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  • Harvard Professor Vincent Brown discusses the irony that a white man came to define black culture.

    Harvard Professor Vincent Brown discusses the irony that a white man came to define black culture.

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  • Meet Jewish anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who exploded myths about African Americans.

    Meet Jewish anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who exploded myths about African Americans.

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  • "Professor Herskovits seemed to think sometimes that he owned Africa."

    "Professor Herskovits seemed to think sometimes that he owned Africa."

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  • "Herskovits learns that the place to look for behavior is in cultural practice, not biology."

    "Herskovits learns that the place to look for behavior is in cultural practice, not biology."

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  • "The idea of race as this organizing way of thinking about people is still extremely pervasive."

    "The idea of race as this organizing way of thinking about people is still extremely pervasive."

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  • Melville J. Herskovits with various African objects

    Melville J. Herskovits with various African objects

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  • Film subject Melville J. Herskovits

    Film subject Melville J. Herskovits

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  • Film subject Melville J. Herskovits

    Film subject Melville J. Herskovits

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  • Melville J. Herskovits with colleagues

    Melville J. Herskovits with colleagues

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  • Young Melville Herskovits with Mexican revolutionaries

    Young Melville Herskovits with Mexican revolutionaries

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  • Reenactment featuring the measuring of young man's eyes and nose

    Reenactment featuring the measuring of young man's eyes and nose

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  • 1st Edition of Myth of the Negro Past by Melville J. Herskovits

    1st Edition of Myth of the Negro Past by Melville J. Herskovits

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  • Vincent Brown, Christine Herbes-Sommers, Llewellyn Smith, filmmakers of Herskovits At The Heart Of Blackness

    Vincent Brown, Christine Herbes-Sommers, Llewellyn Smith, filmmakers of Herskovits At The Heart Of Blackness

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The Film

Using photo-montage recreations, interviews, animation, original field footage, and recordings, Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness examines the forgotten legacy of Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American anthropologist who broke new ground in the definition and analysis of African-American culture. In the film, intellectuals and historians discuss the vast impact and heated debate Herskovits continues to inspire around our modern perception of race and cultural identity.

Herskovits was the first prominent white intellectual to declare that black culture in America was “not pathological,” but rather inherently African, and that it had to be viewed within that context. In positing this, he established himself among the anthropological vanguard in applying the principles of cultural relativism to ethnic cultures within the United States.

Herskovits’s academic work advanced the cause of ethnic equality in the United States, while also setting off a whirlwind of debate about race and identity. Some black leaders worried that Herskovits’s work might be a kind of intellectual colonialism, and that if African-Americans allowed a white man to define and record their identity, it would lead to further exploitation. Could, or should, a white man have the last word on the origins of a culture to which he didn’t even belong?

The filmmakers present Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness as an invitation to a deeper civic discussion about who has the right to define someone else’s identity, and what it means when the people being defined are excluded from the conversation.

The Filmmakers

  1. Llewellyn SmithProducer/Director
  2. Christine Herbes-SommersProducer
  3. Vincent BrownAssociate Producer