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Melville J. Herskovits’s Theory of Folklore by Kevin A. Yelvington Department of Anthropology University of South Florida Presented to the Workshop on Folklore and the Politics of Belief in the Caribbean Mellon Seminar on Caribbean Cultural History Department of History University of California at Los Angeles May 14, 2009
To understand Melville J. Herskovits’s theory of folklore we must understand, as with everything Herskovits did, Franz Boas’s approach to the subject. As is well known, Boas sought to distinguish his approach to anthropology from that of the cultural evolutionists, and especially that of E.B. Tylor. He accomplished this over a ten-year period at the end of the nineteenth century, culminating with his article “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology” (Boas 1896). What is not always remembered is that he used folklore as a platform for this critique. The “Limitations” article was indeed a study of the distribution of folktale elements, and Boas used folklore to make his main points about culture: He argued that the student of culture must see elements in relation to the whole, that is, the development and use of such “specimens” as cooking utensils, weapons, and musical instruments needed to be seen in relation to their “surroundings,” that is, the physical environment, the history of the people, and the peoples with whom the people in question came into contact. These “specimens,” often the decontextualized vehicles for the evolutionists’ arguments about the levels of culture read as “civilization,” for Boas had to be seen in relation to the cultural whole. The same thing with folklore which, too, was related to the culture as a whole and was one of the avenues of
expression for the members of the culture. Further, toward the end of the century Boas used folklore to work through his interest in the affects of one culture upon another. In 1898 he wrote about tribal mythologies: “The mythologies of the various tribes as we find them now are not organic growths, but have gradually developed and obtained their present form by the accretion of foreign material.” While, sometimes, this material was adopted as-is, this foreign material was “adapted and changed in form according to the genius of the people who borrowed it” (quoted in Stocking 1974:5). In the first decades of the twentieth century, Boas, again arguing from the example of folklore, wrote that folklore was founded on “events that reflect the [everyday] occurrences of human life, particularly those that stir the emotions of the people.” At the same time, because the “power of imagination in man” was “rather limited” it was case of people preferring to “operate with the old stock of imaginative happenings than invent new ones.” Thus, their imaginations “played with a few plots, which were extended by means of a number of motives that have a very wide distribution,” which each group selectively borrows, adopts and adapts “under the stress of a dominant idea” or set of social practices characteristic of their own culture (quoted in Stocking 1974:6). As Stocking sums up, although Boas was here concerned with folklore per se, “by implication he suggested something about the general dynamics of cultural processes — the processes by which ‘the genius of a people’ acted to mold borrowed elements to a traditional pattern” (Stocking 1974:6). By the time Herskovits was becoming one of his students, Boas was codifying his view of the primary aim of his anthropology in a 1920 article entitled “The Methods of Ethnology”: “American scholars are primarily interested in the dynamic phenomena of cultural change, and to
consciously or unconsciously. have brought about the present condition” (1920:317). Kroeber’s investigations. His perspective entailed the utilization of a key concept in the evolutionists’ schema: that of cultural “survivals. dependent partly upon the peculiar inner development of the social group.” a picture “in which the unique combination of ancient traits (which in themselves are undoubtedly complex) and of European influences. Alfred Kroeber. but it would be quite impossible to understand. He then went on to point to the studies of Elsie Clews Parsons.” He further held that “There have been processes of gradual differentiation as well as processes of leveling down differences between neighboring cultural centers. This fit in well with his on-going critique of evolutionism: “The history of human civilization does not appear to us as determined entirely by psychological necessity that leads to a uniform evolution the world over. Despite Boas’s critique of evolutionism (see Stocking 1968:195-233) this did not mean that he was completely at odds. and. on the basis of a single evolutionary scheme. give us one of the best examples of acculturation that have come to our notice. We rather see that each cultural group has its own unique history. with some of the assumptions of the social evolutionists like Herbert Spencer or E. and partly upon the foreign influences to which it has been subjected. what happened to any particular people” (Boas 1920:317). Parsons’ studies prove conclusively the deep influence which Spanish ideas have had upon Zuñi culture.” The “historical study” shows an entirely different picture compared to the “psychological explanation. where.B. Tylor. and Leslie Spier on the acculturation process on the Zuñi. in contrast to the “psychological explanation” offered by Frank Hamilton Cushing. “misleading” if “plausible” as it was. along with Dr.3 try to elucidate cultural history by the application of the results of their studies” (Boas 1920:314). “Dr.” Tylor .
