how can the methodological and theoretical kind of developments that come out of my research in this particular area be applied to other areas,’ to the point that he had several edited volumes he was co-authoring long before that was something that—well we still kind of struggle with that in anthropology. He was about creating space for exploring the breadth of application of the work of Black scholars and Black scholar-activists.”

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. on Oliver Osborne (Chapter 12)

“Dr. Oliver Osborne was a pioneering nurse anthropologist. He grew up in New York, his family was originally from Barbados. What was interesting about his trajectory is the odd way he came to nursing first and then anthropology. And he came to nursing, despite being in law school at the time. He decided to work in nursing and specialize in mental health issues. In his interview [with me for the book] he talked about how he was able to quench his thirst for all the different types of things he wanted to learn about through anthropology. And his studies, he wanted to do, he went on to do field work in the area of psychosocial nursing in Nigeria and he did a lot of back-and-forth trips between the United States and Nigeria. When he finished his PhD, he went on to pioneer a lot of different things within the area of psychosocial nursing. First, he was a Black man who blazed the trail for Black folks in the white women-dominated profession of nursing. He also was able to articulate a holistic view of nursing, as well as touting the utility of anthropological studies for nurses. He also was a pioneer in the sense of the different institutions that he helped to build up, like the first department that was related to psychosocial nursing at the University of Washington, as well as other professional organizations related to nursing and his emphasis on delivering mental health nursing services to the marginalized and the oppressed. Reflecting on Dr. Osborne, the main thing that really impressed me was the way that he applied good aspects of anthropological methods and knowledge towards pioneering this field of psychosocial nursing.” 

Angela McMillan Howell on Anselme Remy (Chapter 13)

Anselme Remy and Angela McMillan Howell at the AAA in 2014. Photo courtesy of Angela McMillan Howell.

“I think the most fulfilling part of Anselme Remy’s career, he would say, was the component of it which was really around Black studies and what he was able to do with Fisk University and connecting with other Black scholars who saw their research as an activist lifestyle. That it wasn’t just for the sake of curiosity, but it was about needing to connect and to radically change people’s everyday situations. And the other part that was incredibly fulfilling for him was the ways in which he worked outside of the academy directly to impact the Haitian government, to impact US policies towards Haiti, and then eventually returning to Haiti. And so these were spaces that were not mainline anthropological spaces, even though he had that masters from NYU, even though he was ABD at Brandeis. And because he chose the activist’s route and he chose to return to his home, he basically was an unknown scholar in a lot of ways. And then the last thing I wanted to just add was I believe he is the only non-American in the book. It’s really interesting as well that our perspective in anthropology is still so American-centric and Western-centric. I just think his presence in the [book] opens the door for people to also wonder. Americans are not the only anthropologists; African Americans are not the only anthropologists. How do we continue to access other people’s ways of knowing the world who are in Senegal, in Kenya, in Haiti, in wherever they are, that are anthropologists? They’re trained, they’re Black, potentially, but they’re not recognized because they’re just not even in the English canon.”

Antoinette Jackson on Vera Mae Green (Chapter 14)

“Vera Green was a cultural anthropologist, very much a public anthropologist. She actually put into practice many of the anthropological tenets. In the chapter, I was really struggling to find a little bit of a different angle on her that wasn’t quite tapped into fully. And it was the fact that she was a Quaker. I decided to really focus on how that influenced part of her life. In addition to her being a public anthropologist, she seemed to always operate outside the box or go against the grain of what you typically think of as a Black person doing something. In her work she was always talking about heterogeneity, like ‘don’t look at every Black person the same.’ So, looking at the Quaker experience was a chance to highlight something different about her in the sense [of what] people typically think about Black folks’ religious practices and really figure out how that informs her. Also, she stressed looking at intersectionality before that word became a word. She was looking at the socioeconomic differences between how people experience location or parts of their life or cultural experiences. She looked at Black folk outside of the typical ways that people are talking about them. She’s looking at folk in the Netherlands Antilles. And she’s seeking out Black people in areas where people weren’t really doing a lot of research on Black folk and then looking in different contexts. Seeing how she was able to elaborate on Black people’s experiences and environments really made it okay, or just helped me hone my own way of thinking and looking. She gave me a way to do that.”


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Theory: Centering the Intellectual Labor of Black Anthropologists

Throughout the course of my interviews, I asked the contributors, “What texts should all anthropology students be familiar with by the time they complete their undergraduate or graduate programs?” I knew they would point me to the works cited throughout both African-American Pioneers in Anthropology and The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, but I was interested to learn the texts that guide their research and are incorporated in their teaching. Who are they and their students thinking alongside?

This seemingly innocuous question encouraged conversations about the circulation of particular histories of and in the discipline, and it centered our attention on canonization and citation practices. And rightfully so, given the ways that anthropologists of color, in general, and Black anthropologists, in particular, have been underrecognized in the field.

In their interrogation of anthropology’s success towards its goal of racial inclusivity, Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson concluded that anthropology departments are institutionally organized as “white public spaces,” thus participating in “a hegemonic, daily, unreflexive praxis that marginalizes faculty and students of color” (2011, 554). One of the ways departments constitute themselves in this way is by establishing clear “boundaries by theoretical perspectives and explanatory projects as well as subject matter” (552). These boundaries determine which ideas and perspectives “belong” in anthropological thought, and make it difficult to include courses, research, and writings on race and racism. For these reasons, anthropologists of color are often met with resistance and have been excluded from theory building exercises which are imperative to the perpetuation of the discipline.   

Drawing on Sylvia Wynter’s theorization of the Western Man, one could argue that disciplines are “storytellers who now storytellingly invent themselves” (Wynter and McKittrick 2015, 11) by relying upon the circulation of scholars, ideas, readings, and histories that best fit the story they are hoping to tell. In anthropology, these narratives have favored Western scholars who are white and male, often hoping to portray some authentic truth about “other” populations and cultures. Together, these theoretical boundaries and the systemic privileging of certain scholars contribute to an idealized canon that tends to over-represent the historical and contemporary scholarship of white male cis-gender thinkers.

Alternatively, as Joshua Bennett and Imani Perry brilliantly reflect, we should challenge the fraught and often fetishized canon. Instead we should consider its purpose to simply “create a set of common texts, and common texts function as ways for us to have sustained conversations.” With this in mind, a kind of deliberate curation should be invested in ensuring that “canons are elastic, or they should be, and they should make room for beauty.” We can take this as a call to uplift legacies and make visible the intellectual labor of Black anthropologists who have been pushed to the margins of the discipline or have had to find disciplinary homes in other departments.

Suggestions for how to meaningfully reimagine the discipline and the canon are plenty. Moreover, demands to decolonize and transform anthropology have circulated for decades. Ashanté Reese calls for the elevation of ethnography that draws on epistemological elsewheres, including “from Black studies, ethnic studies, women and gender studies, and the lives we lived before the academy” (2019). In her estimation, the field’s harsh disciplinary boundaries are limiting, monotonous, and uncreative.

“We need to overhaul the way we teach anthropology,” Riché J. Daniel Barnes explained (2013). “We cannot be afraid to talk about the way anthropology has been complicit in the degradation of cultures and the accompanying oppression of people. We cannot continue to begin with the ‘primitive’ and the ‘savage’ and expect students whose ancestors were part of those populations to find merit in the field.”

Angela McMillan Howell and Elgin L. Klugh considered institutional ways to combat this alienation. Howell and Klugh, both alumni and faculty members at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), believe that “their history, student characteristics, and overall learning environments uniquely position HBCUs to give voice to a number of perspectives that would add texture to the anthropological canon” (Klugh and Howell 2013). It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that students and scholars of all identities and subject positions do not feel alienated and ostracized by a discipline with a deeply colonial history.

Overall, these suggestions point to the need to combat the erasure of certain voices and highlight the theoretical interventions of those whose existence is often written out of the discipline. “We have this legacy of African American pioneers who have decolonized and we could use them to further decolonize the discipline,” Alice Baldwin-Jones explains, referring not only to those scholars profiled in the book, but to all those elders who contributed their intellectual labor to anthropology.[1] This would require an incorporation of their work in courses, as well as tangible engagement with their theory in our own writing, particularly given the importance of citation to the academic enterprise.

Erica Lorraine Williams, whose current book project deals with Black feminist activism in Bahia, expounds: “It’s really important that we document these stories and document people’s trajectories and their work, reviewing their work and the contributions that it made so that we don’t continue to be marginalized and kind of left out of the canon.” Christen A. Smith’s #CiteBlackWomen movement, a collective of which Williams is a member, is one such commitment to crediting the life and work of Black women intellectuals. Another is Black feminist anthropology, which Irma McClaurin defines as an intervention that “constructs its own canon that is both theoretical and based in the politics of praxis and poetics” and “seeks to deconstruct the institutionalized racism and sexism that has characterized the history of the discipline of anthropology” (2001, 2).

Therefore, to keep these scholars “active and alive” and to “keep building and highlighting them,” as Antoinette Jackson implores, I present a reading list curated by the volume’s contributors (with a few suggested additions of my own). This kind of list is in good company, as existing examples include the Zora’s Daughters Podcast syllabi and the Decanonizing Anthropology Syllabus Project. These collections, and others similar to them, are living documents that might shift and grow over time, but remain committed to centering the voices of marginalized folks and respecting them as knowledge producers, rather than mere research subjects. Across theories and geographies, disciplines and subfields, and methodological approaches, these texts speak to a past and present of anthropology that takes seriously the lived realities of race and racism.

Theory List

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Anderson, Ryan. 2013. “Race, Racism, Anthropology #1: Mullings on ‘Interrogating Racism.’” Savage Minds (blog). February 27, 2013.

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

———, ed. 2003. Life in America: Identity and Everyday Experience. Blackwell.

Barnes, Riché J. Daniel. 2015. Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community. Families in Focus. Rutgers University Press.

  • See also Mark Anthony Neal’s interview with Riché J. Daniel Barnes on the Left of Black video podcast (season 8, episode 12: “When Black Professional Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community”).

Bolles, A. Lynn. 2001. “Seeking the Ancestors: Forging a Black Feminist Tradition in Anthropology.” In Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics, edited by Irma McClaurin. Rutgers University Press.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2017. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 5th ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

Browne, Dallas. 2016. People You Should Know: Biographies of William Shack and James Gibbs. Self-published.

Buck, Pem Davidson. 2001. Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Cox, Aimee Meredith. 2015. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Duke University Press.

Fernández-Kelly, Patricia. 2015. The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press.

Franklin, Maria, and Robert Paynter. 2010. “Inequality and Archaeology.” In Voices in American Archaeology: The 75th Anniversary Volume of the Society for American Archaeology, edited by Wendy Ashmore, Dorothy T. Lippert, and Barbara J. Mills, 94–130. Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology.

Harrison, Faye V. 1992. “The Du Boisian Legacy in Anthropology.” Critique of Anthropology 12 (3): 239–60.

———, ed. 2005. Resisting Racism and Xenophobia: Global Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Human Rights. AltaMira Press.

Howell, Angela McMillan. 2013. Raised Up Down Yonder: Growing Up Black in Rural Alabama. University Press of Mississippi.

  • See also Angela Howell’s video introduction to the book. This video was part of a collaboration between Howell and Territa Poole, profiled here by Morgan State University.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. J.B. Lippincott.

Jackson, Antoinette T. 2012. Speaking for the Enslaved: Heritage Interpretation at Antebellum Plantation Sites. Left Coast Press.

———. 2020. Heritage, Tourism, and Race: The Other Side of Leisure. New York: Routledge.

Kendi, Ibram X. 2016. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books.

