“Culture Hero: The Anthropologist as Public Intellectual”

Professor Stephen Whitfield has published an article for First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination, titled “Culture Hero: The Anthropologist as Public Intellectual.”

An excerpt:

The most famous line of the most famous book of one of the great American public intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth-century defines “the problem” of the coming century as “the problem of the color-line.” The Souls of Black Folk (1903) uses the sentence three times, and may not refer exclusively to the chasm that divided black and white. But prescient though W. E. B. Du Bois was, and salient though his legacy has been, he is not conspicuously associated with the defense of other racial minorities and ancestral groups. In the twenty-first century, the line looks more colorful than the one that Du Bois devoted his life to erasing; the primary colors have been extended into numerous variations. Even as he noted that the blood of several peoples flowed through his veins, African ancestry determined his identity. He therefore had very personal reasons for his opposition to racism, which the historian George M. Fredrickson defined as “a rationalized pseudoscientific theory positing the innate and permanent inferiority of nonwhites.”[1]

For members of the race that benefited from inequality, the struggle against white supremacy was presumably less compelling than it was for Du Bois, whose commitment to civil rights could be dismissed as special pleading. His friend Franz Boas was a Jewish immigrant from Germany. Among white public intellectuals he was also unsurpassed in making the crossing of that color-line — for the sake of justice — central to his vocation. Consistent in his defense of the very precarious rights of African-Americans, Boas also promoted understanding of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In the breadth of his critique of race, he can therefore lay claim to have vindicated even more decisively than Du Bois the ideal of the public intellectual in the United States. (And unlike Du Bois, Boas never did anything in politics as silly as becoming a Communist.)

The other apt comparison is to Thomas Jefferson, the most influential intellectual ever to hold the nation’s highest office. The notorious image of blacks presented in Notes on the State of Virginia (1783) helped form the color-line. And yet Jefferson’s record of disparagement has to be weighed against his insistence that “all men are created equal.” That credo led Herman Melville, speaking for the defense, to argue that “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” Jefferson was also fascinated with Native Americans, whose vocabularies he collected and wanted to have compiled.[2] He should thus be deemed a precursor to Boas, who really was an egalitarian. His academic legacy, as well as his personal and civic commitments, could be called Jeffersonian, in the sense that they were directed toward realizing the moral promise of the Declaration of Independence.

Read the full article here.

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