Tess Rosenthal -Class 7: Africana Religion, Subjectivity in the Body

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). 

Works Cited

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.

6 thoughts on “Tess Rosenthal -Class 7: Africana Religion, Subjectivity in the Body

  1. Your blogpost was very insightful. At first, before reading your post, I thought the reason why Herskovits’ study was controversial was because of his race and his appropriation of knowledge. When you stated that: “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.” I could see the much larger issue at hand. There was already an underlying problem in his attitude which was that he trying to study African Americans using a comparative approach. He was trying to compare them to African culture or White-Americans. He should have definitely followed Deren’s participant observation method where he should have participated in the activities of African Americans. As you said, he was using the wrong set of lens and despite his good intentions because of his error the results were not as favorable.

  2. Hi Tess!

    I feel that the theme your blog centers on is very significant when it comes to the study of anthropology. Examining anthropology’s entwinement with politics—and whether there ought to be such an entwinement—feels necessary to ensure the community gets what it requires out of different works. To echo what Sehee said, I also thought that Herskovits’s work was controversial due to his appropriation of the connections between African American and African cultures. However, when you frame the analysis of his work with the theme of your blog, we can see much more pressing issues at hand. Chiefly, he should have disemployed the comparative methods of study and embraced studying African American culture in its own rite. From what I learned in Cultural Methods of Anthropology, although it is difficult to leave biases at the door when entering into an ethnographic study, it is of the utmost importance. It seems Herskovits understood this concept in theory but that he did not apply it in practice. Perhaps this was because, above all, he desired his work to advance us toward racial equality. Your statement that “Deren stayed true to Herkovitz’s idea that true scholarship cannot exist with politics, whereas he did not” rings true to me here! I believe that without introducing this element into his work, he still could have achieved his desired effect though. As we look at Deren’s work, her thoughtful, analytical, and largely unbiased writing could surely be used to promote respect between different cultures as Herskovits intended for his work.
    A related question that stood out to me from the film was, was it appropriate for Herskovits to exercise so much power in defining African American culture while the very members of this culture were largely excluded from engaging in this academic dialogue? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this especially as it applies to the framework for your blog!

  3. Hi Tess,
    Well written blog post. You drew some similarities and differences between Herskovitz and Deren I had not thought of. I think your analysis of the “collectiveness” and unity that Voodoo brings to the different Haitian tribes is apt, and I would go so far as to argue that her work does a better job at furthering Hersovitz’s goal of ending racism than his own work. Because her work highlighted and analyzed Haitian religion, as opposed to attempting to draw a preordained conclusion, her depictions come across more genuine. It is disappointing that Hersovitz’s work was conducted with such flawed methodologies because his premise was a noble one, and had he employed some more sensitive, self-aware, and objective techniques, it potentially would have an effect on its reception. Herskowitz’s problems, although vast, all stem from relative insensitivity and ignorance, and had anthropology been more widespread, he could have spoken to African American and African leaders in the field to develop a more accurate methodology. In an entirely undismissive sentiment, I think that Herskowitz was doomed to fail.

  4. Hi Tess!

    Your response is an insightful look into why specifically we find Herskovits’ work to be controversial, past simply not being Black. I especially like how you introduced the idea that Deren is observing Haitian Voodoo through a Haitian lens while Herskovits tries to force an African lens on African-American culture. While it is clear Deren’s work is much more ethnographic in nature and seemingly objective, the lines between objectivity and subjectivity become blurred upon remembering Deren, like Herskovits, is of European Jewish descent, however she is able to remain apolitical and culturally relative in order to avoid controversial power dynamics. You explain one of the main criticisms of Herskovits was his large role in defining the field of African-American studies while at the same time suppressing the voices of Black scholars and making the field very white-dominated. While it is clear as to why this approach is controversial, I wonder if the Haitian people felt similarly about Deren, a White European, defining their culture and religion through her own narrative and language barriers. Do you think another difference in controversiality may have been driven by the fact that Herskovits sought to make generalizations about a whole culture whereas Deren is specifically exploring the religion of the Haitian people? Additionally, I wonder what the intersection is of religion and culture in Haiti, as from Deren’s account the Voodoo religion seems to be deeply engrained even in the everyday lives of Haitian people, and if Deren was actually presenting a narrative on culture as well as Voodoo religion.

  5. Hi Tess!

    You made some very informative points distinguishing Deren’s and Herskovits’s work and their contributions to anthropology. I agree with you that Herskovits had a controversial and flawed approach understanding African culture thorough the lens of African because he was met with stark criticism. His political stance interfered with his agenda and did not allow him to remain completely bias. While Herskovits had an intent to stop the spread of racism, he was often portrayed as deepening the divide between the whites and blacks which almost seemed counterintuitive. The major flaw in his work, as you mentioned was the comparison of African American culture to other cultures which highlight their differences.

    Deren’s work on the other hand did not impart bias or comparative analysis as she researched the Haitian culture from an observational standpoint. Her non-biased understanding of the Voodoo culture was based on the idea of participant observation which respected the concept of cultural relativism. As you mentioned, observational insight is essential and can really provide us with a good glimpse into another culture. For example, the collected clips of rituals, dancing, beats of the drums and the arrival of the Lao all contributed to our understanding of the Haitian tribes and Voodoo culture. Overall, the two unique and diverse approaches to study either Haitian or African American culture were both informative and eyeopening. I believe that even when we are studying anthropology through the lens of someone else, there is always something to learn.

  6. Hi Tess!

    You bring up many important points regarding the motive behind Herskovits’ work. While there were problematic aspects regarding the way he conducted this fieldwork in order to draw connections to African American identity, I believe there were also more positive aspects within his studies which can be overlooked. He was involved in studies of physical anthropology and argued that behavior arises from cultural practice, rather than biology. This disproved the problematic claim that race was rooted in biology, which could be used to justify some races as inferior to others. He also practiced cultural relativism in his fieldwork in Africa, where he tried to understand the different cultures on their own terms. Yet, at the same time, he became so prominent in the field of African American studies that he was able to silence African American voices, such as labeling “The Black Encyclopedia” by W.E.B. Du Bois as propaganda.
    Considering the politically-charged climate we live in today, where race is seemingly ever-present in the conversation, I am starting to wonder what role anthropology has regarding social justice causes. Typically, anthropologists believe politics should be distanced from the people or culture studied, but what if those people’s identities are politicized to begin with? How can anthropologists effectively navigate being sympathetic to these causes while also performing unbiased fieldwork?

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