could be expected to be more stable than those not so established via repetition in a proscribed form and via ritual: Discrepancies between the two. Tylor wrongly assumed that “the antiquity of one particular type is essentially due to a classification in which the form that appears as the simplest from any one point of view is considered at the same time as historically the oldest.” Tylor felt the “weakness of this assumption” when he tried to support his .. cf. Nearly thirty years later Boas again took up the question of Tylor’s evolutionism.” The discrepancy may consist in the preservation of earlier customs in traditions.4 defined survivals in Primitive Culture as “processes. especially to the extent that they are enshrined in ritual. Hodgen 1936). The survivals themselves are proof of the gradual process of assimilation between social conditions and traditions which has wrought fundamental changes in the lore of mankind..belong to a class of phenomena that are called “survivals. which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home. [Boas 1940 :423]. or in fragments of early traditions under modified social conditions. and so forth. and again he wanted to preserve the idea of survivals. and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out of which a newer has been evolved” (Tylor 1871:16. writing in 1898 on the “myths of primitive people. Boas.” The oft-repeated actions. customs. According to Boas. habits and customs of a people.” The “peculiar manner in which foreign and indigenous material is interwoven and worked into a somewhat homogeneous fabric depends to a great extent upon the social conditions and habits of the people. and that much of it is adopted ready-made.” again maintained that “the material of which they are built up is of heterogeneous origin. and opinions.
does not by any means provide that everywhere matrilineal society must have been the earlier form” (Boas 1924:343). In developing his approach to the folklore of the Afro-Americas. his research assistant in his physical anthropological project on “race mixing” and the American Negro.5 thesis by “the study of survivals which indicate the character of earlier developmental stages. Herskovits had written to Austrian ethnomusicologist Erich Moritz von Hornbostel about Hurston. Boas illustrated the existence of these “fragments” with a discussion of the survival of matrilineal forms of kinship in patrilineal society. note 38). as Jackson argues. Indeed. Boas had written to Zora Neale Hurston in 1927 suggesting that African “mannerisms” were retained by African Americans (cited in Baron 1994:105. Herskovits drew upon these fundamental Boasian ideas. But “this. her “manner of speech. however.” The problem was that “it cannot be claimed that a systematic attempt has ever been made to substantiate the theory of a definite evolutionary sequence on the basis of the study of survivals. and in Gershenhorn 2004:253-254. her expressions. All that can be said is that fragments of earlier historical stages are bound to exist and are found” (Boas 1924:342).” Herskovits said. — in short. The way was left open for Herskovits to pursue the idea of cultural survivals. her motor behavior” were “what would be . Boas “believed that African culture had been lost by blacks in America.” even if he “stressed the importance of educating black Americas about African culture as a way of increasing race pride and countering the ‘strong feeling of despondency among the best classes of the Negro’” (Jackson 1986:98).1 Herskovits pursued a project that he saw as the 1 Thus it seems not to be the case that. Although she was “more White than Negro in her ancestry.
g. observed by Herskovits when Hurston was singing spirituals. Herskovits began his cultural anthropological investigations of African Americans in the early 1920s. within the theoretical tradition of Boasian historical-cultural particularism — and thus it might be said that Herskovits inherited Boas’s incomplete critique of social evolutionism — and with an eventual emphasis on acculturation (see Redfield. she financed many of Boas’s students and their publications.6 identification and documentation of African cultural survivals. Jackson 1986. 1936. . Parsons collected folklore in the Caribbean (e. and along with Boas was active in the American Folk-Lore Society and its Journal of American Folk-Lore. under acculturation it was still the geist. quoted in Jackson 1986:107). 1927.g. it must be said. and Herskovits 1936). or “genius of a people. Somewhat ironically.. 1933.” that molded borrowed elements to a traditional pattern. Gershenhorn 2004. June 10. and went from a perspective that emphasized the assimilation of African Americans to their wider cultural surroundings. including the personal influence of folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons. exhibiting with Boas a great interest in AfroAmerican folklore where between the both of them they put together several “Negro Numbers” termed typically Negro” and he suggested that these movements. a close associate of Boas and a teacher of Herskovits. that was consonant with aspects of Boas’s thought. This occurred because of the interactions of a number of forces. After all. a position.. Linton. Yelvington 2006). then. 1927). had been “carried over as a behavior pattern handed down thru imitation and example from the original African slaves who were brought here” (Herskovits to von Hornbostel. Herskovits 1925. at the same time denying the possibility of African cultural survivals (e. 1943). to taking up a position he would hold for the rest of his life that these survivals underlay the behavioral repertoires of African Americans (Baron 1994. Parsons 1918.
