Directed By Vital Pictures
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.