Kincaid, Jamaica. 1988. A Small Place. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1994. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. Jossey-Bass.

Lamphere, Louise. 2004. “Unofficial Histories: A Vision of Anthropology from the Margins.” American Anthropologist 106 (1): 126–39.

Louis, Jr., Bertin M. 2014. My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestanism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas. New York University Press.

  • See also Bertin Louis’s interview with Kevin Michael Foster on Blackademics TV (Austin, PBS: 2015).

McClaurin, Irma, ed. 2001. Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics. Rutgers University Press.

McKittrick, Katherine, ed. 2015. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Duke University Press.

Mullings, Leith. 1997. On Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender in the Lives of African American Women. Routledge.

Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. 1999. Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. University of Chicago Press.

Remy, Anselme. 1976. “Anthropology: For Whom and What?The Black Scholar 7 (7): 12–16.

Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford. 2000. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. Wiley.

Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Zed Press.

Rodriguez, Cheryl R., Dzodzi Tsikata, and Akosua Adomako Ampofo, eds. 2015. Transatlantic Feminisms: Women and Gender Studies in Africa and the Diaspora. Lexington Books.

  • See also Cheryl R. Rodriguez’s interview about the book in the Black Agenda Report (2019).

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.

Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. 2011. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. 4th edition. Routledge.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1992. “The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1): 19–42.

———. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press.

Watkins, Rachel J. 2020. “An Alter(Ed)Native Perspective on Historical Bioarchaeology.” Historical Archaeology 54 (1): 17–33.

Williams, Erica Lorraine. 2013. Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements. University of Illinois Press.

Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. 2015. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick, 9–89. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Pioneers’ Papers

While interviewing the contributors and collecting these suggested readings, an interesting detail arose. Several pioneers have donated or stored their papers across sites and platforms, an act that inevitably speaks to their understanding of the importance of collecting, recording, documenting, and archiving. I have included a non-exhaustive list below:

  • Angela Gilliam’s papers have been digitized and can be found online here and here.
  • Vera Mae Green’s papers are located at the Tuskegee University library, but many of the holdings have yet to be digitized.
  • Anselme Remy’s papers, mostly published in French, can be found at the Library of Congress.
  • The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University houses both Ira E. Harrison’s papers and the archives of the Association of Black Anthropologists. Dr. Harrison also has papers at Emory University.

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Additional Works Cited

Barnes, Riché Daniel. 2013. “Anthropology Is for Us, Right? (Section News, Association of Black Anthropologists).” Anthropology News 54 (11).

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56.

Klugh, Elgin, and Angela Howell. 2013. “Decolonization Continued: Anthropology and HBCUs (Section News, Association of Black Anthropologists).” Anthropology News 54 (6).

Reese, Ashanté. 2019. “When We Come to Anthropology, Elsewhere Comes with Us (Opinion: Ethnography from Elsewhere).” Anthropology News 60 (1): e113–17.


Endnotes

[1] Volume contributors’ names are place in bold type throughout these pieces and, unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from the interviews that form the basis for this series as described in the author’s introduction.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning from Black Anthropology

Following the model of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s lesson plans, I offer a curriculum guide for The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. This book could be assigned and incorporated into class discussion in a number of ways. Its potential lies especially in its discussion of various themes, including race and racism, gender and sexism, class and labor inequality, fieldwork and ethnographic methods, intersectionality, and decolonizing and diversifying disciplines.

I agree with Antoinette Jackson: the book “provides a means of broadening the conversation and enables students to experience different ways of critiquing and applying anthropology.”[1] Also, since all the pioneers and contributors are Black, incorporating this text onto syllabi is just one way to respond to Laurence Ralph and Aisha Beliso-De Jesús’ critique of how whiteness is privileged in anthropology syllabi.

Erica Lorraine Williams remarks that “you go through your whole graduate training and there’s still these people that you just haven’t heard of, that you don’t know about, that you haven’t been taught.” This book helps correct this silence, providing a valuable resource in its own right because of its skillful recovery of prominent anthropologists for a contemporary cohort of scholars. But the potential of the book is not limited to the text. During a recent ACLS/SSRC conversation with Alondra Nelson and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bianca C. Williams stated, “you can’t understand race and racism and you can’t understand the utility of the humanities and social sciences if you’re not engaging the work of Black studies, Black feminist studies, and Black queer studies.” This call echoes the pioneers’ reliance on the Black Power and Black studies movements (Anderson 2019) to critique and challenge anthropology as a discipline largely implicated in colonialism and racism. We should take Williams’ contemporary assertion seriously and the pioneers’ work is a place to start.

Thus, in addition to the book itself, the pioneers’ articles and books should be used to prepare new generations of scholars. Their scholarship includes, but is not limited to, ethnography across Africa and the diaspora, Black feminist thought, critiques of colonialism, white supremacy, racism, and sexism, and critical methodological interventions. With this in mind, here is just one example of how the pioneers’ areas of research could be organized and taught:

  • Military forensic anthropology: Charles Preston Warren II
  • Medical anthropology: Oliver Osborne
  • Linguistic anthropology: Claudia Mitchell-Kernan
  • Africanist scholarship: George Clement Bond, Niara Sudarkasa, James Lowell Gibbs Jr., William Shack
  • Anthropology of race: Audrey Smedley
  • Applied and public anthropology: Johnnetta B. Cole, Vera Mae Green, Ira E. Harrison, Diane K. Lewis
  • Native anthropology: Delmos Jones, John Langston Gwaltney, Anselme Remy

Now for tangible ways to assign the book itself: I’ll start this guide by offering my own idea first. Twenty-eight Black anthropologists are highlighted across both installments to the Pioneers archive. However, these are not autobiographical entries; each anthropologist is profiled by a more junior anthropologist. As a final assignment, students could provide a Pioneers-like entry for one of the contributors to either volume. For example, what would they write in a chapter about Betty J. Harris or Janis Faye Hutchinson? A student could flex multiple methodological muscles for this assignment, as oral history collection, interviews, archival research, digital ethnography, and close reading could come in handy. The final product might include an overview of the scholar’s educational background, their published works and intellectual contributions, their approach to the discipline, and their engagement with a community outside of academia. If relevant, it would also be interesting to include a reflection on the connection between the contributor and their pioneer: why might Deborah Johnson-Simon have profiled John Langston Gwaltney? What connects Dallas Browne and William Alfred Shack?

Once this research has been conducted and these biographies are written, one might encourage students to submit pieces to History of Anthropology Review. An analysis of a pioneers’ foundational work could be contributed to Generative Texts or a surprising archival detail could find a place in Clio’s Fancy. For work based on the Pioneer archive, there are plenty of outlets at HAR that could result in a student publication.

Rachel Watkins: “Thinking about how the work of scholars in the book is obscured, I like the idea of pairing chapters in The Second Generation with some of the scholars’ work—or work they inspired. I think Karen Field’s ‘Witchcraft and Racecraft’ piece in [George Clement Bond’s edited volume] Witchcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges (2001) would be great to assign alongside my podcast episode on race. I don’t think a lot of people know this—in terms of the way that our pioneers have created space for all sorts of things—in his edited volume Witchcraft Dialogues, that’s actually where Karen Fields first wrote about Racecraft. She has a chapter in there because the edited volume was focused on kind of turning this idea of witchcraft on its head and not using witchcraft to amplify this exotic African trope at what it means. There are also pieces Bond authored that frame things like ancestor worship in rather ‘decolonized’ ways that are important for students to learn sooner than later.”

Angela McMillan Howell: “I used the first Pioneers book the last time I taught anthropological theory and this is an activity that went really well in my class. Everybody was assigned certain pioneers. It was a small seminar class and we had a roundtable with the pioneers. You had to embody that person that you read about. You had to read their chapter, you had to dress like them, you had to read other stuff about them. And then I made little placards with each of their names in front of them. I was the interviewer and I asked everybody about their lives and they had to answer as if they were their person. They weren’t going to read every biography of every person, but they were able to really connect to that one person. And then they were able to hear how other people answered and asked them about their family life, where they feel like they had been recognized in the academy, and all these different things. I loved it.”

How might you choose to incorporate these scholars and their work into your courses? Perhaps you would appreciate Bertin M. Louis, Jr.’s suggestion to use both contributions to the Pioneer archive in a “Black anthropology course which charts the growth of anti-racist/pro-Black anthropological research.” Instead, if interested in discussing Black intellectual contributions to anthropology, alongside scholars’ experiences of racism and discrimination in the academy, you might consider Alice Baldwin-Jones’s approach to assign Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse with writings from Audrey Smedley, Katherine Dunham, Laurence Foster, and Louis Eugene King. Or perhaps, Zora Neale Hurston might be better suited for a discussion of ethnographic methods, as Riché J. Daniel Barnes assigns Mules and Men and centers “Hurston for a discussion on insider/outsider methodology, subjectivity, and US-based ethnographies.”

The possibilities are endless for how The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology, and the scholarship of these 28 Black pioneers could be used in a classroom and in one’s writing. As, in the words of Hortense Spillers, we strive to “rediscover” and “reassert” “all these earlier pioneers in the institutional works of the black intellectual” (2007, 301), I welcome suggestions for further pedagogical techniques that highlight this rich archive.


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Read the previous piece in this series

Read about the contributors to The Second Generation

Browse the Zotero library for this series


Works Cited

Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Bond, George Clement, and Diane M. Ciekawy, eds. 2001. Witchcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges. Ohio University Press.

Fields, Karen E. 2001. “Witchcraft and Racecraft: Invisible Ontology and Its Sensible Manifestations.” In Withcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges, edited by George Clement Bond and Diane M. Ciekawy, 283–315. Ohio University Press.

Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan. 2007. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35 (1/2): 299–309.


Endnotes

[1] Volume contributors’ names are in bold type throughout these pieces and, unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from the interviews that form the basis for this series as described in the author’s introduction.

Contributors

I interviewed eleven of The Second Generation’s contributing authors to better understand their motivations for participating in the volume. Since they appear numerous times throughout these texts, quick professional sketches of their current affiliations help to place them:

Alice Baldwin-Jones, an applied anthropologist at LaGuardia Community College and William Paterson University of New Jersey

Riché J. Daniel Barnes, Associate Professor and Chair of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College, and current President of the Association of Black Anthropologists

Angela McMillan Howell, Associate Professor of Anthropology and interim Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology department at Morgan State University

Antoinette Jackson, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of South Florida

Deborah Johnson-Simon, a museum anthropologist in the social and behavioral science program at Savannah State University, and the founder and CEO of The African Diaspora Museology Institute, Inc., which specializes in Africa diaspora museums

Elgin L. Klugh, Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Social and Political Sciences, and Coordinator for Social Sciences and Anthropology at Coppin State University

Bertin M. Louis, Jr., Associate Professor of Anthropology and African American & Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky, and President-elect of the Association of Black Anthropologists

Cheryl R. Rodriguez, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Anthropology at the University of South Florida

Rachel Watkins, Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University

Erica Lorraine Williams, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology department at Spelman College, and the Book and Film Review Editor for Transforming Anthropology

Alisha R. Winn, an applied and practicing cultural anthropologist at Palm Beach Atlantic University and founder of Consider the Culture, a business that infuses anthropology in governmental institutions, religious institutions, and educational institutions to impact communities

Additionally, all contributor biographies from the book are reprinted below, courtesy of University of Illinois Press. Please keep in mind that these were originally published in 2018, so some details may have changed.

  • This image shows the first page of the list of contributors from the volume

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Bernhard J. Stern, an American Apologist for Stalinism

The June 1944 issue of the American Sociological Review featured an article by Bernhard J. Stern entitled “Soviet Policy on National Minorities” (Stern 1944). In it the author argued that “the Soviet Union can claim with a high degree of accuracy that it has solved the difficult problem presented by the existence of national minorities in a strongly centralized state” (ibid.: 229). In extolling the virtues of Soviet nationalities policy, Stern took at face value all of the rights that the ethnic Soviet republics supposedly enjoyed, including the right to secede from the union. Moreover, drawing on the new Soviet constitution and Stalin’s speeches, he praised the dictator, whose “skillful statesmanship” was said to have laid the foundation of the wise ideology behind this policy (ibid.: 230). Given the fact that just a few months prior to this paper’s publication, the Soviet secret police had accused entire ethnic groups, such as the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars and several others, of being Nazi collaborators and exiled them from their historic homelands in Europe to Central Asia under extremely harsh conditions, Stern’s piece was not much more than a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda. The aim of this paper is to explain why an American scholar, trained in both sociology and anthropology, and a respected pioneer of medical sociology, came to be regarded as an expert on the Soviet nationalities policy and produced a piece of such questionable scholarship. My goal is also to challenge the one-sided portrayal of Stern as an innocent victim of McCarthyism presented in the works of David H. Price (2004).

*

Born in Chicago in 1894 to a Jewish émigré family, Bernhard J. Stern studied for a BA and an MA at the University of Cincinnati from 1913 to 1917. In 1923 he travelled to Europe, where he studied at the University of Berlin and the London School of Economics. Returning to the US that same year, Stern entered Columbia University to study sociology under a prominent left-leaning scholar, William F. Ogburn. While sociology remained his main discipline and his doctoral thesis was in it, in 1925 he also undertook an intensive study of anthropology with Franz Boas and his degree was actually in both sociology and anthropology. Stern’s Ph.D. thesis, Social Factors in Medical Progress, completed in 1926 and published as a book in 1927, earned him a reputation as a serious medical sociologist and historian of sociology (Bloom 1990:19). In fact, he is considered one of the earliest American historians of science (see Bloom 2002 passim). While Stern’s early academic works revealed his critical attitude towards Western, and particularly American, economic systems as well as the way in which its science and medicine were organized, his left-wing views, including pro-Soviet sympathies, were even more clearly revealed in his conduct as a young college instructor. Nonetheless, in the late 1920s he was not yet a member of any leftist political organization (Bloom 1990:21). Charlotte Todes, however, whom he married in 1923, was a whole other story. A labor movement activist since the early 1920s, she joined the Communist Party USA in 1926 and encouraged her husband to become a member as well.

In 1927 Bernhard secured a three-year renewable tenure-track assistant professor position in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. His experience at that school was similar to the one at City College: he was a popular instructor and productive researcher, but his politics made him suspect in the eyes of the administration. Hence at the end of his second year, he was put on probation by the department chair. During his sojourn in Seattle, Stern strengthened his position as a left-leaning liberal who was becoming gradually more sympathetic to Communist ideas but was not yet willing to join the Party (Bloom 1990:22). 

Despite the setback in Seattle, Stern did not break stride and managed to get a job as an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and in 1934 a part-time teaching appointment as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, known for its outstanding progressive faculty (CS, Audio Interviews 1-3). That same year he also began teaching as a lecturer in the sociology department at Columbia, initially on a single course basis as well. Two years later, after significant pressure from his senior colleagues in the department, Columbia finally appointed him Lecturer in the School of General Studies but without rank; that was the position he occupied until the end of his life in 1956 (ibid.). Thanks to the respect Stern enjoyed among his Columbia colleagues and students as a scholar and teacher he was not fired from the university during the McCarthy era, when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated him for his Communist activities (Bloom 1990:24-32; Price 2004:136-153).

Stern’s journey towards becoming a Communist appears to have begun with his joining the John Reed Club in 1932. By 1933 he had already become a member of the Club’s executive committee. Founded in 1929 by the staff members of a pro-Communist magazine The New Masses to support Marxist writers and artists, that organization was originally politically independent but in late 1930 became officially affiliated with Moscow and the Communist Party USA. In 1932 Stern also joined a group of active Communists as well as representatives of several Communist front organizations to form an American anti-war committee (Lyons 1970: 148). Delegates representing similar organizations from various countries met in Amsterdam in August 1932 to form the World Congress Against Imperialist War. The organization’s main goal was to “support the peace policies of the Soviet Union” and sabotage (through peaceful means) the war preparations in their own countries. By the mid-1930s Stern had definitively joined the Communist Party USA. This was the time of the Popular Front, when the Party, having proclaimed a new policy of cooperation with all the progressive anti-fascist groups and organization in the country, increased its membership significantly and enjoyed greater sympathy in the wider American society. It appears that Stern was a member of one of the New York branches of the Party, which was composed mainly of writers and other intellectuals. In 1936 Stern became one of the founders and editors of a Marxist social science journal, Science and Society. In addition, he contributed articles on social evolution and other anthropological subjects to a Communist periodical New Masses under a pseudonym Bennett Stevens and taught occasional courses at the Workers’ School affiliated with the Communist Party (Price 2004: 138-141). 

*

While still at the University of Washington, Stern developed an interest in the history of the social sciences and conducted archival research on the papers of Lewis H. Morgan. Using previously unpublished writings, journals, and correspondence from the Morgan archive preserved at the University of Rochester Library as well as his published works, Stern tried, in his words, “to cast new light on the development of Morgan’s theories and to evaluate them in light of contemporary knowledge” (Stern 1931:VI). This work resulted in a 1928 article “Lewis Henry Morgan: American Ethnologist,” a 1931 monograph Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist, and several publications of valuable primary sources from the Morgan archive (Stern 1930, 1933; Kan and Arzyutov 2016). 

*

Given Stern’s work on Morgan and the new developments in his political orientation in the first half of the 1930s, it made perfect sense for him to be eager to establish contacts with Soviet ethnographers and visit the land of socialism. Consequently in 1931 he initiated correspondence with Mark Kosven, a Soviet anthropologist who had also been working on Morgan. By this time Morgan had already become a key “ancestor” venerated by Soviet anthropologists as the precursor of Marx’ and Engels’ theory of the evolution of human society. In his letter Stern informed Kosven that he had just published a study “of Morgan’s anthropological theories in terms of his milieu and in the light of contemporary anthropology and have told of the use of his work by Marx and Engels” (BJS. Box 1, f. 3. Stern to Kosven, 2/1/1931) and claimed that his study of Morgan was written “from a historical materialist standpoint.” Eager to demonstrate to the Soviet scholar his credentials as a “fellow-traveler,” if not (yet) a Communist, for whom a critical evaluation of the book by a Soviet scholar was of particular importance, Stern wrote “As a member of the John Reed Club, an organization of revolutionary artists and writers, and as a contributor to the New Masses, I would greatly appreciate your critical comments on the book when you read it” (ibid.). Two months later Stern received a courteous response from Kosven and thus their seven-year long correspondence was established.

Stern’s next letter to Kosven, sent in early July 1932, contained an important piece of news: he and his wife were planning to visit the USSR in August on their way to Amsterdam. This was to be largely an “exploratory visit,” as Charlotte Stern called it, which was to last for two weeks. Here is how Ms. Stern described the goals of their trip: “We decided we must see the Soviet Union. I decided I must see it from the standpoint of what the Communists had achieved, and my husband wanted to see it from the standpoint of whether it was the ideal society” (CS, Audio Interviews 1-4). According to Bernhard himself, “the primary purpose of learning what the Soviet is [sic] doing in the field of anthropology and related subjects” (BJS. Box.1, f.3. Stern to Kosven, 7/4/1932).

The Communist Party USA did not provide Charlotte with the names of any contact persons in Russia, but given her interests in organized labor, she and her husband asked for and were granted permission to visit several factories. While admitting that this visit had been “entirely a surface experience” and that the only people they had been able to speak to were English speakers, Charlotte asserted that both of them were very impressed with the “great spirit of achievement, and effort, and love of the society itself among all of the people that we met” (CS Audio Interview 4). As far as the political situation was concerned, she stated that they had been completely uninformed about it and did not notice anything dramatic, even though this was the time of a major internal struggle within the Communist Party as well as the expulsion of Trotsky from the USSR. Charlotte’s evidence of the general contentment among the academics they met shows how naïve she and her husband were. What made Bernhard even more enthusiastic about the USSR were the impressions he got from interacting with Soviet anthropologists and other social scientists. As his widow reminisced,

In Moscow my husband was very warmly welcomed as a young scientist—social scientist—by the anthropologists and the people in the social science field. They were very kind to him and since he was interested in anthropology, they spent many hours telling him of their plans for the native peoples—who had no written language and whose knowledge of the world outside their own little communities was absolutely primitive. The plans they had and the efforts that they made so impressed him that he became quite convinced that this was a world he could support. Furthermore, he was tremendously impressed with the developments there (CS Interview 4).

One specific experience that made an enormous impression upon Bernhard was a plenum of the Committee of the Peoples of the North he attended in Moscow as a guest of Vladimir Bogoraz, a senior Soviet scholar specializing in the ethnology of the ethnic minorities of Siberia. Without any knowledge of Russian or understanding of the true nature of the nationalities’ politics of the early Stalinist era, Stern took everything that was said from the podium at face value. As he wrote a decade later in the article being discussed here, “I was then struck by the eager exchange of data between the native leaders and the Soviet leaders on both economic and cultural problems of these pre-literate peoples” (Stern 1944: 234; cf. BJS. Box 1, f.3. Stern to Kosven, 10/24/1932). To him such active participation of ethnic minorities in the decisions and policies affecting their own lives contrasted sharply with the discriminatory and paternalistic policies of the federal and state governments in the US toward African Americans and Native Americans. 

The two and a half weeks spent in the USSR not only turned Stern into a diehard supporter of the Soviet regime but also strengthened his relationship with Soviet anthropologists. From now on, he not only looked to the Soviet Union as a model of a progressive and just society but also became a champion of its anthropology, despite some serious disagreements on specific issues. This relationship became so important for the Columbia lecturer that, following his 1932 visit to Russia and especially after a second one he made in 1937, he would frequently mention it in his public presentations and published works, and use it to legitimize his status as an expert on Soviet ethnic groups and state policies towards them.

The irony of Stern’s enthusiasm about Soviet cultural anthropology is that despite his unquestioning loyalty to the USSR, being a serious scholar, he expected Kosven and his colleagues to apply Morgan’s-Engels’-Marx’s theory of social evolution creatively and without dogmatism. In reality it was precisely the Soviet research on the evolution of “primitive” society that had already become quite dogmatic and was becoming even more so. Stern, who kept a close watch on that research had to be aware of this trend but chose to downplay and excuse it, attributing the dogmatism to the growing pains of a new and young Marxist social science. Thus, when a Russian émigré scholar alerted Stern to a senior Soviet ethnologist’s misrepresentation of the reason for Stern’s dismissal from the University of Washington and asked him whether he intended to do something about that, Stern replied, “I see no purpose in pursuing this correction further. Undoubtedly few people have even noticed it. I am certainly not in sympathy with any attempt to discredit [the] Soviet scientific endeavor, which, though in this field still crude, is making, I believe, valiant efforts and has vast potentialities which should not be gainsaid because of crudities manifested in the formative period. I therefore prefer omission” (BJS. Box 1, f. 9, Stern to Fedotov-White, 1/29/1937).

*

In the spring of 1937, Stern and his wife made their second trip to the Soviet Union. Stern signed up to lead a summer travel seminar/excursion to the USSR for schoolteachers and social workers, organized by the Compass Travel Bureau of New York City. The Sterns and their twelve students were supposed to arrive in Leningrad on July 19. After spending two days there, they were to travel to Moscow for a four-day stay. Their itinerary also included Kharkiv, Tbilisi, Erevan, Kiev and several other cities. They were to depart from the USSR on August 19. Since this trip was billed as an educational one, Stern was anxious to have as many Soviet scholars as possible lecture to the participants, and asked Kosven and other colleagues for help in lining up such lectures. He also asked them to arrange presentations for his group by people in the national republics who were “most likely to impress the visitors… with the great significance of the Soviet approach to the treatment of national minorities and the superiority of the socialist method as opposed to the imperialist” (BJS. Box 2, f. 3. Stern to Kosven, 3/3/1937).[1]

As for his expectations from the trip as a whole, Stern already knew he was going to be impressed. Since his previous visit, he had become an even greater fan of the USSR. In fact, in mid-1934, having finished his work at the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, he asked Kosven for assistance in arranging a long-term visit to the USSR, which would enable him to teach and possibly do research there. Despite Kosven’s efforts, this plan did not work out. Science and Society, a Marxist journal co-edited by Stern, made frequent references to the Soviet political and social system, its economy and high culture, all of them laudatory. Stern’s own scholarly paper published in that journal in 1937, which dealt with the obstacles to technological progress in capitalist societies, offered high praise to the new forms of that progress as well industrial production (e.g., the Stakhanovite movement) in the USSR. Continuing to take the propaganda generated by the Soviets at face value, he was in awe of the new (Stalin) constitution of 1936, referring to it in a letter to a Soviet colleague as “very inspiring to us here” and “having a tremendous symbolic value to the world in its struggle against Fascism” (BJS. Box 1, f. Stern to USSR, Stern to Meshchaninov, 11/27/1936). And like all of the American Communists and quite a few of the liberals, he was convinced that the Old Bolsheviks and other prominent Soviet leaders paraded in Stalin’s show trials of 1936-1937 were indeed guilty of the most heinous crimes.[2]

The Sterns must not have realized that they had picked the worst time to visit the USSR. According to Charlotte, the couple was unable to see any of the people they had met on their previous trip, because they did not want to see Americans. As she put it, “There was such a restrictive atmosphere in the country. The Soviet government was discouraging people from seeing foreigners. The fear of meeting foreigners was great” (CS, Audio Interview 4). According to Ms. Stern, she and her husband did not know what to think, but they did not suspect that some of the people they had met before had been arrested, since nobody talked to them about the purges. Despite those disappointing experiences in Moscow and Leningrad, the Sterns enjoyed their trips, especially to the outlying regions where they observed the (seeming) enthusiasm of the Soviet people continuing the construction of socialism (ibid.). Four years later, when the USSR was already fighting Hitler, Stern summed up his impression of the 1937 visit in an unpublished paper The Soviet Fight Against the Nazi Invasion as follows, 

Everywhere we saw the courageous effort of workers and farmers to build a society without the exploitation of man by man. We saw the prodigious advances in education and science, the remarkable strides in the standard of living, not merely in a small segment of the population, but in the masses of people. The efforts that were being made to enlarge the range and extent of the depth of human happiness were apparent to us . . . Beyond that we saw a nurturing of the creative forces among the people, a fostering of their senses of beauty and their love for knowledge and truth . . . [Yet] the people and the government were wisely alert to the danger of attack from abroad. They were ever vigilant and ready to sacrifice” (BJS. Box 5, f. 6).

Upon his return, Bernhard seems to have never mentioned the negative aspects of Soviet life in 1937, which he must have justified by the threat of fascism and the need to be on alert for foreign and domestic enemies. Consequently in 1938 without any hesitation he added his signature to a letter signed by 150 left-wing and liberal American scholars and artists expressing their support for the trial of Bukharin and other enemies of the USSR (Lyons 1970: 246-250). And unlike a large number of American Communists, who left the Party after Soviet Russia signed the infamous pact with Nazi Germany in August of 1939, Stern, despite being a passionate anti-fascist, remained steadfast in his pro-Soviet views, following the party-line as far as justifying and even praising Stalin’s sudden about-face. Of course, once Hitler attacked the USSR in the summer of 1941, Stern became a staunch advocate of the need for the United States to aid Soviet Russia and eventually join the anti-Nazi coalition.

In the wake of World War II, the radical Columbia sociologist produced another piece of pro-Soviet propaganda: a co-edited anthology entitled Understanding the Russians: a Study of Soviet Life and Culture (Stern and Smith 1947), which aimed at covering a variety of aspects of Soviet life, from its constitution to music.  Produced explicitly to counter a negative image of the Soviet Union widely promoted in the US during the Cold War, this collection featured either Soviet authors (including Stalin himself) or strongly pro-Soviet Western ones.  Despite being criticized as a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda by several reviewers, Understanding the Russians appears to have been read fairly widely, at least by those who still refused to believe that the USSR was not really the land of freedom and democracy.

*

The case of Bernhard Stern could serve as a cautionary tale for anthropologists and other social scientists who let their scholarship be guided by strong sympathies towards totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, be they right- or left-wing. In Stern’s case, his blind devotion to Communism and the Soviet Union led to a number of publications representing propaganda rather than serious scholarship. Moreover, in my opinion, it is not right to discuss the persecution suffered by leftist American scholars like Stern during McCarthyism without discussing their misguided advocacy of Stalinism, as David Price (2004: 136-153) has done.


Works Cited

Archival Collections:

BJS – Papers of Bernhard J. Stern. Archive of the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.

CS – Audio Interviews with Charlotte Stern. Archive of Columbia University.

SPF ARAN – Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography Collection. St. Petersburg Branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Published Works

Bloom, Samuel W. “The Intellectual in a Time of Crisis: the Case of Bernhard J. Stern, 1894-1956.”  Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences 26 (1990): 17-37.

———. The World as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Kan, Sergei. “‘My Old Friend in a Dead-End of Empiricism and Skepticism’: Bogoraz, Boas, and the Politics of Soviet Anthropology of the late 1920s-Early 1930s.”  History of Anthropology Annual, vol. 2, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederick W. Gleach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Kan, Sergei and Dmitry V. Arzyutov. “The Saga of the L. H. Morgan Archive, or How an American Marxist Helped Make a Bourgeois Anthropologist the Cornerstone of Soviet Ethnography.” History of Anthropology Annual, vol. 10, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederick W. Gleach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Lyons, Eugene. The Red Decade. New Rochelle: The Arlington House, 1970. 

Price, David H. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 

Stern, Bernhard J. Social Factors in Medical Progress.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1927. 

———. “Lewis Henry Morgan: American Ethnologist.”  Social Forces 6 (1928): 344-357.

———. “Selections from the Letters of Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt to Lewis Henry Morgan.” American Anthropologist vol. 32, no. 2-3 (1930): 257-279; 419-453.

———. Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.

———. “The Letter of Asher Wright to Lewis Henry Morgan.” American Anthropologist 35, no. 1 (1933): 138-145.

———. “Resistance to the Adoption of Technological Innovations.” In Technological Trends and National Policy, edited by David I. Walsh. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937. 

———. “Review of Leninism: Selected Writings by Joseph Stalin.  American Economic Review 33, no. 2 (1943): 395-397.

———. “Soviet Policy on National Minorities.”  American Sociological Review 9, no. 3 (1944): 229-235.

Stern, Bernhard J. and Samuel Smith, eds. Understanding the Russians.  New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc, 1947.


[1] This time the Communist Party USA gave the Sterns the names of some people they were to contact in the Soviet Union (CS Audio Interview 4).

[2] Not surprisingly, Stern signed the infamous “Letter to American Liberals,” published in the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and reprinted in the pro-Soviet propaganda magazine Soviet Russia Today, which attacked the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry organized in 1936 by the Committee in the Defense of Leo Trotsky and headed by a distinguished American philosopher and educator John Dewey. The letter, signed by eighty-eight Communists, Communist sympathizers, and a few liberals warned American liberals that the Committee in the Defense of Trotsky was a Trotskyite front and hence an ally of fascist and reactionary enemies of the Soviet Union.

The One-Two Punch

One hundred and nine years ago, The New York Times ran a full-page overview of Franz Boas’s recently published book, The Mind of Primitive Man. [1] The headline read: “DOES THE WHITE RACE GIVE THE HIGHEST HUMAN TYPE?: As a Result of Recent Researches Prof. Boas Questions Current Beliefs in Racial Supremacy, Makes a Plea for the Negro and Tells Strange Facts in European Immigration.”[2] Above the handsome sketch of Boas were exaggerated profile portraits of “the Characteristic Round Jewish Head,” and “Characteristic Long Sicilian Head.” Coming on the heels of the media storm generated by Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1911),[3] this article provided added grist for the so-called Americanization movement whose sole purpose (at least that I can discern) was the consolidation of whiteness by assimilating the not quite white. The Times highlighted Boas’s research on how immigrants quickly became an “American type,” and underscored his arguments that there are no pure or superior races, and all can participate as citizens. The paper also described vital forms of government, thrift, skill, and complex military organization in pre-colonial Africa. The Times quoted Boas explaining, “the traits of the American Negro are adequately explained on the basis of his history and social status. . . without falling back upon the theory of hereditary inferiority.”  Although pictures of “the Jewish” and “Sicilian” head are cringe-worthy today, many Americans would have found most of his findings against racial hierarchy not only repugnant, but profane.[4]

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The Peripeteia of The Gift: Gift Exchange by Grégoire Mallard

Grégoire Mallard. Gift Exchange: The Transnational History of a Political Idea. xi + 293pp., notes, bibl., index. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Is there a more celebrated and contested text in the history of anthropology than Marcel Mauss’s The Gift?[1] Tucked away in the pages of Émile Durkheim’s old Année Sociologique upon its initial publication in 1925, this careful, erudite, even gnomic essay by the doyen of French anthropology contained a thicket of five hundred footnotes so dense they often relegated the main text to a few sentences adorning the top of its hundred-and-fifty-odd pages. Its interest in forms of exchange in “sociétés dites primitives” was predated by the works of Richard Thurnwald and Bronislaw Malinowski, yet unlike these pioneers his writings were not informed by direct ethnographic study.[2] The Gift (hereafter TG, subtitle: “The Form and Sense of Exchange in Archaic Societies”) was instead, in our contemporary academic parlance, something more like a review essay of armchair anthropology.

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Boas in the Age of BLM and Idle No More: Re-Evaluating the Boasian Legacy

This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.

Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton, Robert L. A. Hancock, and Joshua Smith (editors). The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism. 408 pp., 18 illus., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

William Y. Adams. The Boasians: Founding Fathers and Mothers of American Anthropology. 356 pp., 10 illus., bibl. Lanham, MD: Hamilton, 2016.

Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner (editors). Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas. 416 pp., 28 illus., index. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Anthropologists and historians of anthropology readily acknowledge the role played by European empires in the making of the discipline. Although practitioners occasionally challenged existing power structures, they more frequently worked to inform and justify the dispossession, marginalization, murder, and enslavement of Indigenous and colonized peoples. These processes culminated in the Social Darwinist evolutionism of the Victorian period, which lent prevailing racial hierarchies a patina of scientific authority. This began to shift in the early twentieth century, when, amid a welter of social and cultural upheavals in Western society, anthropology’s imperial foundations appeared ripe for reconsideration. In America, the foremost proponent of these changes was the Jewish German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Traditional disciplinary histories point especially to Boas’s pivotal rejection of evolutionary anthropological approaches in favor of viewing cultures as integrated wholes, apprehensible solely within the contexts in which they are produced and maintained. These protocols were disseminated broadly, with Boas’s students founding university anthropology departments throughout the United States. On these grounds, Boas is frequently celebrated as “a major turning point from the evolution and racism of the nineteenth century to the historical particularism and cultural relativism of the twentieth century.”[1]

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Conferences as Ecologies of Ideas: Epistemic Cultures of the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania

A considerable portion of scholarly life is bound up with meetings of various kinds. For those located within academic institutions, office hours, departmental meetings, and university committees play a range of roles in the ebb and flow of day-to-day activities and the career trajectories of Homo Academicus (Bourdieu 1988; Wacquant 1989). Of particular significance for academic disciplines are conferences that bring scholars from multiple institutions together for the purpose of sharing knowledge and exploring new directions in methodologies and the interpretation of salient ideas.