Thus. Parsons traced folktales in quest for their points of origin. Linke 1990. Boas told me of your very kind .and where folklore was useful in nationalist constructions and identity politics (Bendix 1997. As Baker shows (1998:143-167). Herskovits wrote to Parsons in April. She advocated that the “lore which is a part of an intimate knowledge of island life” should be studied “for an appreciation of the relations between African cultures and the Negro in America” (Parsons 1933:vii-viii). I have no doubt that by far the greater number of the Bahama tales were learned there. It was Parsons. a tradition rooted in the German romanticism of Herder (Wilson 1973). 2000. which she thought could be discerned. not in America. — learned. 1932. a tradition of which he was a part (Bunzl 1996). most unadulterated forms. Portuguese or other. About her work on Andros Island in the Bahamas. and 1934. Boas and others had founded the American Folk-Lore Society in 1888 and Boas served as president in 1900. 1927 to say “Dr. and was the editor of the Journal of American FolkLore between 1908 and 1923. Deacon 1997. with this orientation. even though he might have disavowed such a position. Zumwalt 1992). and in all was on the editorial board for forty-four years. Zumwalt 1988). here was Boas facilitating the use of folklore for political reasons. who as early as 1927 suggested through Boas to Herskovits — immediately on the heels of Herskovits’s writings emphasizing the cultural assimilation of African Americans into the US mainstream — that Herskovits seek in the Suriname “bush” among the “Bush Negro” tribes there African cultural continuities manifest in the New World in their purest. Boas effected an alliance between black intellectuals and anthropologists in the collection and publication of the folklore of the Afro-Americas. she said “Whatever may have been the provenience of the tales in Africa. but in Africa” (Parsons 1918:xii).7 as the issues of the Journal were affectionately called (Baker 1998.
Folder 3. writing in his field diary in Suriname that “It’s an ethnological gold-mine here” and that the material “is here so thick that it will take a steam-shovel to gather it in” (Melville J.N.. Zumwalt 1992:317). Herskovits wrote to Parsons to thank her and enthusiastically asserted “Suriname seems to be a sort of an ethnological happy huntinggrounds” (H. By June.). (hereafter H. one of the two major volumes to come out of the Suriname fieldwork (Simpson 1973:9. Box 18.8 suggestion regarding field work in Suriname. once established. Box 18. Parsons to Herskovits. 1927). Parsons played a pivotal role in Herskovits’s thinking and in his academic career.P. anthropological partner. Melville Herskovits. Herskovits Papers. Upon hearing from Boas of Parsons underwriting his first fieldwork trip to Suriname. 1927). the way will be clared [sic] for some research on the Bush Negroes” (H. Price and Price 2003). he was reporting on his appointment to Northwestern University. published by Columbia University Press (Herskovits and Herskovits 1936). Herskovits to Parsons. as well.N.. for the publication of Suriname Folk-Lore. Folder 3. Herskovits to Parsons. Herskovits conducted in Suriname in the summers of 1928 and 1929 was arduous for them (Gershenhorn 2004:70-78.P. She paid for his first ethnological fieldwork trips. Parsons’s replied by saying simply “Congratulations — on the first step towards the Bush Negroes!” (H. at least.P. 1927). and .P.N.” and to say that he looked forward to talking with her about the matter (Melville J. Box 18. The fieldwork Melville Herskovits and his wife. 1927). December 6. regarded the ethnographic “data” he collected in the “bush” among the Saramaka “Bush Negroes” with characteristic positivism and empiricism. paying. and co-author Frances S. Folder 3.N. Box 18. Folder 3. April 30. and said “I hope that. July 14. but certainly yielded an enormous amount of folklore material. Northwestern University.. June 29. Herskovits to Parsons. to Suriname in 1928 and 1929 and to Dahomey in 1931.
