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Sunday, November 18, 2018

3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

Auburn Avenue Research Library
101 Auburn Avenue NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30303
United States

The Baton Foundation, Inc., in partnership with the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, will host a film screening and facilitated discussion about Melville Herskovits and notions of Black culture and identity. This program is free and open to the public.

About the Film

Is there a politics of knowledge? Who controls what knowledge is produced and how it will be used? Is there “objective” scholarship and, if so, how does it become politicized? Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, a groundbreaking film on the life and career of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), examines these and other questions. In fact, how did this son of Jewish immigrants come to play such a decisive role in the shaping of modern Black and African identities? A pioneering American anthropologist of African Studies and one of the most controversial intellectuals of the 20th century, Herskovits emerges as an iconic figure in on-going debates in the social sciences over the ethics of representation and the right of a people to represent themselves.

In the late 1920’s, Herskovits focused his attention on Africa at a time when other white scholars insisted there was nothing to learn there. During field work in Benin, Surinam and Trinidad, he shot thousands of feet of film (some shown in this documentary) revealing undeniable similarities between African and so-called New World planting techniques, dance, music, even everyday gestures. Harvard historian and co-producer, Dr. Vincent Brown, explains how this proof of cultural retention across the African Diaspora refuted the common wisdom that all ties to Africa had been lost during the traumatic Middle Passage. Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, President Emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges, Director Emerita of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and an early student of Herskovits, recalls how empowered she felt by Herskovits’ “discoveries,” even though Black scholars had been writing about these same ideas for decades.

By the end of his life, Herskovits’ own research had become a tool for social movements he could not have anticipated–and might not have welcomed. His daughter, historian Jean Herskovits Corry, recalls how his seminal work, The Myth of the Negro Past, was embraced by the Black Panther Party and Black Nationalist students of the ’60s. Ironically, Herskovits may not have understood the scope of his own influence.

Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness raises unsettling questions. It forces us to ask who has the authority to define a culture–especially if people from that culture are denied the opportunity to engage in the scholarly discourse of defining themselves. Dr. Brown provocatively sums up Herskovits as “the Elvis of anthropology,” a man who appropriated African culture, but simultaneously mainstreamed its study into the American academy and popular consciousness.

This film will challenge attendees to think of “knowledge” as a socio-political construct, shaped by the implicit values and underlying power dynamics of the society in which it is produced. It calls on each viewer to ask, “Who controls my cultural identity?”

About the Facilitator

Dr. Kali-Ahset Amen is a sociologist and associate director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University. She received the B.A. degree in African Studies from Columbia University and the Ph.D. degree in sociology from Emory University.


Registration is closed for this event.

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