In this essay, we query the role that conference procedures play in shaping the vitality and trajectory of ideas within the discipline of anthropology through an examination of the history of the annual meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania (ASAO). The particularities of this meeting, we argue, coalesced over time as a curiously successful model of governance, organization, and ethos for nurturing new ideas and approaches. By “ideas,” we refer to the conceptualization of issues, the kinds of data that are considered appropriate for addressing them, the language in which they are couched, their theoretical implications, and the methodological interventions necessary to pursue them. Our concern is with how different organizational contexts affect the processing of ideas among members of a discipline in conference settings, what we call the “ecology of ideas” within a particular epistemic culture.

In the opening lines of her influential work Epistemic Cultures, Karin Knorr Cetina offers a working definition of epistemic cultures: “those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms—bonded through affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence—which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures that create and warrant knowledge” (1999:1). The epistemic communities constituted by anthropology can be identified as maintaining a “richly textured internal environment and culture” (Knorr Cetina 1991, 120). We are particularly interested in the long-term dynamics of scholarly conferences as they are material institutions that reproduce themselves over time and exert some degree of agency over the social and intellectual lives of participants (Hughes 1936; Parsons 1990). We also recognize that conferences often have the quality of obligatory celebrations of a discipline’s raison d’ȇtre, while implicitly or explicitly reaffirming the particular forms of their governance. As such, we offer this study of the work of the ASAO as a model for the potential of academic conferences to nurture epistemic communities.

The Role of Conferences in the Production of Knowledge

Just about every professional organization and academic discipline holds conferences at regular intervals for the avowed purpose of sharing information and ideas in face-to-face venues. Finding out what’s new in one’s field of interest, socializing and networking, enhancing possibilities for publication, and establishing evidence of national or international reach may be significant for tenure and promotion, and other benefits are readily identified (Morse 2008).

Other scholars, meanwhile, are more critical. For instance, Canadian anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman opines that

“the vast multitude of anthropological conferences, congresses, articles, monographs, and collections, while adding up to mountains of paper . . . do not seem to add up to a substantial, integrated, coherent body of knowledge that could provide a base for the further advancement of the discipline.”

(Salzman quoted in Borofsky 2019:45; cf. Borofsky 1994)

In contrast to Salzman, we are less dismissive of conferences and suggest that constructive disciplinary work plays out through the longue durée of conference participation. Annual conferences of professional organizations clearly perform important work for their disciplines, including (1) establishing specific epistemic communities; (2) maintaining and reproducing those communities over time; (3) establishing normative epistemic, methodological, ontological, and ethical commitments and practices within those communities, which develop over time; and (4) acting as an ecological setting in which specific disciplinary/epistemic community-producing ideas emerge, persist, are transformed, or perish.

Strikingly, for all the professional attention given to conferences, there is relatively little research regarding the nature of conferences as social and cultural institutions for sharing knowledge, including the ways they are structured, their cultural environments, and how these characteristics affect the social and historical lives of ideas within scholarly communities. Thinking of Judith Mair’s 2013 challenge to move toward issues of knowledge production and circulation, we are concerned here with what we are calling “the ecology of ideas” constituted by annual meetings of specific professional organizations.

We write in the wake of a multiyear project on the history of one association with which we have been intimately involved, the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania (ASAO).[1]  We have identified a number of significant points that affected, and continue to affect, the meetings’ distinctive cultural environment for the processing of information and ideas.[2]  These include the organization’s founding charter, which favored a comparative framework that prioritized the processing of ethnographic data rather than abstract theorization. The resultant framework encouraged collegial engagement in pursuit of common goals and governance. Our work on ASAO’s history has convinced us that the degree of governance hierarchy is highly significant for either facilitating or inhibiting the agency of a discipline’s members to shape its intellectual agenda, and that the degree of organizational hierarchy is a primary driver for the social and historical life of an ecology of ideas as cultivated within an association through its meetings over time.

A Brief History of the Birth and Constitutional Development of ASAO

The idea for an anthropological organization that would take advantage of opportunities presented by the Pacific Islands for comparative research was the brainchild of Vern Carroll, a student of David Schneider’s at the University of Chicago. Carroll had done extensive fieldwork on Nukuoro Atoll, a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia, and was enamored with the possibilities for controlled comparison within Polynesia and Micronesia. The idea for such research, and publications based on it, had precedents in British social anthropology and Marshall Sahlins’s publication of Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958).

To initiate his vision, Carroll, in conjunction with Roger Keesing, organized a “symposium” in 1967 at Keesing’s home institution, the University of California–Santa Cruz. The sole topic of the meeting was adoption in Eastern Pacific societies (Island Melanesia was included as a concession to Keesing, who contributed a paper on adoption among the Kwaio in Malaita, Solomon Islands).[3] 

Discussions at the Santa Cruz symposium led Carroll to propose the formation of an Association for Social Anthropology in Eastern Oceania (ASAEO). In its initial newsletter (May 15, 1967), he provided the rationale for the organization.[4] “One major conclusion reached at the symposium,” he noted,

“was that the intensification of modern social anthropology research in the Pacific has not so far been sufficiently systematic: we have gone out as individuals or in small team projects, largely out of touch with our colleagues, and have pursued diverse research interests and published the results in scattered bits and pieces. Organized comparative studies like those on politics and kinship that brought African social anthropology into focus have so far been lacking.”

In response, this association was formed “as a means of organizing research, disseminating information, and arranging recurring symposia on topics in Oceanic social anthropology” (ASAEO Newsletter 1:1).

A few years later, in a newsletter published just prior to the first annual meeting of the organization, which had by then assumed its current name (ASAO),[5] the organizers commented on the implications of the word “social” in the association’s title, specifying that “We are an organization of ethnographers with regional comparative interests.” Further, in the same newsletter, when considering,

“What sort of ‘Annual Meeting’ does ASAO hold?” the response indicated, “There will be a limited number of symposia…. Discussions at these symposia will center around previously circulated position papers and will represent one stage of monograph preparation”

(ASAO Newsletter 9:6, 8 [Winter 1972]).

The first official annual meeting of ASAO was held from March 29 to April 1, 1972, at Rosario’s Resort-Hotel on Orcas Island in the San Juan Group in Washington State, and attended by some fifty anthropologists.[6] In addition to the three symposia, informal discussions were held in the evenings on four additional topics (ASAO Newsletter 10:10 [Spring 1972]). The following year’s meeting included two symposia, two “working sessions,” and an informal evening “discussion session” concerning indigenous reactions to anthropological research (ASAO Newsletter 12:1–5 [Spring 1973]). A stocktaking of those first two ASAO meetings resulted in a restructuring of the conference format for the 1974 meeting in order to reduce scheduling conflicts and build in time for symposium contributors “to work out formatting of their symposium volumes.” The solution was to propose the three classes of sessions: symposia, working sessions, and informal sessions (ASAO Newsletter 12:11–12 [Spring 1973]).

The emergence of the three types of session co-occurred with the start of what became ASAO’s iconic “three-year cycle” of developmental sessions. This development of topical sessions and ideas was very much about “learning to talk to one another” over multiyear conversations according to early and longtime ASAO member Michael Lieber (personal communication, March 2015). Although Carroll later expressed misgivings about the new structure (ASAO Newsletter 50:2–3 [Spring 1984]), the evolution of session formats can be seen as the result of his initial organizational scheme, which placed power in the hands of session organizers. Topics were not selected by the ASAO Board of Directors or officers; rather, it was very much a grassroots matter of someone with a keen interest in a topic proposing a session and taking responsibility for guiding the development of the “long conversation,” as another early and longtime member, David Counts, called the three-year cycle (personal communication, December 2015).

It is useful to contrast ASAO’s conference format with more traditional conference cultural environments and governance structures such as that of the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). While the governing structures of both the ASAO and AAA are clearly efficacious in producing meetings that have attracted participants and audiences over decades, their governance has important implications for the epistemic communities that they produce, reproduce, and maintain, and how they organize and nurture particular ecologies of ideas.

The Ecology of Ideas

We suggest that examining ASAO meetings in terms of constructivist and second-order cybernetic perspectives helps underscore the most successful aspects of the meetings in terms of cultivating a diversified and vibrant ecology of ideas.[7] Both of these perspectives adhere to an epistemological premise that scientific knowledge is constructed by communities of scientists as a result of discussion, negotiation, and contestation in the production of knowledge and in its circulation via peer reviewed literature (Latour 1987). In the social sciences, constructivism as an epistemology urges researchers to reflect on the paradigms underpinning their research and to be open to considering multiple ways of interpreting research results. The focus should be on presenting results as negotiable constructs rather than as models that aim to represent social realities more or less accurately (Rouse 1993; Galison and Stump 1996).

Ben Sweeting and Michael Hohl (2015) have critiqued the format of conferences such as AAA’s from a constructivist perspective in some detail. They observe that although the traditional format for conferences, established by the Royal Society of London in the 1600s, involved the reading of papers accompanied by active participation and an exchange of knowledge, contemporary conferences have become much more passive. As they point out, the traditional paper presentation model offers some benefits, such as predictability, which facilitates advanced planning, and the possibility for young scholars to introduce themselves by presenting research relatively quickly. However, drawing on the criticisms of second-order cyberneticians and constructivists such as Ranulph Glanville (2011) and Gordon Pask (1979), they summarize the many practical shortcomings of traditional conference design, including the minimization and formalization of conversation, the impossibility for sustained cross-conference discussion due to parallel sessions, and structures that make conferences and proceedings spaces to present finalized research and results rather than true works in progress (Sweeting and Hohl 2015:2).

They go on to consider how a constructivist approach highlights the role of conferences as “an active part of research” and ask the following:

“How might, for instance, we compose a conference in such a way that, in turn, it helps us in composing new ideas and research questions rather than in passively reporting on and listening to the results of research already conducted?”

(Sweeting and Hohl 2015:3)

What can we make of the implications of constructivism and second-order cybernetics for understanding the dynamic outcomes of particular conference cultures like ASAO? To begin with, one might question whether the ASAO format, as a result of its more egalitarian structure, allows for greater flexibility in the processing of ideas. Indeed, some have questioned whether its normative three-year cycle may actually be too rigid for productive discussions to take place. But our work on the history of ASAO sessions in fact makes it clear that the “ideal” three-year cycle is far from a realized outcome, accounting for only 19 percent of the outcomes of initial informal sessions between 1973 and 2015. The actual sequencing of sessions is much more fluid and suggestive of an intellectual dynamic resulting in multiple outcomes, depending on where participants take discussions.

ASAO meetings thus do seem to distinctly resonate with Sweeting and Hohl’s constructivist suggestions towards improving conference environments with respect to the processing of ideas. In other words, by eschewing a top-down prescriptive formula, allowing the process to be driven by session participants themselves as they pursue common interests, ASAO meetings may work to front significant moments of exchange, multiply opportunities for feedback loops to recur within and across meeting years, focalize and amplify individual entanglement in collective scholarly work, and promote learning and exploring in contrast to scholarly reportage.