3 Frances remained in the city during the first fieldwork trip of 1928. Herskovits came to complain that the folklore of the Afro-Americas was presented as “selected” according to preconceived categories (e.9 Frances S. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Philadelphia. Boas to Herskovits. Herskovits was referring to his ethnological interviews. New York Public Library. In talking over the matter both of us are doubtful as to whether it would be advisable for you to bring Frances along. Suriname Field Trip Diary. and the fears of Boas and Parsons. Herskovits 1943). For Melville’s reply to Boas where he justifies Frances’s attendance and participation. it was Melville who “worked up” the material Frances 2 In folklore. 1928). Herskovits Papers. Frances started her folklore collecting right away. 3 See Franz Boas Papers. .” However. 1927.. Herskovits to Boas. ventured into the “bush. but presumably he also held the same view of the folklore material Frances was collecting in Paramaribo. as if the materials were already “out there” simply to be collected and not in correspondence to an existing theoretical schema.” Melville became ill and was bedridden before he could start his journey into the rainforest to start ethnographic fieldwork among the Saramakas. Because of his fears for her safety. see ibid. December 3..2 Here. 1927. along with guides. American Philosophical Society.g. while Melville. entries of July 25 and July 28. It is no joke travelling [sic] in the tropics and particularly when you leave the towns and go into the woods it will be very hard for her. December 6. the coastal capital of the Dutch colony. See Price and Price (2003). where Boas wrote to Herskovits saying “I talked over the plan of your Surinam trip with Elsie and she says that she is willing to support it. So that both of us dissuade very decidedly a joint trip.
from what is now Mali to Loango and into the Congo — and the Loango chief who came to our base camp invoked both the Great God of the Akan of the Gold Coast. he claimed that this research was not designed to look for “Africanisms. and the Bantu Zambi” (1966:vii-viii).P. November 6. as I have argued elsewhere (Yelvington 2006). Further. For example. that forced revision of an hypothesis which. 1928). among the Saramacca peoples.4 Yet. and Arthur Ramos in 4 Frances Herskovits wrote in an edited volume of Melville’s work. the influence of Parsons. and that only incidentally were they encountered: “It was the investigation on this broader base. wherein the problem of Africanisms in present-day Negro behavior was only incidental. there was no tendency to question” (1941:6). he saw. Herskovits that the first hand investigation of “New World Negro” societies outside the United States led to the abandonment of his initial views. Frances S. “His field experience in Suriname in 1928 and 1929 had a profound influence on his thinking. In the Guiana Bush. . and his developing relationships with ethnologists and folklorists in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nyankompon. such as Jean Price-Mars in Haiti. at the beginning of The Myth of the Negro Past (1941). and though he was scarcely conscious of this at the time. the Boasian tradition.10 collected (see H. Fernando Ortiz in Cuba. in several places Herskovits retrospectively presented his Suriname fieldwork as a matter of scientific discovery. nearly all of western sub-Saharan African represented.N. the findings in both the Bush and the city of Paramaribo began shaping his concepts on acculturation.” or African cultural survivals. Box 18. as he often told his students. Herskovits to Parsons. Folder 3. in the initial stages of research.. Disavowing any idea of his newfound theoretical orientation being prepared for him.
Bremer (1993). tales. Pedreira 1935. Moore (1994. Santí (2002). on Ortiz.11 Brazil. songs. Price-Mars. Font and Quiroz (2005). riddles and customs on which lie the life of a primitive people and constitute the foundations of their ‘culture. and Spanish cultural heritage. Folk-Lore et Culture de Peuple Haïtien he referred readers to the work of the Herskovitses as examples of how folklore should be studied in order to be useful. Flores 1979. As with Herskovits. see Bronfman (2004). all of whom shared Herskovits’s emerging theoretical orientation and intention document what they defined as African cultural survivals in the national context — albeit for varied political purposes which can only be alluded to here. legends. Antonio S. Romo (2007). He defined folklore as the “sum of beliefs.g. or peasant. see Averill (2008). on Ramos. Ramsey (2002).Palmié (2002). 1997). superstitions. The recent critical literature on them includes but is not limited to the following: On Price-Mars. and in this movement the Herderian study of folklore as revelatory of the national soul became important (e. In Puerto Rico. . in Formation Ethnique. Guerra 1998). RodríguezMangual (2004). cf. Pedreira (who had studied at Columbia University in the 1920s) was developing a view of Puerto Rican national identity centered around the image of the jíbaro.. for instance. Largey (2006).5 This was the era in the Caribbean as elsewhere when folklore was used as a plank in nationalist arguments. Lange (2008). see Barros (2000). who had railed against the social and cultural effects of the US occupation of Haiti and who had urged his fellow Haitians to look to the folklore for the authentic Haitian culture rather than to be imitative of France or North America (Price-Mars 1928). Magloire and Yelvington (2005). the study of folklore was central to their enterprise.’” He went on: 5 I will not cite the extensive works of these scholars here.
