Knowing Through the Eyes of Others
Sometimes to be able to see the connection between the origins of a geographical culture and its diaspora, it has to be viewed through another’s set of eyes. As a controversial anthropologist and a son of Jewish immigrants, who’s trying to sort out his own place in America, Melville Herskovits asks and studies the question, “What is a negro, in sense the term is used in the United States?”
In an effort to create a link between Africans and African-Americans, Melville Herskovits records a great deal of film and audio of the goings-on in West African, West Indies and Brazilian communities, which he uses to culturally compare and contrast the cultural practices across different lands. The recordings were his primary assets in systematically challenging some widely held myths of what it meant to be African-America.
Being that music was central in his research, one of Herskovits’ primary collaborators was Mieczyslaw Kolinski, who was an ethnomusicologist at the University of Berlin and transcribed and analyzed all of Herskovits’ musical recordings, trying to make connections between the music from Africa and the recordings the music from America.
Since Kolinski was a Polish-Jew, he had to flee Berlin in 1933, when the Nazi’s came into power, and evade them throughout the First World War. While trying to raise money to move Kolinski from Europe and into an American university, Herskovits lost touch with Kolinksi in 1941 and was convinced that Kolinski was sent back to Poland and into a concentration camp. It wasn’t until 1944 that Herskovits hears back form Kolinski, not only confirming that he survived but that he has also developed new theories of the connection between African and African-American music.
Through his controversial research and studies, Herskovits rejected the idea that African Americans lost all traces of their roots when they were taken from Africa and enslaved in America; emphasized race on a sociological platform; and developed the concept of cultural relativism. Faced with slow assimilation of Jewish immigrants into the American social fabric and the question of whether he wants to be a Jewish scholar, Jewish-American scholar or just an American scholar, Herskovits had to wrestle with his own personal struggles. This begs the question of whether his developing of African studies at Northwestern University wasn’t somehow politically motivated.
Director, Producer: Llew Smith
Executive Producer: Christine Herbes-Sommers
Producer, Director of Research: Vincent Brown
Editors: Kelly Thompson, James Rutenbeck
Production: Vital Pictures
Director of Photography: Tom Fahey
Coordination Producer: Wendy Riseborough
Photography: London Parker-McWhorter, Lolita Parker Jr.
Music: Bill Laswell, Axiom, OBT Music, Rounder Records, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings