David A. Varel. The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought. 304pp., 16 halftones, notes, index. University of Chicago Press, 2018. $45 (cloth)

David Varel’s biography of Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar, is aptly named. Davis is rarely cited by anthropologists today, but he has little in common with the “excluded ancestors and invisible traditions” after whom a volume of the History of Anthropology series was named.[1] On the contrary, Davis was hardly invisible. Rather, he was a remarkably well-known, highly-respected figure who was important intellectually and institutionally in anthropology, someone whose story and influence has not been repressed or erased but, as Varel puts it, “lost.” In this trim and athletic volume, Varel successfully shows us the importance of Davis’s work and life, revealing a remarkable scholar who should be remembered for his incredible personal story, his intellectual contributions to the study of structural injustice, and his role as a model of a politically committed but non-activist scholar.

Allison Davis’s biography is remarkable: a student of W. Lloyd Warner and the first black professor to be hired by the University of Chicago, Davis made his name using social anthropology and culture-and-personality studies to paint a picture of the racial and class inequities in the Jim Crow South. In the latter part of his career he gained fame for his work demonstrating the racial bias of IQ testing and the classist assumptions built into primary and secondary education.

His research on these topics followed a unique personal trajectory.  He lived through some of the greatest intellectual moments of the twentieth century, but always approached them from an eccentric angle. His early work was published by W. E. B. Du Bois and he was part of the New Negro Renaissance (a more inclusive term than the neighborhood-centric “Harlem Renaissance”) but he was never entirely happy with the class politics of elite African-American culture. His tenure at Chicago saw the rise of its anthropology department, the Chicago School of Sociology, and civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s, and yet Davis was neither an activist nor a high-flying Chicago-style theorist. As a result, Varel had quite a challenge situating Davis intellectually, showing how Davis was both part of, but separate from, the intellectual currents of his time.

Summarizing these trends is a tall order. Varel’s biography ably covers large swaths of American cultural and intellectual life. As a result, readers familiar with A. R. Radcliffe-Brown but not Alain Locke—and vice versa!—will be able to follow the narrative without losing a sense of context. It is not easy to compress so much of this material but Varel has done an excellent job of it, and his dehydrated walks through this history are nutritious and carefully prepared: his bibliography shows great familiarity with both primary sources and the secondary literature on them. Scholars looking for a longer account of Davis’s emplacement in this age will have to await a biography that is twice the size of this volume, however.

Varel’s biography is clearly written and almost relentlessly structured, moving through topics, trends, and viewpoints in an order that makes reading a breeze. As a result, it can be read by anyone who cares about Davis and his work, not just academic anthropologists—an important consideration given Varel’s goal of bringing Davis back into the public record as a prominent African-American scholar. The volume is also thoroughly researched, and one feels very close—but not overwhelmed by—the many citations that Varel makes from the archives. In addition to archival work, Varel was guided by the reminiscences of Davis’s sons and of St. Clair Drake. At times this sort of close collaboration has drawbacks, such as inhibiting a critical take on one’s subject. But in this case I felt Varel’s close work with Davis’s circle helped ground his biography in a productive way and doubtless attuned Varel, who is white, to Davis’s lived experience as a black man. Varel avoids lionizing Davis and is careful to insist on the importance of his many collaborators, including the junior scholar St. Clair Drake and Davis’s remarkable wife Elizabeth. He is also careful to note Davis’s faults, such as his lack of attention to the relationship between gender and power.

Varel’s portrait of Davis is psychologically intimate while avoiding speculative depth psychology. He portrays Davis as a man who was able to survive the deep wounds of American racial injustice by adopting a stoic attitude. Deep South (1941), an ethnography of Mississippi on which Davis was first author, paints a vivid description of the Jim Crow conditions in which he conducted his fieldwork. But Varel’s book also does a good job documenting the violence—physical, structural, and semiotic—that Davis endured throughout his life in the North as well. At the same time, Varel acknowledges the unexpectedly generous support Davis received from white allies such as  Edwin Embree, Robert Redfield, and W. Lloyd Warner. At one level, then, Davis’s life is exemplary as a story of human achievement in the face of incredible constraint. At the same time, Davis is not someone who should be remembered only as an inspiring success story so that anthropology can congratulate itself on its multicultural origins. Davis and his collaborators were producing intersectional accounts of structural racism and classism decades ahead of the post-’68 interest in politics and inequality. Deep South, for instance, is a compelling account of structural violence and was published in 1942—seventeen years before Paul Farmer was born. African-American anthropologists, such as Faye Harrison and the contributors to African-American Pioneers in Anthropology have long pointed to Davis as a key figure in their genealogy.[2] Varel’s book should bolster these claims and provide new and compelling evidence that Davis was an important theorist, careful ethnographer, and occupies a central genealogical position in American anthropology.

Davis is relevant to anthropology today because of the professional choices he made. Davis’s goal in life was to make the privileged realize that race and class were structural forces which disempowered people in ways that were invisible to the fortunate. His career was classically Weberian in that his research topic was selected because of its importance to his own life, but he strove for objectivity in his work so that his findings would be accepted by his political opponents. This reconciliation of advocacy and science through the concept of objectivity was typical of social scientists of Davis’s era, but became less attractive to younger scholars with the rise of the New Left and the radicalization of politics and thought in the 1970s. This was also a time of tremendous growth in anthropology, whose current practitioners have inherited a 1970s-era commitment to activism and partisanship.

Varel convincingly shows us that Davis’s more conventional politics were an important, if under-recognized, part of the emancipatory politics of the post-war period. His academic work helped establish the “environmentalist” paradigm which has legitimated activist claims that Americans do not live out their lives on a balanced playing field. Varel’s biography pushes back gently, then, against an anthropology that sees anything other than radical protest as political quietism. In doing so, it presents Davis as a role model for anthropologists who seek political relevance but feel uncomfortable taking up more direct political activism. It suggests that successful social movements need many different kinds of commitment. In an era when many feel that America needs both radical change and cooler heads to prevail, Davis is a valuable role model for a professorship that is part—but not all—of the solution to our current problems.

[1] See Richard Handler, ed., Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions: Essays Toward a More Inclusive History of Anthropology, History of Anthropology 9 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015).

[2] Harrison, Ira E. and Faye V. Harrison, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

Alex Golub: contributions / golub@hawaii.edu / Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa