Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness

Directed by Vital Picutres
Visit Film Site: pbs.org
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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.

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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.

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About Vital Pictures
Llewellyn M. Smith Director/Producer contributed as a writer/producer to such celebrated PBS series as Eyes On The Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years and the critically acclaimed PBS history series American Experience, where as Series Editor he played a key role in origination, development and acquisition of more than 70 programs on American history.  For the acclaimed 3-hour PBS series RACE: The Power Of An Illusion, Smith produced the program The House We Live In.  Smith was also co-executive producer for the duPont Columbia award winning PBS series Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

Christine Herbes-Sommers Executive Producer has produced a wide range of PBS documentaries and dramas, earning her an Emmy nomination, a duPont Columbia Award for her ground breaking documentary Joan Robinson-One Woman’s Story, several Cine Golden Eagles and many other awards. She is Executive producer of Herskovits At the Heart of Blackness; was Senior Series Producer for Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?, the duPont Columbia award winning four hour PBS series and major outreach campaign on health and social injustice broadcast in 2008.

Vincent Brown Producer/Director of Research is the Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History at Harvard University. He is an award-winning author and media maker with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice. Professor Brown teaches courses in Atlantic history, African diaspora studies, and the history of slavery, and is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008), which received the Merle Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and the Louis Gottschalk Prize in 2009.

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