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? These questions are examined through this groundbreaking film on the life and career of Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), the pioneering American anthropologist of African Studies and one of the most controversial intellectuals of the 20th century. How did this son of Jewish immigrants come to play such a decisive role in the shaping of modern African American and African identities? 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.
This quick-paced, carefully researched documentary traces Herskovits' development as a scholar to 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? Prominent scholars like Princeton philosopher, K. Anthony Appiah, and Columbia University historian, Mae Ngai, explore this paradox not only in historical and contemporary terms, but through their own experiences as people of color.
Lee D. Baker, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University, locates Herskovits at the heart of a transformation in anthropology which continues to this day. 19th Century anthropology grew out of European colonialism and too often provided a pseudo-scientific justification for its subjugation of non-Western people. Physical anthropologists drew specious correlations between anatomical features and supposed behavioral traits of the various "races."