The different session levels facilitate different types of discourse, with informal sessions providing a venue for a wide variety of theoretical viewpoints and forms of field data, while working sessions require sufficient field data to prepare draft papers, and symposia require a greater degree of cohesive ethnographic comparisons if they are to result in publishable outcomes. ASAO session participants regularly decide it is necessary to repeat session levels to gain the degree of consensus or focus required to move up a level—hence our finding that informal and working sessions often are repeated before going on to the next level (Mawyer and Howard forthcoming).

Another dynamic of the ASAO conferences as a particular ecology of ideas can be identified in the way that many of our own publications would never have occurred had not someone suggested a topic we had not thought about, but realizing that we had excellent ethnographic data on the topic in our fieldnotes, we joined the conversation and proceeded to develop an article or book chapter.

It is also noteworthy that many topics are abandoned following informal or working sessions, and that many symposia do not result in publications. This should not be regarded in any sense as symptomatic of failure, but rather as ASAO providing a venue that allows for ideas to be explored without restriction, and to sort out those that lend themselves to fruitful comparison from those that do not, thus serving ASAO’s foundational principle of facilitating controlled comparison, while motivating a continuity of particularly fruitful discourses that often takes issues of concern in new directions.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while we find the constructivist and cybernetic critiques of standard academic conferences such as those of the AAA quite compelling insofar as they point up the problematic nature of their formats vis-à-vis the production and evolution of new knowledge, it would be far from our intention to denigrate the value of such annual meetings. Rather, our analysis aims at drawing attention to the significance of hierarchy, among other dynamics in the constitution, governance, and norms of an association, for setting the environmental grounds in which particular ecologies of ideas flourish. Whereas large associations such as AAA may require hierarchy to maintain a semblance of order at conferences, smaller associations such as ASAO are able to thrive by reinforcing an egalitarian collegiality conducive to unfettered discussion.

Nevertheless, we do not think expressions of dissatisfaction with AAA conferences among a limited number of alienated or disaffected participants should be dismissed as inconsequential. Rather, they can be viewed as symptoms of a more significant dynamic—that the particular ecology of ideas fostered by that format is indicative of specific forms of knowledge production, the ways in which contests over knowledge are conducted, and the ways in which it is shared and circulated. The governance and organizational hierarchy of the AAA results in the ideas of certain key players being given currency. They are fronted, often pushed hard by their colleagues, and rendered especially impactful.[8] 

Although alternative ideas may be circulating, they are more easily relegated to the periphery, or given serious attention only among smaller segments of a discipline’s communities. This, we believe, has the result of reinforcing current paradigms at the expense of developing ideas that may be challenging to the status quo. The contrast is with small groups of scholars working in an egalitarian milieu on a topic of common interest on an ongoing basis, which we believe is a more productive way to make significant progress in developing worthwhile ideas. Rather than rewarding displays of one-upmanship or competitive confrontations, the ASAO format provides an intellectual environment that fosters ongoing relationships. Perhaps most important of all, it encourages people, especially younger scholars, to take risks by presenting lines of research and ideas in their formative stages in a supportive atmosphere.

This is not to say that conferences like AAA are not worthwhile; there are still many valid reasons to attend them, such as those noted above. But we believe there is room for a greater degree of flexibility at large conferences, including granting small groups of scholars concerned with specific topics more autonomy in the ways in which they organize their sessions. In other words, we are suggesting that the organizers of conferences, whatever their scope, think through the implications of their formats for the nurturance of ideas and their implications for furthering the goals of their particular discipline.[9] 


Acknowledgments: We would like to express our warm appreciation for helpful feedback on the initial draft of this paper, which we received from Mike Lieber, Mike Rynkiewich, Rick Feinberg, Rich Scaglion, Jan Rensel, and other participants in the 2015–2018 ASAO sessions that focused on multiple aspects of the association’s history.


Works Cited

Borofsky, Robert, ed. 1994. Assessing Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Borofsky, Robert. 2019. “An Anthropology of Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms?” Center for a Public Anthropology. DOI: 10.31761/pa-oas1.19aaoa

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Carroll, Vern, ed. 1970. Adoption in Eastern Oceania. ASAO Monograph 1. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai‘i.

Galison, Peter, and Stump, David J., eds. 1996. The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Glanville, Ranulph. 2011. “Introduction: A Conference Doing the Cybernetics of Cybernetics.” Kybernetes 40(7–8):952–963.

Hughes, Everett Cherrington. 1936. “The Ecological Aspect of Institutions.” American Sociological Review 1(2):180–189.

Kawa, Nicholas C, José A Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty. 2019. “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities.” American Anthropologist 121(1):14–29.

Knorr Cetina, Karin D. 1991. “Epistemic Cultures: Forms of Reason in Science.” History of Political Economy 23(1):105–122.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mair, Judith. 2013. Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective. London: Routledge.

Mawyer, Alexander, and Alan Howard. Forthcoming. “A History of ASAO Sessions: Formats and Topics.” In ASAO Histories: Perspectives, edited by Jan Rensel. ASAO Occasional Paper 1.

Mead, Margaret. 1968. “Cybernetics of Cybernetics.” Pp. 1–11 in Purposive Systems, edited by Heinz von Foerster, John D White, Larry J Peterson, and John K Russell. New York: Spartan Books.

Morse, Janice M. 2008. “The Side Effects of Conferences.” Qualitative Health Research 18(9):1159–1160.

Parsons, Talcott. 1990. “Prolegomena to a Theory of Social Institutions.” American Sociological Review 55(3):319–333.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Sweeting, Ben, and Michael Hohl. 2015. “Exploring Alternatives to the Traditional Conference Format: Introduction to the Special Issue on Composing Conferences.” Constructivist Foundations 11(1):1–7.

Von Foerster, Heinz, 2003. “Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics.” Pp. 287–304 in Understanding Understanding. New York: Springer.

Von Foerster, Heinz, et al., eds. 1974. Cybernetics of Cybernetics. BCL Report 73.38, Biological Computer Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.

Wacquant, Loïc J. 1989. “For a Socio-Analysis of Intellectuals: On Homo Academicus.Berkeley Journal of Sociology 34:1–29.


[1] With Vern Carroll and others, Howard played a role in the development of the association in the mid 1960s, and in the decades since he served in myriad roles including board member, program coordinator, membership coordinator, web master, and multiple times as session organizer. More recently, Mawyer served for several years as the ASAO program coordinator, and also on the association’s Distinguished Lecturer Committee, the Pacific Islands Scholars Award committee, as well as a three-year term on the Board.

[2] As our contribution to a working group concerned with the association’s history, we developed a database of sessions, presentations, and subsequent publications from fifty-plus years of ASAO’s annual conference meetings (Mawyer and Howard forthcoming).  

[3] The focus on adoption was the product of the cynosure of kinship studies in social and cultural anthropology at the time. Within kinship studies, anthropologists were interested in adoption in relation to the transmission of rights in land and other forms of property. A selection of the papers was published in a volume entitled Adoption in Eastern Oceania edited by Carroll (1970).

[4] ASAO Newsletters are archived online here.

[5] When developing its constitution in 1969, the association decided to allow its geographical focus to expand beyond Eastern Oceania in order to include Papua New Guinea (ASAEO Newsletter 5:1 [March 1970]).

[6] Photos from ASAO annual meetings are posted on the ASAO website.

[7] Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, was developed by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster, and Gordon Pask, among others, in the late 1960s and mid 1970s (Mead 1968; von Foerster et al. 1974; von Foerster 2003). In her 1967 keynote address to the inaugural meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), Mead proposed that the practice of cybernetics by the ASC should be subject to cybernetic critique.

[8] While not our focus here, we imagine such dynamics at keystone conferences may not be entirely innocent of a role in the formation and maintenance of inequalities in the social networks of anthropology as profession (Kawa et al. 2019).

[9] Robert A. Scott, Associate Director Emeritus of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, who read a draft of this paper and gave us valuable feedback, raised the question of how the ASAO format fits the call for increased interdisciplinary work. In our opinion, an egalitarian environment such as that offered by ASAO would be vital for any kind of interdisciplinary development because it will inevitably require considerable negotiation and the ability of participants to set aside the prevailing paradigms of their disciplines in favor of other possibilities. This kind of collaborative development is only likely to take place over an extended period of collegial discussions.

Women of the Powell Expeditions: The Contributions of Emma Powell and Ellen Powell Thompson

Major John Wesley Powell is a prominent figure in the history of American anthropology and probably best known to HAR readers as the founder of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE).[1] Prior to that, however, he built a reputation as a field naturalist through an impressive series of expeditions, supported in the early years by a precarious patchwork of funding. With limited finances and lacking in impressive academic credentials, Wes Powell relied heavily on family members to staff his expeditions. Two women, his wife Emma and his sister Ellen, were integral contributors to the scientific staff, although their participation has received little recognition. Here I will discuss how their contributions, like those of many women, have been obscured by historical processes and suggest some ways that they might be rediscovered.

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Faustian Bargains: The Legends and Legacies of German “Liberal Ethnology”

This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.

H. Glenn Penny. Im Schatten Humboldts: Eine tragische Geschichte der deutschen Ethnologie. 287 pp., 37 illus. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2019.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the C. H. Beck Verlag for kindly providing me with an advance manuscript of this book in the original English. Parenthetical page numbers below refer to the manuscript, rather than the published translation.

Salvage anthropology has carried something of a sour reputation ever since the term was introduced by Jacob Gruber in 1970. This has good reasons. One has to do with the fatalism that this practice implies: the moral mission of early ethnographers, according to Gruber, was “not to stem the tide of civilization’s advance, but to preserve that which was about to be destroyed.”[1] Even the most humane impetus to “rescue” the pristine cultural heritage of indigenous groups took the inevitable disappearance of those groups for granted.

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Decolonizing or Recolonizing? The (Mis)Representation of Humanity in Natural History Museums

Every Indigenous Peoples’ Day since 2016, members of the activist group Decolonize This Place have gathered at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, chanting “rename the day, remove the statue, and respect ancestors.”[1] The AMNH protests have taken place in the context of a growing number of museum controversies throughout Europe and North America. These public confrontations include demands for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts; the rejection of tainted funds; calls to address historical inaccuracies in exhibits; and finally, protests against offensive, stereotypical, or otherwise problematic representations of human subjects.

Of all these conflicts, the misrepresentation of people on display has been the least discussed in the public sphere.[2] Decolonize This Place’s October 2019 protests have received minimal press coverage compared to their more successful actions—for example, calling attention to the Whitney’s acceptance of blood money from donors such as tear-gas magnate Warren Kanders. And yet the ways in which museums organize, categorize, and display the cultures of non-European peoples reflect and reify outdated cultural hierarchies which have their origins in nineteenth-century science. Natural history museum practices today are still guided by some of the key assumptions of anthropology’s founding period, including the belief in a civilizational hierarchy, with Northern European cultures figured as superior to all others; the importance of “salvage” anthropology, in which scientists sought to preserve the remnants of “primitive” cultures supposedly on the verge of extinction; and finally, the naturalization of non-European populations in specialized exhibit spaces—a segregation of the “West from the Rest.” In the words of Museum Studies scholar Ray Silverman, “Ethnography has provided the ‘scientific’ justification for much of the colonial project…. It is a mode of thinking that has proven difficult to shake off and continues to influence how Indigenous peoples are represented in museums and related cultural institutions.”[3]

The persistence of colonial visual culture is especially glaring in natural history museums. As the American political scientist and writer Danielle LaVaque-Manty has pointed out, “There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History. And there aren’t any other kinds of people.”[4] Natural history museums have been among the least responsive to decolonization efforts and, given the naturalizing effects of their ethnographic exhibits, among the most harmful.[5] Such exhibits foster the segregation, exoticization, and “Othering” of non-European cultures. Unwittingly or not, they perpetuate persistent global assumptions of human difference and hierarchy. The prominence of these museums underscores the power of cultural institutions to confront or avoid some of the most pressing issues of our day.