12 There is no country which possesses as rich a well of oral tradition as ours. lacking a written language. and others. date back to the origins of the race. and its investigation. often conducted under governmental subsidies. as with the ethnology coming out of Price-Mars. Price-Mars 1951). imbibed what was for him an apparently new paradigm as he entered into dialogue with these scholars. see.6 In an early 6 Later. Ortiz. and Ramos. but he did not connect in print at least this observation with his own work nor to that of those scholars on whose work he drew. they were the deposits of obscure thoughts of our ancestors. Throughout thousands of years. And for a people deprived of archives. They will compact with steadfast patience the materials on which history will uproot much later with hypotheses of its construction. profound and marvelous. Yet. And these traditions. During thousands of years. also. has been focused on local or regional areas within specific domains” (1946:92). my translation. rather. He did not reflect at this point on the political dimensions of folklore scholarship as he went about making unacknowledged nationalist arguments of his own. Herskovits found no difficulty in incorporating their arguments into his own as he constructed or. he acknowledged that “in various countries the study of folklore has always been marked by a strong nationalistic emphasis. they consist in themselves of the inestimable worth of documents laden with the secret of expired ages that await their alert interpreters (1956 :50-51. the discrete guardians of the recipe by which the enigmas of the world are explained. they embody the annals transmitted from one generation to the next and by which the gestures of the past and the paths of the present are justified. .
7 The decade of the 1930s was bookended by the publication of The Myth of the Negro Past (1941). he assured that “further investigation on this side of the Atlantic must result in more data from which to draw conclusions as to the nature of the African cultural survivals which are manifest in the behavior of the Negro in the Caribbean. the United States. on the other hand. white and black.” with more in one locale in one area of culture. and less in another place (1930:149). the 1930 article “The Negro in the New World: The Statement of a Problem. Folklore was conceived 7 Fifteen years later he did make such a chart. and in South America. which sought to make the argument that once the citizens. . what was learned in the New World context and under what conditions culture could be seen to maintain itself under strain. See Herskovits (1945).13 published statement of this new program. so that “we shall have an adequate basis to investigate the affiliation of those cultural traits with American Negro has retained in his contact with white and Indian civilizations. Here he called for more knowledge of African cultures. Folklore figured prominently in this new theoretical orientation.” Herskovits proposed that the study of the descendants of Africans in the New World should be concerned with what was retained from African culture. what was discarded.” He went on to say that it would be possible on the basis of then-current knowledge “to make a kind of chart indicating the extent to which the descendants of Africans brought to the New World have retained Africanisms in their cultural behavior. of the United States knew of the African cultural background and that African Americans were like other immigrant groups in that they continued to use the traditions of the “motherland” as they adapted to the “new land” then racism and prejudice against African Americans would decrease.” and.
