Cultural relativism might be easier in theory than in practice. Take the case of Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American anthropologist of Slovak extraction who broke new ground in the definition and analysis of African-American culture. In the film Herskovits At The Heart of Blackness, intellectuals and historians discuss the vast impact and heated debate Herskovits continues to inspire around our modern perception of cultural identity.
Herskovits was the first prominent white intellectual to declare that black culture in America was “not pathological,” but rather inherently African, and that it had to be viewed within that context. In positing this, he established himself among the anthropological vanguard in applying the principles of cultural relativism to ethnic cultures within the United States.
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.
Llewellyn Smith (Producer/Director), is the president of Vital Pictures, Inc. As a writer/producer, he has contributed to several PBS series, including Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years; as series editor for the PBS history series American Experience, he played a key role in the origination, development, and acquisition of more than 70 programs on American history. Smith was project director for the Peabody and Emmy award-winning series Africans In America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. He directed the final film in the series Judgment Day. For the PBS series RACE: The Power Of An Illusion, Smith produced the episode “The House We Live In.” Smith was a producer/director for the three-hour special Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. He was also producer/director for “Forgotten Genius,” the NOVA biography of Dr. Percy Julian, the pioneering industrial chemist and civil rights activist. “Forgotten Genius” was recently honored for broadcast excellence by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Smith was also co-executive producer for the PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?