In this essay, I compare the AMNH in New York and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, which, to varying extents, continue to “display the exotic diversity of pristine civilizations under European domination.”[6] I wish to make clear that there are two paths ahead for museum and public history spaces: one that strives for a collaborative process of decolonization and repair, and another that clings to the status quo, thereby reinforcing colonial categories. I conclude with some thoughts about why these two museums have taken different approaches to decolonial critiques, and also point out ways in which both remain stuck in nineteenth-century frameworks. Finally, I review some of the solutions offered by curators, activists, and scholars, suggesting that this crisis provides opportunities to address urgent issues of representation, memory, and justice.

The American Museum of Natural History: Stuck in the Past

Four types of museums display ethnographic material: “global” art and heritage museums, such as the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; anthropology or ethnography museums, such as the Berlin Ethnological Museum; tribal or Native American Museums, like the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, or the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI/NMAI); and finally, natural history or field museums. Each type of institution faces its own particular challenges. Critics have discussed the need to revise European ethnographic museums, especially in light of very public controversies over provenance and repatriation.[7] Samuel J. Redman, in a recent review of the Hamburg Ethnology Museum, observed that without critical revision, ethnographic museums reveal more about the cultural history of the collectors than the objects of collection.[8] In contrast, many tribal and Native American museums, while not immune from critique and controversy, have prioritized incorporating diverse Indigenous and community narratives.[9]

Of all these types of institutions, natural history museums face unique obstacles to the decolonization process due to the entangled histories of anthropology and natural history. The AMNH was founded in 1869 and remains one of the most prestigious natural history institutions in the United States.[10]  Its history is tied to Franz Boas, who made his mark as one of the most important anti-racist scientists of the twentieth century only later. Boas’s early work at the AMNH, however, included practices that would be condemned as unethical today, including the display of “living Indians” in the Museum, stealing Indigenous peoples’ bones, and authorizing autopsies in secret. He also created the Northwest Coast Hall at the museum, today the target of the bitterest of criticism.[11]

Figure 1: Floor Plan of the American Museum of Natural History, Second Floor. Accessed December 29, 2019.

In October 2016, Decolonize This Place organized a tour and occupation of the AMNH and introduced a set of specific demands, including removal of the Roosevelt statue (which shows Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, trailed by subservient Native American and African figures), as well as an institution-wide review of cultural representations across the museum.[12] On September 25, 2017, likely anticipating the second annual protest, the AMNH announced a multi-year project to “update, restore, and conserve the Northwest Coast Hall.” Decolonize This Place responded in a press release: “While we welcome this long overdue initiative, the false and degrading representations in the rest of the culture halls remain as a present reminder of inaction and colonial violence.”[13] In the wake of the protests, the AMNH also added labels to a diorama deemed inaccurate and offensive. A New York Times article described the exhibit as “filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation” and cited the Indigenous consultant hired by the museum, historian Bradley Pecore, who condemned the diorama as replete with harmful stereotypes that “shape the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.”[14]

Figure 2: The website of the American Museum of Natural History, listing Human Origins and Cultural Halls. Accessed December 29, 2019.

As it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019, the AMNH has not announced an institution-wide review.[15] While it attempts to frame some of the issues it faces—including, this year, a display and website on the Roosevelt statue, featuring the debate around its history and iconography—it should not be forgotten that, in addition to the Northwest Coast Hall, the AMNH has quite a few permanent exhibits of non-European peoples (including Mexican, Plains, and Asian peoples). There is no Hall of Northern European or New England cultures. Taken together, these ethnographic exhibits perpetuate the naturalization of non-European peoples and “freeze” them in time in a way not typically imposed on European ones. The resulting impression on visitors is that only Indigenous and non-Western peoples belong on display with fauna, flora, rocks, and minerals. This outdated “West and the Rest” approach to human cultures—aligning the non-West with the natural, biological, primitive, and pre-civilized—is glaring at the AMNH, as it is in other natural history museums; it reflects a cultural vision from a century ago. The persistence of such representations is remarkable, especially after decades of critical race and postcolonial theory, not to mention the debunking of scientific racism.

The Musée de l’Homme: A Return to Anti-Racist Roots

The Musée de l’Homme, also known as the Trocadéro Museum, was built in 1878. Originally conceived as an exhibition space for the tens of thousands of objects bought or stolen during French scientific expeditions, the museum was strongly influenced by natural history methods of the day, including taxonomy and comparative display.[16] In 1928, French anthropologist Paul Rivet, a correspondent of Boas, took over as director and began to restore and modernize the collections; in 1937 he gave the museum the universalizing name Musée de l’Homme. At this point, it incorporated anthropological objects from the French Natural History Museum (of which, to this day, the Musée de l’Homme remains a branch). Reborn at a time of rising fascism in France and Europe, the Musée de l’Homme under Rivet was known as a node of resistance; some of its personnel ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis. Rivet was adamantly antiracist.[17]

This institutional memory of anti-racism would prove central in the Musée de l’Homme’s renovation seventy years later, which explicitly drew on Rivet’s humanistic approach. Consequentially, shortly before the Musée de l’Homme was renovated in 2009-2015, most of its ethnographic objects were removed and sent to the new ethnographic art museum, the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac. Opening in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly’s mission was to provide access to pieces of art and ethnographic objects from “Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas” for both public and research audiences. The loss of their ethnographic items necessitated the Musée de l’Homme’s radical exhibit reorganization.

Figure 3: An exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme that displays European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

The museum’s curators shaped exhibits in distinct ways explicitly recalling Rivet’s vision. First, they created displays to historicize the museum’s historic relationship with scientific racism, including critiques of French racial science and anthropology’s role in the dehumanization of non-European peoples.[18] Second, in a major innovation, the Musée de l’Homme curators decided to organize exhibits about cultural production not by geography or tribe, but by themes, including music, language, religion, and ornamentation. In these thematic displays, diverse cultures appear side-by-side, with artifacts from Asia, Africa, and America next to European ones. Here, Europeans are a cultural group, on display, like any other. This horizontal representation is reflected on the cover of the museum’s guide as well, underscoring a philosophy of connection between all human cultures, and aiming to “unfreeze” non-European cultures and peoples.

Figure 4: A Musée de l’Homme guide displaying European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

While the new Musée de l’Homme has received overwhelmingly positive reviews in the press, museum studies scholars have criticized aspects of the renovation. Nathan Schlanger has pointed out that the Musée de l’Homme naturalizes human society itself, filtering it through an evolutionary framework.[19] Anthropologists, as well, might raise objections to the thematic exhibits, which decontextualize the objects, removing their cultural specificity, and risk overstating universal categories. Moreover, while the Musée de l’Homme subverts human classification and advocates for multicultural and relativistic approaches to human diversity, at times, its displays come uncomfortably close to romanticizing globalization. That said, it is noteworthy that the Musée de l’Homme has, since its reopening, attempted to grapple—however imperfectly—with its racist and colonial past, connecting itself to present legacies as well as imagined futures.

Lessons and Next Steps

Why have the two natural history museums discussed here taken such different paths in the face of demands to decolonize? There are three reasons: one accidental and two systemic. A unique circumstance was triggered in the early 2000s with the transfer of ethnographic objects to the Musée du Quai Branly. This decision reduced and limited the Musée de l’Homme’s ethnographic collection and forced a reimagining of the museum as a whole. The two systemic factors have to do with the national, economic, and historical contexts in Europe and in the United States. As state-funded institutions, many European museums are spared some of the pressures of the market and can be more responsive to critical academic voices. In the United States, museums fear public controversy that might threaten dwindling streams of government funding; at the same time, dependence on private funding leaves them beholden to well-heeled donors and their frequently conservative political views.[20]

The second systemic factor relates to legacies of colonialism. While on both sides of the Atlantic, the forces of private property and Eurocentric narratives (themselves often described in neutral, naturalized tones) are powerful, responses to decolonizing critiques play out differently in the two national political cultures. European nations grapple with the tensions of empire, though these are often imagined, however falsely, as existing at a distance from national borders. In the United States, the pressures are arguably more acute. American societies are immersed in the intimate historical legacies of settler colonialism; descendants live together on contested ground. Museums, too, are located on settler colonial lands. To center Indigenous perspectives would require reckoning with Lonetree’s “hard truths.” Decolonization discourse is unsettling.

If creating accurate and inclusive exhibits is a top priority for any museum, what are some steps forward? This essay has described some recent attempts to decolonize natural history museums, both of which have had mixed receptions by public, activist, and scholarly audiences. The two “paths” described here, however, are just first steps and should open up a broader conversation about how we represent humanity in public-facing scientific museums. First, more funding for cultural institutions would help curators enact cutting edge procedures, incorporate critique from scholars, and collaborate with Indigenous people and other community members.[21] As many curators have recognized, consulting with affected communities is crucial.[22] Moreover, Indigenous scholars and elders are not just a source of historic and cultural information, but also offer specific ideas to expand museums’ horizons, including the concepts of respect, reciprocity, and repair.[23] Mutual respect in the Indigenous sense of the word goes beyond ethnicity or nation, and encompasses “social relations of its producers, including source communities and museum staff.”[24] Some institutions have recently embraced these frameworks to rebuild collaborative cultural spaces, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Canada Science and Technology Museum—which recently created an exhibit on First Nation astronomy called One Sky, Many Astronomies.[25]

Recognition of the value of collaboration, reciprocity, and Indigenous voice and authority is increasingly common in academic spaces adjacent to Indigenous Studies.[26] Historians of science contextualize human classification practices and remind us of the legacies of colonialism. Historians and anthropologists of settler colonialism in the United States document the “full spectrum” of life, including both survivance and “hard truths” about the past and present. Artists, too, participate in museum decolonization. Since the 1980s, performance pieces have called our attention to the temporally frozen representations of Indigenous people in natural history museums.[27] These works remind us that all people—regardless of identity—have not just a past, but also a present and a future.

After a few decades of critical engagement from activists, curators, scholars, and artists, challenges to Eurocentrism in natural history museums have met with uneven and limited success. This stagnation attests to the unfinished business of reckoning with colonialism and settler violence, including its present legacies. In turn, it reflects our failure, at national and global levels, to reach consensus about how we approach human difference, human classification, and cultural hierarchy. To the extent that museums reflect systemic inequities, misrepresentation will remain a stubborn problem. For now, museum administrators and visitors alike can be alert to normalized colonial tropes, and work towards repair by bringing to the center of exhibitions the perspectives of those who are most harmed by ethnographic displays.


[1]Open Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Decolonize This Place Blog, October 10, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[2] A recent discussion among historians about “the compromised histories of the museum and the epistemologies of public display and national narratives” can be found in “Museums, History, and the Public in a Global Age,” American Historical Review 124, no. 5 (2019) 1631-1672; 1632.

[3] Ray Silverman, “The Legacy of Ethnography,” in Susan Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 9.

[4] LaVaque-Manty was referring to the Ruthven Museum at the University of Michigan; see “There Are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” Wicazo Sa Review 15, no. 1 (2000): 71-89.