However.P.14 by Herskovits as one element of culture. is that of folk-literature — of tales. . Thus there was for Herskovits more than a mere passing interest in folklore. according to my evidence Herskovits was teaching folklore from the very beginning of his appointment as the lone anthropologist in Northwestern’s Department of Sociology. during the 1927-1928 school year (H. even when European influence has been strongest.8 to when he became the president of the American Folklore Society in 1945. that could survive more or less intact or be modified as it traveled. were crucial for his career and theoretical development. folklore was perhaps the Africanism par excellence. followed by hundreds of pages of Anansi stories. for Herskovits could be used in understanding the African cultural “baseline” as well as what had survived the Middle Passage. such as religion or kinship. As he wrote in Life in a Haitian Valley. then. and it survived because it could for a number of historical reasons. including 8 Gershenhorn (2004:137-138) has Herskovits teaching folklore by the 1930s when he formed a separate Department of Anthropology at Northwestern. 1-113). Further. 1927). “The trait of African culture that has survived most tenaciously in all the New World. Folder 3. proverbs. Suriname Folk-Lore (Herskovits and Herskovits 1936) consisted of a long “Notes on the Culture of the Paramaribo Negroes” (pp. Box 18. Folklore.. In the key career years between when he first began teaching a course on folklore in his second semester at Northwestern. and riddles” (1937:264). Herskovits to Parsons. proverbs. Rebel Destiny (Herskovits and Herskovits 1934) had the feel of a travel account.N. September 26. This view of folklore was consonant with the conception of culture as a bundle of discernable traits. The fieldwork in Suriname resulted in two books and in a number of articles.
performance style and the contexts in which folklore was performed were crucial for the understanding of folklore’s meaning and function. and the Herskovitses attending ceremonies and storytelling events of various types. especially in riddles where the lewd and obscene could be disguised from those listeners too young to understand. proverbs. In the 1930s. Writing on “the effects of acculturation on folklore. Melville Herskovits’s attention was drawn to the possibilities of the theoretical advancement of the discipline through the use of the concept of acculturation (see Redfield.” as something somehow arising out of but distinct from cultural custom (Herskovits and Herskovits 1958. and riddles collected mainly by Frances. and riddles — as oral “folk-literature. the use of double entendre. Rather than a focus on folklore as texts. The Herskovitses wrote of a story-telling session that the speaker’s message was not the most important aspect (at least to the Herskovitses): “What really mattered. especially for social and community control. and the use of indirection in speech. especially proverbs. see Baron 2004). based on the 1928 and 1929 fieldwork. The field methods consisted of hiring paid informants to provide information in response to questions. including narrative. there was already an emphasis on context.” Herskovits . multiple narrative forms. Herskovits 1936). and J. The fieldwork in West Africa in 1931 solidified Herskovits’s core theory of folklore entailing the view of folklore — again. Linton. however.15 those about the head kerchiefs worn by the older women of Paramaribo. In Rebel Destiny. on audience participation. including more or less scripted interruptions of storytellers. the role of improvisation. This impacted his view of folklore under the conditions of acculturation. The emphasis was on folklore’s function in the moral education of the young. was the way in which the intervals in the story-telling were dramatized” (1934:103).
as positive examples of this sort of scholarship (Herskovits 1938:107). Martha Beckwith’s Jamaica research (Beckwith 1929).” Herskovits said effort should be put into showing “the manner in which these literary products have been subject to the process of repatterning and recombination that is so especially subject to observation in the field” — and he referred to the work of Parsons. For example.” which could be seen as quaint antiquated traits. which consisted in referring to “those folk from whom the same motifs have been collected.” rather than the “conventional” approach of the folklorists. still less information is available as to the relationship between these stories and their social setting” (Herskovits 1938:106). Herskovits revised his conceptual metaphors through the years.” with the implication that effort went into their retention and where.” He acknowledged the “painstaking investigations” that tracked how “themes from various sources have been combined in the tales of Indo-European peoples. behaviors were “reinterpretations” of African cultural traits . The exceptions were work done by American folklorists whose interests were focused solely on American Indians and African Americans and whose collection of stories showed European — and the occasional African — motifs.” but comparable analyses of “primitive tribes” were lacking. as well as his own in Suriname (Herskovits and Herskovits 1936). with respect to “New World Negro lore. later became seen as “retentions.16 lamented that these effects were “given explicit statement in but a few studies. Further. the Haitian anthropologist Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain (1937). As Baron (2003) shows. African cultural “survivals. Yet this stopped short of the approach Herskovits advocated: “Their elements are ordinarily not broken down as to show how incidents of foreign derivation were worked into the aboriginal tales. in a more active conceptualization.
