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.
Contributors to both books rely on archival sources, oral histories, close readings of texts, literature reviews, and interviews to highlight the brilliance, resilience, and labor of these intellectuals. Among other reasons, they are considered pioneers because they shaped institutions and departments, created paths for and mentored future generations of scholars, and were recognized as firsts for their accomplishments. Additionally, this second generation broke new ground in incorporating Black studies, women’s and feminist studies, and personal experiences into its ethnographies and critiques of the discipline to develop an anti-racist and anti-colonial praxis.
When given the opportunity to work with the book as an associate editor at HAR, I knew it would lend itself to a different kind of book review. Inspired by the posts on the CaMP Anthropology blog, I decided to engage with the text through interviews with the contributors. This group of anthropologists pored over the finished product for years to ensure that the biographies were worthy of those highlighted. In October 2020, I had the pleasure of interviewing eleven of them. These interviews were conducted virtually and in groups. The contributors acted as panelists, and I was both the moderator and sole audience member. I was interested to learn how these scholars chose their subjects, what they found surprising during the research process, and what drew them to participate in a book 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. As the contributors speak throughout these pieces, their names are indicated in bold type; unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from these interviews.
These were intergenerational conversations that spanned sixty years of anthropology. As a newly minted socio-cultural anthropology PhD, I was speaking with Black anthropologists who are my teachers and colleagues about a cohort of anthropologists who were instrumental in formalizing the Association of Black Anthropologists in 1970. Our discussions pointed to the connections and similarities that exist between groups of anthropologists with a very recent history in the discipline. It also became clear that white supremacy, anti-Black racism, misogynoir, classism, gatekeeping, and unequal power relations endure and continue to impact the experiences of anthropologists in and out of the academy.
This is just one of the reasons the timing of this project is important. In 2020, a number of Black elders transitioned to ancestors—including Ira E. Harrison, Collette Sims, Ade Ajani Ofunniyin, Audrey Smedley, and Leith Mullings. The Association of Black Anthropologists spectacularly (and virtually) celebrated its 50th anniversary with AAA panels and published tributes that same year. To experience collective joy and sorrow in this way, during a year of overlapping crises rooted in anti-Black racism and white supremacy, my conversations with and about intellectual forebears offered another reminder that history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes (Carson 2020).
In the 2018 volume’s introduction, the editors mark out its intended contribution to the history of anthropology: “The intellectual biographies in this book help us to understand where African diaspora anthropology has been and where it is going […] Students whose identities have been stigmatized or marginalized in society can find sources of inspiration in the stories of the next generation of black anthropologists” (Harrison, Johnson-Simon and Williams 2018, xxi). While this is certainly true, I would push this argument even further. The book speaks to the importance of telling different histories of anthropology, histories animated by scholars who have not yet been fully recognized for the ways they have fundamentally shaped the field. Through the lives of these intellectuals, we are reminded that Black anthropology is American anthropology. By centering the pioneers’ lives and experiences, we reorient our understanding of the discipline and its history. We also take seriously those who were instrumental in providing the language to address racism, imperialism, and colonialism that continue to plague the discipline.
This collection of writings about The Second Generation consists of three main essays. Reflection is an analytic essay. In it, I draw on the words of the contributors to capture the parallels between various generations of Black anthropologists as they navigated the discipline. Theory presents a discussion of the anthropological canon and an index of texts that should be read alongside The Second Generation. Pedagogy engages several ways to incorporate the book’s biographies into one’s teaching and curriculum. An additional section, Interview Highlights, is a collection of block quotes from the contributors to highlight, in their own words, the importance of the Black pioneer they profiled. Finally, for more information about the scholars I interviewed, Contributors includes the full titles of those who I spoke with, along with a reprint of their biographies from the 2018 book, courtesy of University of Illinois Press.
Together, these pieces form an integrated whole that addresses the importance of The Second Generation in larger discussions about anthropology’s present and past. I encourage you to read through each section and browse the Zotero library that accompanies these written pieces, but to use these resources only as an introduction. Thinkers mentioned throughout are just a few of the countless under-recognized anthropologists who have often been rendered invisible in a discipline they helped shape and have remained committed to. This is certainly not an issue unique to anthropology; this collection is an invitation to learn of other scholars, both in and out of the discipline, who have not been appropriately recognized for their contributions to their fields.
Thank you to Lee D. Baker, Brendane Tynes, Rachel Watkins, and Erica Lorraine Williams for reading drafts of these pieces and providing critical feedback. Thank you to Ira Bashkow and Karla Slocum for helping me plan this project. Thank you to my fellow HAR editors, especially Rosanna Dent and Allegra Giovine, for organizing the logistics of such an unconventional book review. Thank you to Antoinette Jackson, Angela McMillan Howell, Bertin M. Louis, Jr., Rachel Watkins, Alisa R. Winn, Deborah Johnson-Simon, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, Erica Lorraine Williams, Elgin L. Klugh, Cheryl R. Rodriguez, and Alice Baldwin-Jones for taking the time to speak with me about your contributions to the book and for championing this project since that first cold email in September.
Finally, thank you to the Black pioneers in anthropology who are represented here: George Clement Bond, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, James Lowell Gibbs, Jr., Vera Mae Green, John Langston Gwaltney, Ira E. Harrison, Delmos Jones, Diane K. Lewis, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, Oliver Osborne, Anselme Remy, William Alfred Shack, Audrey Smedley, Niara Sudarkasa, and Charles Preston Warren II. While I have met none of them personally, I have come to know them through my engagement with this book. It is only because of the intimacy of Black anthropology, which they provided the foundation for, that I have been able to find a place for myself in this discipline.
Return to the Table of Contents
Read the next piece in this series
Read about the contributors to The Second Generation
Browse the Zotero library for this series