The Measure of America: How a rebel anthropologist waged war on racism

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, History, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2010-10-25 23:00Z by Steven

The Measure of America: How a rebel anthropologist waged war on racism

The New Yorker
18 pages

Claudia Roth Peierpont

Along with the Ferris wheel, the hamburger, Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima, the zipper, Juicy Fruit, and the vertical file, the word “anthropology” was introduced to a vast number of Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Marking the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America-and opening just a little late, in May, 1893, owing to the amount of construction required to turn a marshy wasteland on Lake Michigan into a neoclassical “White City,” as the fair was called-the six-month celebration put on display all that the nation had achieved and still hoped to become. Here proud Americans could view the table on which the Declaration of Independence had been signed, the manuscript of Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, and two full-scale replicas of the Liberty Bell-one executed entirely in grain, the other in oranges. As for the future, the fair was ablaze with work-reducing inventions, from the electric kitchen to the electric chair. But the most important promise of an American utopia was the extraordinary assembly of peoples. American Indians and native Africans, Germans, Egyptians, and Labrador Eskimos were just a few of those invited to take part in nearly a hundred “living exhibits”-whole villages were imported and exactingly rebuilt-with the purpose of expanding American minds: “broadening, opening, lighting up dark corners,” a contemporary magazine expounded, “bringing them in sympathy with their fellow men.”

No one was more devoted to this goal than a young anthropologist named Franz Boas, who had emigrated from Germany ten years before, staunch in the belief that America was “politically an ideal country.” Enthralled by the collections of the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, he had made his field of study the Indians of the Northwest Coast-the artistically accomplished Haida, Kwakiutl, and Bella Coola tribes-and, in the days leading up to the fair’s triumphal opening, he was busy supplying the final timbers for a pair of houses in which a Kwakiutl group would live, on the bank of a pond outside a small pavilion marked “Anthropology.” Inside was a spectacular array of masks and decorated tools, which Boas had spent two years assembling. His expectations for impressing visitors derived less from the works’ richly painted surfaces, however, than from their intellectual and imaginative content-what he described as the “wealth of thought” that was clearly visible if only people learned to look. The Indians had been asked to perform the rituals that would enable viewers to perceive this wealth, and had been assured that at the fair they would receive the respect that was their due, even if it had been no part of their experience in the old, demonstrably un-utopian New World.

In fact, the wretched history of Indian life in nineteenth-century America had long been justified by the claims of anthropology, a field that originated during debates over slavery and the right of settlers to seize the natives’ lands, and patriotically embraced such practices as part of the natural racial order. The chief means of establishing the racial order was to measure skulls-both the conveniently empty craniums acquired through a thriving graveyard market and the more resistant living models. Anthropologists presented their findings as objective science: elaborate measuring techniques yielded columns of figures that inevitably placed white intelligence at the top of the scale, red and yellow capacities farther down, and blacks at the wholly uncivilizable bottom. It was no coincidence that this science faithfully mirrored popular opinion: published studies were so open in their manipulation of evidence-a higher proportion of male skulls, for example, were employed when larger dimensions were desired-that they appear to have been not conscious attempts at deception but unwitting examples of delusion.

The effects of such studies, however, were painfully real. At mid-century, the anthropologist Samuel Morton asserted that whites and Negroes belonged to different species, while another anthropologist, Josiah Nott, popularized the view that slavery saved Negroes from reverting to their original barbaric state: these authoritative voices resounded in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, of 1857, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney resolved that “the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” After Emancipation, theories of separate racial evolutions fuelled the case for black disenfranchisement, right up to the passing of the first Jim Crow laws, around the time of the Chicago fair…

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