In this light. as he put it. the idea of a people being preoccupied with a small range of interests and who expended their energies in some cultural institutions at the expense of others became “cultural focus” (see Herskovits 1947:542-560). Herskovits simply renamed Boasian concepts but retained their meaning and utility. Herskovits and Herskovits 1947).9 Further. In some ways.” He surveyed the developments in the field due to Parsons’s influence. we should look at some of his last explicit programmatic statements on folklore.” was Herskovits’s own unremarked upon use of the Boasian principle of the geist. retentions and reinterpretations were later preferred because the idea of survivals could suggest that these traits no longer had a function where Herskovits was keen to emphasize that Africanisms defined as retentions and reinterpretations were fully functioning. in and for Afro-American cultures and not. For instance. not all of the Boasian baggage he took on became transformed and. With regards to folklore. it seems Herskovits did move beyond Boas in his emphasis on the social setting and the performance of narratives (see Baron 1994. . especially. seen as “cultural curiosities” (Herskovits 1943:3). indeed. Now. In the special issue of the Journal of American Folklore to commemorate the death of Parsons.17 and traditions (see. and functional. Herskovits 1946:97. one could argue that the idea of retentions and reinterpretations was only a slight variation on the idea of survivals. which he 9 It is possible that Herskovits reconsidered his position after reading Hodgen’s (1936) critique. their particular “cultural genius. Herskovits weighed in on what he saw as “Some Next Steps in the Study of Negro Folklore. 2004). And the idea of a people molding borrowed cultural elements according to their traditional pattern.
proverbs and riddles to be understood in relation . Herskovits stressed the need for the following “next steps”: The need for better definitions. “permitted the study of diffusion in process” (1943:1-2). As a reminder. Parsons had explained in conversation.” He decried the emphasis on folk custom to the expense of folk literature in many studies. have been put aside by students of the Negro for the study of other phases of Negro life more difficult to access and less amenable to identification” (1943:3).” Folklore. and Parsons’s “anthropological point” of using folklore to study “the larger problems of cultural form and cultural dynamics. and the need to more fully understand the social contexts of folklore performance. Yet his reasoning continued to betray an underlying evolutionism: “The tales.’ in terms of the distinction between folk literature and folk custom” (1943:4). and pleaded for defining “more sharply the very word ‘folklore. the need for a re-analysis of existing materials. Here the notion of being “today” more or less “purely African” implies that “culture” is something that can be eroded more here or less there with the passing of time. He went on to emphasize the need for talks. the recording of stories as narrated and the identity of the storyteller and other information on the context. especially from certain key geographical areas.18 identified as collecting tales without the use of preconceived categories. the need for additional data. And just as culture could be attained. proverbs and riddles which in many regions are today the most purely African aspects of the life of the Negroes. He was anxious to differentiate between folklore as “folk literature” and “folk custom. the importance of the use of the catch phrase in the folklore of the Afro-Americas which was especially valuable in comparative analysis. the social evolutionists like Spencer and Tylor felt that “culture” was something to be achieved and that there were groups who possessed more or less of it. it could also be lost and a kind of cultural regression could set in.
His students went on to take up his mantle in doing folklore research. and Ramos. folklore becomes a field concerned with realities of life and not with the relics of a dead past” (1946:99). These included his . In his retiring presidential address at the American Folklore Society’s meetings at the end of 1945. This “literary expression” was primarily oral. Price-Mars. and that the “social setting of folklore is of particular importance for the scientific analysis of materials from Negro societies” (1943:7). Stating that folklore was “but one manifestation” of “human culture” (1946:94). Not only that. Herskovits sought to define a modern approach to folklore and lauded the approaches arising out of the US (as opposed to European) tradition. but use the term to designate any people or class in any society that as a group exhibit identifiably distinctive modes of life. Man and His Works (Herskovits 1947:414-426). he is rightly considered a pioneer of Caribbean anthropological research. I believe it is important to consider Herskovits’s researches in folklore for the following reasons: 1. Herskovits’s work was used to inform the use of folklore in nationalism . In sum. he said “If we refuse to consider ‘the folk’ as quaint. if we then concentrate our efforts on the study of their literary expression. or ignorant. and thus he advocated “the study of oral literature as our primary concern” (1946:100). He represents an important figure not only in US anthropology of the middle twentieth century. These positions are repeated at greater length in his textbook. 3. 2. Because of his transnational scientific networks with Latin American and Caribbean scholars.19 to the cultural setting out of which they arose. or backward. nationalist scholars such as Ortiz.
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