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Melville Jean Herskovits

HERSKOVITS, MELVILLE JEAN (1895–1963), U.S. anthropologist. Born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Herskovits became a lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University in 1924. In 1927 he moved to Northwestern University, where he directed the program of African studies. In 1935 he became professor of African Affairs. He made Northwestern University virtually the center of African studies in the U.S., and when the African Studies Association was established in 1957 he became its first president.

In the 1920s Herskovits undertook a series of anthropometric studies of the blacks in the United States and then widened his research to cover the blacks in the New World and in Africa. He carried out fieldwork among the bush peoples of Surinam, Dutch Guiana, and in Haiti, West Africa, Brazil, and sub-Saharan Africa. In his classic work, The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), he presented a masterly study of the African heritage of the American black. His studies of the New World black opened up a whole new field of research and prepared the way for a more positive and objective appreciation of the black, both individually and collectively, in American society. One of Herskovits' great interests was the study of race crossing and inheritance, and one of his earliest books was on this subject: The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing (1928). Like his teacher, Franz *Boas, he did not regard physical man apart from cultural man, and was concerned to combat the confusions between innate physical and acquired cultural traits.

In addition to his general study of anthropology, Manand his Works (1948), Herskovits published studies in ethnomusicology and economic anthropology. In 1959 he produced an important survey on Africa for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate. His final major book, The Human Factor in Changing Africa (1962), dealt with the conflict between established custom and innovation among the peoples of Africa.

He discussed the problem "Who are the Jews?" in the essay that he and his wife Frances – who collaborated with him in much of his research and writing – contributed to The Jews, Their History and Their Culture (ed. by L. Finkelstein, 2 (1960), 1489–1509).


American Anthropologist, 66 (1964), 83–109, includes bibliography.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.