The field of anthropology often appears to be an objective outlook on culture and peoples; however, it is truly a way for anthropologists to navigate their own identities and reconcile the intersections of personal identities and the global community. The last line of the film Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness perfectly sums up this sentiment with the question, “who has access to “understanding”, to explaining a people, and to what use?” (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 54:15). This is a question both Maya Deren and Melvile Herskovits sought to answer in the context of African connections to a far-removed African diaspora. While both Maya Deren and Melville Herskovits are granted power over the narrative of African heritage they present, Herskovits’ work was politically motivated with societal equality at stake. This caused him to force an African lens on African American history, while Deren was able to explore the African influence in Vodou through the acknowledgement of the uniqueness of Haitian culture and her position as an outsider.
Maya Deren’s ethnographic film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti and her book of the same title allow the audience a glimpse into Haitian culture and the Vodou religion from a seemingly objective stance. The audience is allowed into the world of Vodou to bear witness to the intricacies of the ritualistic song and dance that define the religion, allowing for an immersive experience in the community and spiritual collectiveness the film goes on to describe. The film begins by describing the divine spirit, or Loa, and their relationship with the mortal world. To create contact between the spiritual world and the mortal world, the Loa are said to “mount” a human and express themselves through that person (Divine Horsemen, 2:15). Throughout the rest of the film, we witness different rituals for specific Loa, each emphasizing the collectivity of the community and the unity between Vodou and the different African tribes from which certain words, morals, or beliefs are derived from. In the sixth chapter of her book, Deren further emphasizes the importance of ancestral unity in describing the sacred drums that drive the rituals. The music is composed of polyrhythmic beats from multiple drums that are characteristic of different African tribes. Deren highlights their unity by stating “not only does each of the three drums have a specific, designated beat which is different for Nago, Mahi, Congo, etc., but all three must combine their separate rhythms in very specific manners in order that the resultant ensembles shall maintain the Nago, Mahi, or Congo beats” (Deren, 235). The correct drum song is crucial for calling upon the specific Loa, hereby literally demonstrating the emphasis on harmony between many African tribes. The influence of spiritual unity is also highlighted in this chapter, where Deren asserts there is no individuality in humanity, rather Loa are the only individuals. She connects this belief with the distinction between performance and ritual with the phrase “only the Loa are virtuosi,” illustrating the song and dance-filled rituals are religious rather than for aesthetic pleasure or praise (Deren, 230).
Extrapolating the connections made by Deren between African heritage and areas of African diaspora outside of Africa, Melville Herskovits drew from Deren’s work and ultimately helped bring the field of African American studies into the American mainstream. As described in the film, Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, Herskovits came from Jewish immigrants in the United States and tried to navigate his own intersectional identity as Jewish American through exploring the African American experience. Herskovits worked with Franz Boas, ultimately learning to look to culture to explain behavior rather than race (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 13:30). Using this new framework of culture, Herskovits traveled Africa in search of evidence to support his claim that African American culture is simply a derivative of African culture, an argument he thought would be able to support racial equality. Learning principles of cultural relativism from Boas, Herskovits initially stayed away from politically driven research, however as he started to fight for equality, his work became very politically motivated and controversial (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 43:15).
The controversiality of Herskovits’ work peaked with the publishing of his book “Myth of the Negro Past”, which was equally rejected by scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier and W.E.B. Du Bois and praised by Black militants such as the Black Panther Party (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 50:02). The controversial aspects of his work were seemingly two-fold. A major criticism called into question Herskovits’ position and power in placing himself and other white scholars at the forefront of an emerging field of African American Studies, while silencing the voices of Black scholars. The second aspect questions Herskovits’ motives and personal stake in his research. As Herskovits’ calls for equality became more politically driven, it became clear his research was focused on crafting his own narrative and imposing the lens of “Africanism” on African-American culture as a means for not only racial equality but religious and class equality as he navigated being a Jewish immigrant during the second World War. Americans were wary of listening to Black scholars and giving them too large of a platform in fear the issue was too personal and would bias their research. Demonstrated in the statement made by Vincent Brown, “people assume that if you’re Black, you have a stake in talking about Black people, you have a stake in racism. But if you’re white, then somehow you can talk about them objectively” (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 32:55). Ironically, this sentiment allowed Herskovits to rise to power in this field, however his drives for social equality were not objective and were arguably motivated by navigating his own Jewish American identity. In an argument to persuade US Foreign Policy to support decolonization in Africa, Herskovits drew a parallel between the Nazi occupation in Europe and colonial powers in Africa, demonstrating while he cannot understand the Black experience, Herskovits did feel personally connected to the issue at some level.
