Anthropology and politics are deeply tied when anthropology is being used to combat something as institutionalized as racism. However, when anthropology serves to collect information without a specific cause behind it, it appears not to be politicized. The question of politics in anthropology is raised by Melville J. Herskovits. His work is in efforts to combat racism whereas Maya Deren’s work was seemingly not motivated by a particular movement or cause.
When establishing Voodoo as the religion of Haiti, the narrator of Deren’s documentary notes that its existence is based on the moral unity among the different tribes that live in Haiti (Divine Horsemen, 1:15). Throughout Deren’s footage in the documentary, several different rituals are shown, each taking place with large groups performing different movements as one. These collective practices highlight how practicing Voodoo unifies different tribes. For example, there is footage of a group performing a ritual to Agwee, the god of water. Everyone gathers to give him cake and champagne as they chant and praise the god together. The inclusive practice even allows for Deven to engage and take part in the ritual as she became a part of the Haitian practice (Divine Horsemen, 11:47). At the end of the documentary, it highlights the Carnival, describing that it a celebration of life and serves as a new beginning for Haitians. At this celebration, the baton twirlers are described as “talented performers” and not performing a ritual(Divine Horsemen, 39:17). The oneness, the lack of individuals that takes place during rituals is not happening at Carnival, however, there is still unity among the people because their morals are still aligned across the year. This is all done through observational footage and all the narration serves to provide information.
In her writing, Deren highlights that Voodoo centers around the lack of a singular body. Rituals, performed in hopes to please the divinity are “characterized by a quality of selflessness, discipline, and even of depersonalization” (Deren, 228). Deren, herself, experiences that as she details in the chapter “The White Darkness.” Her experience, even as an outsider, was that of a communal body until she was mounted by Erzulie where she was no longer in a body at all. As she describes, there is distance between the gods and men, which cannot exist in the same body (Deren, 248-9). Possession is one way for divinity to give devotion to man, but unlike man’s “selfless anonymity,” a Loas’ devotion “is his most elaborated, realized manifestation” (Deren, 230). Humans are one collective body as they move with the beat of the drum, only a god can be an individual. Even with an important position like the drummer, the individual is not important. The drums are what is sacred (Deren, 245). Overall, the lack of individualism in Voodoo practice is to praise the Loa in a way that highlights the Loa both physically during a possession as well as metaphysically throughout as Deren experienced herself. Her participary approach allowed her to explore the culture, but not exploit it.
Like Deren, Herskowitz observed the practices of several African cultures, however, the way he wrote and talked about his research led to some controversy. He sought to put a stop to racism with his studies, using the pseudoscience of measuring features to prove that the scientific approach that was being used was wrong (Brown, 11:25). His next attempt to counteract racism was where the controversy of his work truly began. He sought to prove that African American culture was different than that of White Americans. He traced different practices back to their origins in Africa by visiting both African communities in South America such as Haiti and different countries in Africa (Brown, 24:40). Those who were not happy with his work, most of whom were African American, argued that the idea that African Americans came from a different culture would give people more of a reason to discriminate against them. His critics included black scholars like E. Franklin Fraizer (Gershenhorn, 38:00). One of the other reasons why Herskowitz was criticized was for his sense of ownership over Africa and African studies. He was a key player in mainstreaming African studies, which was possible because of his race. Unlike Deren, who observed Haitian religion through the lens of Haiti, Herskowitz tried to study African Americans through the lens of Africa which proved to be a flaw in his work. Deren stayed true to Herkovitz’s idea that true scholarship (California Newsreel, 31:16) cannot exist with politics, whereas he did not. Herskovitz’s work, though flawed, was essential. However, I’m left to question if his work was what would be considered true scholarship, especially with his work, notably Myth of the Negro Past, being used by members of the Black Panthers (Gershenhorn, 48:20).
Deren, Maya, director. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Cherel Ito, 1978.
Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti (New York: Mcpherson and Co., 1953) pp. 225-263
“Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness.” , directed by Anonymous , produced by Christine Herbes-Sommers, Vincent Brown, and Llewellyn Smith. , California Newsreel, 2009. Alexander Street, https://video-alexanderstreet-com.proxy.library.emory.edu/watch/herskovits-at-the-heart-of-blackness.