The leader of these anthropologists was Franz Boas, known to his students as “Papa Franz.”
Scientists of Boas’s era were determined to prove that Euro-American civilization was the apogee of an evolutionary process in which natives the world over, most of whom were in the process of being colonized, represented prior stages of humanity, such as “barbarism” and “savagery.” Boas was among the first to question these assumptions.
Born into a Jewish family in 1858 in what is now northern Germany, Boas received his formal training in physics but shifted his interests to the study of people after taking part in an Arctic expedition to Baffin Island, Canada. There he came to realize that the supposedly more “primitive” Inuit people he was encountering possessed a complex culture that allowed them to survive on the icy tundra, their skills as significant within their contexts as his doctoral degree was in his. Boas, who immigrated to the United States and spent years in temporary academic positions before finally securing a job at Columbia University, argued that cultures did not evolve but were, in fact, products of the influences of their environment.
But it was Boas’s ideas on race that were the most revolutionary. While scientists were using pseudoscientific methods, such as measuring skull size, to argue that race was a biological characteristic indicating who should be at the top of the social order, Boas asserted that race was merely a genetic trait that had no bearing on intelligence or ability. “What people did,” King writes, “rather than who they were, ought to be a starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.” Further, Boas and his followers promoted the idea of cultural relativism, the idea that prejudices and judgments need to be suspended to better understand others.
The lives of Boas and his students make for riveting storytelling, and the author’s imaginative prose enlivens their discoveries, romantic exploits and professional jealousies. Perhaps the most famous member of Boas’s anthropological circle was Margaret Mead, who wrote prolifically from the 1920s until the 1970s, relating anthropology to contemporary issues such as monogamy and teenage rebellion. Observing that adolescents in Samoa did not experience the moodiness and rage common to American teenagers, Mead noted that “the stress is in our civilization, not in the physical changes through which our children pass.” In another study across three islands in Papua New Guinea, Mead cited multiple examples of what was considered appropriate behavior for men and women, leading her to conclude that gender practices varied widely from culture to culture. To Mead, the point of gender liberation wasn’t to remake women in men’s image but rather to unleash “human beings’ potential from the roles that society had fashioned, seeing each person as a parcel of possibilities that might get expressed in many creative ways.” For an era when American women had a relatively narrow range of options for social roles, this was a radical idea.
The author is quick to point out that these anthropologists still had their blinders. For instance, many dismissed African American culture as having been too diluted by enslavement to be of much interest. One of Boas’s students, anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, spent years collecting black folklore in Florida, the American South, Haiti and Jamaica, but her work was largely ignored by black and white intellectuals of her time. Hurston’s story is among the most moving in the book, and King re-creates the Florida of Hurston’s childhood, a place where “gritty, ash-gray topsoil, whipped up by a tropical storm or a passing buggy, dusted Sunday clothes and seeped through window frames, as if Floridians had established themselves on top of some older, burned-over civilization and were now paying the price.” Although today she is widely known for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston died penniless, the exact location of her grave unknown.
King observes that the deep outrage most Americans felt about the Holocaust did not extend to a recognition of the common humanity of all those within our borders. Throughout much of the 20th century, the United States practiced forced sterilization of those considered “socially inadequate,” subjected African Americans to Jim Crow laws and sent Americans of Japanese ancestry into internment camps during World War II. Echoing today’s debate over what to call migrant detention sites at the U.S. border, the government’s War Relocation Authority insisted that the Japanese camps “should be referred to as ‘relocation centers’ or ‘relocation projects,’ not as ‘internment centers’ or ‘concentration camps.’ ”
Boas died in 1942, but his students went on to “shape an entire discipline according to his vision.” King’s timely history reveals that Boas and his intellectual descendants spent their careers fighting for recognition of the basic humanity of those considered “other” to the white men who ruled the country. Sadly, even in 2019, this fragile battle for equality and human rights is one that has still not been fully won.
How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century