Both Maya Deren and Melville Herskovits come from similar backgrounds, as Jewish immigrants in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s making some sort of claim on African heritage and cultural connections. However, how is it that we are able to accept Deren’s work as an objective account of Haitian religion and culture while Herskovits’ influence on the field of African American studies is so controversial?
Throughout both her film and writings, Deren is able to maintain a lens of objectivity by acknowledging she is an outsider and witness to the Vodou rituals and Haitian culture she is documenting. Continually in chapter six of her book, she refers to herself and readers as “voyageurs” observing the ritualistic song and dance of Vodou (Deren, 225). Even as she takes part in a ritual and is mounted by a Loa, Deren recalls her nervousness and difficulty during the ritualistic dancing, marking her place as an outsider. In contrast to the local Haitians, the ritual does not come easily to Deren and she finds her place within the community by acknowledging that even as an outsider, she endured the painful parts of the ritual and therefore is placed in a purgatory of an outsider’s perspective coupled with some lived Vodou experience (Deren, 259). This distinction ensures a lens of cultural relativism is being employed and allows readers to consume Deren’s ethnographic works believing she is presenting an objective account of Haitian culture without judgment, to which we are all merely witnesses.
By contrast, Herskovits employed a political agenda throughout his work. He continually tried to prove the connection between African American culture and African roots with an agenda of equality. Pushing for desegregation and equality during the segregation era in America was already controversial, however Herskovits solicited additional critique from the African American community as he placed himself on a pedestal at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. As described by K. Anthony Appiah in the film Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, “Herskovits entered the academy at a point in which the dominant voices were white voices. But they didn’t see themselves as white voices. They saw themselves as the voices of the truth” (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 29:04). This concept is clearly embraced by Herskovits as he believes his views are objective, even though he does not remain apolitical or employ a culturally relative lens on his research. With a political stake in his argument, Herskovits tries to force Africanisms on African American culture, shaping it to fit his narrative (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 24:40).
While Maya Deren emphasizes the ancestral, spiritual, and moral unity of Haitians and their connections to African tribes, she does not neglect the uniqueness of Haitian culture as a function of the amalgamation of these different influences (Deren, 235). This approach drastically differs from Herskovits’ in which he negated the uniqueness of African American culture by trying to prove it is simply a derivative of African culture. In his controversial book, The Myth of the Negro Past, Herskovits claims if African Americans embrace their African cultural heritage, their self-image and self-respect would be increased (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 36:06). While trying to use this claim as an argument for desegregation, Black scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier worried the distinction between African American culture and American culture could be used as grounds to promote segregation (Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, 38:34). At the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a period in which Black culture in the United States was flourishing and establishing an identity, Herskovits’ assertion that African-American culture is indeed not unique and simply a derivative of African culture was deeply troubling to both African Americans and the American government focused on preventing a civil rebellion.
Ultimately, the claims connecting African heritage with African diasporic cultures are narratives controlled by Herskovits and Deren, neither of which is truly objective and neither authors can truly understand the lived experiences of African Americans or Haitian Vodou. Herskovits’ work is more explicitly controversial, as his political motivations caused the forceful application of his claim that African American culture is simply African culture, while negating the uniqueness and Black voices of the African American experience. Deren employs a frame of cultural relativism through her work with the acknowledgement of her status as an outsider and the absence of ulterior motives for her work, however we must also consider the specific media through which we are consuming these materials. Divine Horsemen, both the film and the book, were created by Deren, placing her as the author, narrator, and authority. There is no room for self-critique in her own works and while her work is generally an apolitical account of Haitian culture, that is still the specific narrative the audience is being fed. By contrast, in the film Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, Herskovits is not given a voice, rather his work is examined in hindsight and critiqued by others, promoting a certain narrative to highlight the controversial aspects of Herskovits’ work. I am interested in hearing from the class about how the way the materials are presented and how we consume them perpetuate a certain narrative or if they can be taken to be objective.
Deren. Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. McPherson and Co, 1953. pp. 225-263
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Directed by Maya Deren, Teiji Ito, and Cherel Ito, 1954. YouTube, uploaded by Voodoo Priest Man, 27 August 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Tla44ZDyZs&list=PL-IX_uZpcE1O__GdU9jaRiAZyQpA0X2Al&ab_channel=VoodooPriestMan.
Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. 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.