[5] Yannick Marshall recently pointed out that “colonialism’s violence is the violence of the everyday. Its most deleterious effects are those that are routinized and banal more than those that are spectacular… It is difficult to recognize the violence that has been naturalized.”; see “There is No ‘Relatively Benign’ Version of Settler-Colonialism,” Black Perspectives Blog, October 28, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2019.

[6] Nathan Schlanger, “Back in Business: History and Evolution at the new Musée de l’Homme,” Antiquity 90, no. 352 (2016): 1092.

[7] In November 2018, French President Emanuel Macron announced that 26 objects at the Musée du Quai Branly would be returned to Benin; see Farah Nayeri, “Return of African Artifacts Sets a Tricky Precedent for Europe’s Museums,” New York Times, November 27, 2018. Recently, Germany has been fraught with controversy over the building and reorganization of ethnographic collections in the Humboldt Forum; see Graham Bowley, “A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany,” New York Times, October 14, 2018. See also Philipp Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam?Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking ethnographic collections. Accessed September 18, 2018.

[8] Samuel J. Redman, “Have Anthropology Museums Become History Museums? A visit to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 40 (2016).

[9] Amy Lonetree addresses the multiplicity of perspectives in tribal museums, arguing for the inclusion of “hard truths” of settler colonialism such as violence and trauma in addition to stories of survivance in Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native American in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[10] The four best-known natural history museums in the United States are the AMNH in New York City, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Even though I only discuss the AMNH in this essay, all of these institutions have similar approaches to ethnographic exhibits. In October 2018, the Chicago Field Museum announced the first major renovation of the Native North America Hall in sixty years; the press release emphasized Indigenous participation in the project, but did not address the question provoked by LaVaque-Manty’s statement about “Indians in the museum.” See https://www.fieldmuseum.org/about/press/field-museum-renovate-native-north-america-hall-open-2021. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[11] On Boas, see David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, eds., Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[12] In 2019, the AMNH installed a plaque next to the Roosevelt statue on the front steps of the museum. The plaque read: “This statue was unveiled to the public in 1940, as part of a larger New York State memorial to former N.Y. governor and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy. You can learn more about this statue inside the Museum and at amnh.org/addressing-the-statue.” For an image of the plaque, see Nick Mirzoeff, “How Do We Address a Statue of President Roosevelt That Affirms Racist Hierarchies?” September 24, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019.

[13]Public Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” October 4, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[14] Ana Fota, “What’s Wrong With This Diorama? You Can Read All About It,” New York Times March 2, 2019. “The labels were quietly added in October [2018], after three years of protests…. The museum consulted with outside experts, but not the protest group.” Azi Paybarah, “Museum of Natural History: When an Exhibit Offends,” New York Times March 21, 2019.

[15] For information on the Roosevelt statue at the AMNH see https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/addressing-the-theodore-roosevelt-statue. Accessed December 23, 2019.

[16] Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France 1850-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 32-34.

[17] Alice L. Conklin, Exposer l’humanité: Race, ethnologie et empire en France (1850-1950) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), chapter 6.

[18] The Musée de l’Homme also curated a special exhibit on racism and racial science called “Us and Them” in 2017-18.

[19] Schlanger, “Back in Business,” 1096. See also Claude Blanckaert (dir.), Le Musée de l’Homme: histoire d’un musée laboratoire (Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle/Éditions Artlys, 2015).

[20] The Whitney-Kander story has received a great deal of press; also, in 2018, the AMNH was forced by public outcry to cancel an event featuring the right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an open racist who has attacked Indigenous rights. See also Michael Massing, “How the Superrich Captured the Art World,” New York Times, December 15, 2019.

[21] As H. Glenn Penny has pointed out, curators often want to decolonize, but lack funding to complete their vision; see H. Glenn Penny, “Exasperation: An outsider’s take on (some of) the current debates surrounding the Humboldt Forum,” Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Accessed September 30, 2019.

[22]  They also strive to include the viewpoints of other community members who have a stake in cultural representation, such as museum staff and children/youth visitors. See Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam”; Ahdaf Soueif, “On Resigning from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees,” LRB blog, July 15, 2019. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[23] Reconciliation—a process currently embraced more in Canada than the United States—rests on the Indigenous concepts of mutual respect (including Indigenous definitions of community and rights) and reciprocity (a shared and equitable process that includes sharing and the principle of “right relations”). See Kim TallBear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019).

[24] Jennifer Shannon, “The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian,” in Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge, 240. See also Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds., The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

[24] Christie Taylor, “Relearning the Star Stores of Indigenous People.” Accessed November 1, 2019.

[25] Public historians have taken the lead in calls to decolonize professional spaces; see, for example, The Inclusive Historian Handbook. Recent historical scholarship includes Susan Sleeper-Smith, et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). See also “Decolonizing the AHR,” American Historical Review 123, no. 1 (2018): xiv–xvii.

[27] Two well-known examples of critical Indigenous and Latinx performance art in museum spaces include James Luna, The Artifact Piece (1986); and Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Americans Visit the West (1992).

UNDERTONES: Leiris, Lévi-Strauss and Opera

By Jean Jamin

Translated by Simon Torracinta

Editors' note: The editors of the History of Anthropology Review are delighted to publish this essay by Jean Jamin. As readers will know, Jamin is one of the most original historians of anthropology anywhere and a pioneer of the discipline in France. Born in 1945, he conducted ethnographic work on initiation and traditional knowledge in Côte d’Ivoire; he later pursued a singular set of studies of the intersections of anthropology with literature, visual arts, and music (notably jazz) and was one of the first to explore the intersections of surrealism and anthropology at the Musée de l’Homme. Among his works are Les Lois du silence (1977), Faulkner: le nom, le sol, et le sang (2011), and recently, Littérature et anthropologie (2018). Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales until his retirement in 2013, Jamin co-founded the review Gradhiva: Revue d’anthropologie et d’histoire des arts, now based at the Musée du quai Branly, and was editor of L’Homme: Revue française d’anthropologie from 1997 to 2005. His works have been frequently noted in our journal, but this is his first full-length essay here; it is a revised excerpt from Chapter IV (p. 119-135) of Littérature et anthropologie (Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2018). 
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The Inspiration for the History of Anthropology Newsletter

A few years ago when the History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) relaunched as an online publication, a number of articles described how it was started by George Stocking in 1973. More recently, a series of 24 articles has reflected on HAN’s inaugural editorial vision statement, which had the goal of marking out and developing the history of anthropology as a field of inquiry. We know a lot about the purposes which HAN was founded to serve, but we know little about the models that might have inspired it. 

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Special Focus: Canguilhem’s Milieu Today

Canguilhem’s historical epistemology continues to inspire historians and anthropologists to attend to how current and former human practices of science shape our conceptualizations and engagement with natural and experimental environments, non-human beings, and human life. Now, with the publication of a translation of La connaissance de la vie ([1965] 2008), which contains many of Canguilhem’s key works, “The Living and Milieu” speaks with new urgency.[ In the spirit of the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s call for multidisciplinary exploration of novel topographies for the history of anthropology, this Special Focus Section gathers five insightful considerations of reversals and collapses in relations between organism and environment for the history of human and life sciences since their seminal characterization in “The Living and Its Milieu.

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Editors’ Introduction: As Adventurous as Life

Amidst ongoing shifts to our environments and biologies, the traditional anthropological and biological objects—human being and life, anthropos and bios—are today twined together in unprecedented ways. Witness the bourgeoning interest from bioscientists in cultural and human affairs, and the even longer standing interest from anthropologists in things biological, as former disciplinary norms are upended and new relations, forms, and understandings of life emerge.

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The Life of the Milieu

What if we think of a milieu as a medium for living in a strong sense, as in the way that paint or color is a medium for art—both the means of art’s expression and conceptualization and its point of pragmatic-material-noumenal interest, or even obsession? The artist thinks with, in, and about color or sound or lighting or the way musical notes or words relate to each other or build something. Art-thought is a percept (Deleuze and Guattari 1994) fundamentally linked to the things in its milieu because they have qualities like rhythm or intensity, because they react to a prod or a brush stroke or they ring. Conceptualizing a milieu by acting with it and in it is an experiment with a stake, a conceptualizing channeled through form and matter that thereby ventures out, becoming both exploratory and generative. Bruno Latour (2010) tells us this is compositional thought and being, and it extends into all domains of life in which, for whatever reason, there is a sharp, even immersive, attunement to a surround that has become animated or activated enough to create something with what presents. Georges Canguilhem’s “The Living and Its Milieu” moves in this same terrain, deftly mapping out the groundwork. 

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A Living Room

A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. 

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Sitting in her living room. What occurs here, in this space filled up with her? And despite its force, how is it that this space so easily recedes to the background once words are spoken, once words are put to bodily experience and social relations, effaced by the retelling of the things of life that tend to unravel here? These questions are by way of an introduction to moments of coming apart in the household of a woman, Beverly, who I first met in 2002.

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Canguilhem’s Vital Social Medicine

The thought of the living must take from the living the idea of the living.

Georges Canguilhem

To what extent might one consider Georges Canguilhem a scholar of social medicine? Defined as a field of study that examines health and disease from a social science perspective, social medicine has a long and complex history. It has changed over time and has taken different forms in different parts of the world. Social medicine has relevance and significance today as an interdisciplinary endeavor that includes anthropological, sociological, historical, and philosophical modes of inquiry. This piece is not an attempt to reconstruct the transnational history of social medicine and compare and contrast its various manifestations. Rather, its aim is to explore how Georges Canguilhem’s essay “The Living and Its Milieu” might be useful conceptually for contemporary work in social medicine. Given his concern with the social and the vital, we can easily see Canguilhem’s importance for the question of what social medicine might be as a field of study concerned with questions of health and disease.

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Le Vivant & Partial Pressure Milieus

The breath you just took contains about 400 parts of carbon dioxide (CO2) per million molecules (ppm) of air. 350 ppm is generally considered safe. People living at the start of the Industrial Revolution would have inhaled about 278 ppm. Since then, levels of CO2—the leading greenhouse gas driving changes in the climate—have doubled from the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is born of cellular respiration in animals and plants. Its accumulation from anthropogenic emissions in the atmosphere and oceans over the past two centuries now poses a direct threat to living beings on Earth. In a worst-case scenario that is increasingly likely, CO2 concentrations will reach 1,450 parts per million by 2150. 

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On the Odor of Rancid Butter, a Twenty-First Century Update

In “The Living and Its Milieu,” Georges Canguilhem tells the story of Jakob von Uexküll’s tick. The tick when mature climbs to a high point, such as a branch on a bush. It falls only in response to a single stimulus, the odor of rancid butter, helpfully explained as a component of the sweat of mammals. If there is no corresponding 37-degree centigrade body to latch on to, the tick climbs back up. Apparently von Uexküll kept a tick in his laboratory for eighteen years before providing this stimulus to it, and it was still able to fall on cue, suck blood, and lay eggs when the opportunity was provided. One has to wonder about the number of ticks, and the frequency of testing. Why eighteen years? There is no detail provided about what happened to the other ticks kept “in a state of inanition” beyond 18 years, if there were any. 

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Special Focus: História dos Índios no Brasil Dossiê


This dossier features seven of the forty papers presented at the colloquium 25 anos de História dos Índios no Brasil: balanços e perspectivas da história indígena. The event was held between December 11 and 13, 2017 in the Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and organized by the Centro de Estudos Ameríndios (USP) and the Centro de Pesquisa em Etnologia Indígena of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark edited volume, Historia dos Índios no Brasil, assembled by anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, researchers and Indigenous people came together to reflect on the state of the field of Indigenous history in Brazil.

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