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Documentary Examines Understanding Of Black People -- Changing Racial Perceptions





(San Francisco, CA)  HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS asks how a white American anthropologist of Jewish ancestry came to re-make the historical understanding of black people -- changing racial perceptions, igniting controversy, and finally challenging the way we think about racial identity.  A film by Llewellyn Smith, Christine Herbes-Sommers and Vincent Brown, HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS – recent winner of the American Historical Association’s John E. O’Connor Film Award as well as the Best Documentary Award at the Hollywood Black Film Festival will air on the Emmy and Peabody Award winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Maggie Gyllenhaal, on Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 10:30PM (check local listings.)


How is knowledge produced and how will it be used?  Is scholarship ever objective?  Should we care?  These questions are examined in this groundbreaking look at the life and career of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), the controversial anthropologist who established the African Studies Center at Northwestern -- the first at a major American university -- and wrote the groundbreaking The Myth of the Negro Past, a book that redefined black history, inspired black pride and even became a “source” for black militants in the 1960’s, including the Black Panthers.  


Vincent Brown provocatively sums up Herskovits as “the Elvis of anthropology,” a man who seemed to appropriate African culture for his own use, but simultaneously mainstreamed its study into the American academe and popular consciousness. Breaking the mold of traditional historical documentaries by using animation, edgy humor and innovative filmmaking, HERSKOVITS asks “Who has the authority to define a culture, especially when people from that culture are denied the opportunity to engage in the scholarly discourse of defining themselves?”


Early American anthropology was mostly concerned with supposed correlations between anatomical features and supposed behavioral traits of the various “races.” Herskovits joined anthropologist Franz Boaz in an effort to transform American anthropology from a pseudo-scientific enterprise that justified the racial subjugation of non-Western people into a modern field of scholarship. Herskovits became a vigorous advocate for “cultural relativism,” the idea that cultures should be understood from the inside, on their own terms, not the anthropologist’s. This concept provided much of the groundwork for today’s critical cultural theory.

In the late 1920's, Herskovits turned his attention to Africa at a time when other white scholars insisted there was nothing to learn there. Through his field work in Benin, Surinam and Trinidad, he shot thousands of feet of film (some shown in the film) which showed obvious connections between African and African-American planting techniques, dance, music, and even everyday gestures at a time when popular wisdom insisted that all ties to Africa had been lost in the traumatic passage to the New World.  But Herskovits clashed with black scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, who used their scholarship to attack American racism.  Other black scholars worried that viewing black American culture as African (i.e. “different”) would only justify Jim Crow segregation. 


The film also examines Herskovits' development as a scholar in light of the shared African American and Jewish experiences of exile, exclusion and political oppression. Faced with resurgent racism and persistent discrimination in the early 20th century, black and Jewish intellectuals grappled with a common question: could they retain their distinct ethnic identities and still participate as equals in American life?


Johnnetta Cole, President Emerita of Spelman and Bennett College, current Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and an early student of Herskovits, well understands the power of Herskovits’ work.   Even as she notes that she was personally empowered by his ‘discoveries,’ she could see Herskovits parlay that work for political ends and personal position.  The film asks the ‘real question’ -- who is entitled to create knowledge about a people, who will use it, and to what end?


To learn more about the film, visit the HERSKOVITS AT THE HEART OF BLACKNESS interactive companion website ( which features detailed information on the film, including an interview with the filmmakers and links and resources pertaining to the film’s subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film, and more.


# # #


Featured Participants, in Alphabetical Order


K. ANTHONY APPIAH, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, is a philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist whose interests include political and moral theory, the philosophy of language and mind, and African intellectual history.


LEE D. BAKER, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Dean of Academic Affairs at Duke University, specializes in the history of U.S. anthropology and is author of From Savage to Negro:  Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954.


VINCENT BROWN, Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University, is a multi-media historian with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice, who specializes in American history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery. 


JOHNNETTA COLE, President Emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges, is a well-known author, scholar and activist for social and economic justice and founder/chair of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute at Bennett College.  She is also a former student of Melville J. Herskovits.


GELYA FRANK, Professor of Anthropology and Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California, is past president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology and has served on the Board of Directors of the American Anthropological Association.  She is author of the numerous publications, including the article Melville J. Herskovits and the African and Jewish Diasporas:  Race, Culture and Modern Anthropology.


JERRY GERSHENHORN, Associate Professor in the Department of History at North Carolina Central University, is the author of the biography Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge.


JEAN HERSKOVITS CORRY, Professor of History, is an expert in African history and politics and the only child of Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits.


MAE NGAI, Professor Asian American Studies and History at Columbia University, specializes in questions of immigration, citizenship, and nationalism in United States history and is author of Impossible Subjects:  Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.




About the Filmmakers


Llewellyn Smith (Director/Producer) is President and founder of Vital Pictures, inc. (, a Boston-based documentary company dedicated to exploring social justice issues. He is co-executive producer for the PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” (2008)winner of the Council on Foundations Henry Hampton Award, the 2009 Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award, and the National Academy of Sciences award for excellence in broadcasting. Llew has contributed to many award-winning PBS series, including Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years and American Experience, where as Series Editor he played a key role in origination, development and acquisition of more than 70 programs on American history. Director/ producer credits include the Emmy and Peabody award-winning series Africans In America: America’s Journey Through Slavery (1997); Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory (2001); the 3-hour PBS series RACE: The Power Of An Illusion (2003);  the 3-hour special Reconstruction: The Second Civil War (2004, winner of the Eric Barnouw Award) and a 2-hour NOVA biography of Dr. Percy Julian, the pioneering industrial chemist and civil rights activist, Forgotten Genius  (2007), honored for broadcast excellence by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Writers Award.


Christine Herbes-Sommers (Executive Producer) is Vice President of Vital Pictures, Inc.  She was Senior Series Producer for Unnatural Causes:  Is Inequality Making Us Sick?, the award winning four hour PBS series and major outreach campaign on health and social injustice broadcast in 2008. In recent years, she served as Executive Director of Communications and Media for the Big Picture Schools, an innovative public school network, recently designing a comprehensive system of programming and producing a serial long form documentary called The Advisory.  From 2001-2003, she produced the first hour of the acclaimed PBS series RACE: The Power of An Illusion.  After living in Dar Es Salaam Tanzania with her family in the early 1990s, Herbes-Sommers joined Educational Programming at WGBH in 1993 as Senior Producer, leading six multi-part series and over fifty hours of multiplatform programming to completion. Over twenty five years, Sommers has produced a wide range of PBS documentaries and dramas, earning an Emmy nomination, a DuPont Columbia Award for her ground breaking documentary Joan Robinson-One Woman’s Story, several Cine Golden Eagles and many other awards.


Vincent Brown (Producer and Director of Research) is the Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University.  He is an award-winning author and media maker with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice.  Professor Brown teaches courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery, and is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008), which received the Merle Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and the Louis Gottschalk Prize in 2009.


About Independent Lens

Independent Lens is an Emmy® Award-winning weekly series airing Tuesday nights at 10:00 PM on PBS. The acclaimed anthology series features documentaries and a limited number of fiction films united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of their independent producers. Independent Lens features unforgettable stories about a unique individual, community or moment in history. Presented by ITVS, the series is supported by interactive companion websites and national publicity and community engagement campaigns. Further information about the series is available at Independent Lens is jointly curated by ITVS and PBS, and is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding provided by PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts. The series producer is Lois Vossen.




Voleine Amilcar, ITVS  415-356-8383 x 244     

Mary Lugo           770-623-8190                           

Cara White          843-881-1480                           





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