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Below is a brief discussion on anthropology. It is just a few highlights that are focused on people of the African Diaspora since this is where I have placed much of my emphasis — after I came to learn about them. I thought I would give you a brief description of what I know. Much of this is from a paper I wrote in a class on the history of anthropology. I’ve de-jargoned and de-esotericized  it is best as I can.

what is anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems. Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives.

In short, Anthropology is the study of humankind in all places and all times. It is a holistic discipline, meaning it looks at all aspects of humankind. 

Anthropology has four subfields:

  1. Sociocultural (often times just called ‘cultural’): Sociocultural anthropologists examine social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning.
  2. Linguistic Linguistic anthropology is the comparative study of ways in which language reflects and influences social life.
  3. Archaeology (these are the people who dig up bones) Archaeologists study past peoples and cultures, from the deepest prehistory to the recent past, through the analysis of material remains [things], ranging from artifacts and evidence of past environments to architecture and landscapes. Material evidence, such as pottery, stone tools, animal bone, and remains of structures, is examined within the context of theoretical paradigms, to address such topics as the formation of social groupings, ideologies, subsistence patterns, and interaction with the environment. Like other areas of anthropology, archaeology is a comparative discipline; it assumes basic human continuities over time and place, but also recognizes that every society is the product of its own particular history and that within every society there are commonalities as well as variation.
  4. Biological (also called Physical) iological anthropologists seek to understand how humans adapt to diverse environments, how biological and cultural processes work together to shape growth, development and behavior, and what causes disease and early death. In addition, they are interested in human biological origins, evolution and variation.

These definitions came from the AAA’s website, and you can read more about the four subfields of anthropology by visiting them.

This sounds like a very simple definition of anthropology, but things have not always sounded this way. In fact, things were much different.

‘Anthropology traces its roots to ancient Greek historical and philosophical writings about human nature and the organization of human society. Anthropologists generally regard Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the 400s bc, as the first thinker to write widely on concepts that would later become central to anthropology. In the book History, Herodotus described the cultures of various peoples of the Persian Empire, which the Greeks conquered during the first half of the 400s bc. He referred to Greece as the dominant culture of the West and Persia as the dominant culture of the East. This type of division, between white people of European descent and other peoples, established the mode that most anthropological writing would later adopt’ (A. Origins).

Anthropology’s racist roots.

It is not a surprise that anthropology has been filled with white men.

‘Scientific studies extended the classification of humankind developed by zoologists and physical anthropologists by systematically measuring and describing differences in hair texture, cranial capacity in various races’ (Wander et al, 2008). African American historian and anthropologist, Nell Irvin Painter tells us that ‘all the prominent anthropologists of the time assumed that brain size correlated with intelligence’. White people consistently came out on top, a result of using their own culture and biology as the stick in which to measure others. This form of ‘scientific’ measuring meant that from then on the human race would be judged in terms of skin color.

Blacks in anthropology

People of the African Diaspora have a unique, interesting, complex and notable history in anthropology. It is intriguing, at least, to see how those who have been marginalized in the building blocks of theoretical knowledge, dehumanized and placed at the bottom of all areas regarding civilization, seen as savages, non-human and the most intellectually inferior by those who claim stake in formalizing this discipline, have worked to challenge this legacy. Many Blacks were drawn to anthropology to combat the very racism that anthropology helped create. Black people brought their lived experiences along with their ability to show how a different method of anthropology could be enacted instead of, or, in addition to, the dominant mainstream methods.

Though the ways of participating have often been criticized, and seen as not fitting into a distinct mold built by the founding ‘fathers,’ constructed and sustained dynamics on race, gender, geographic location and more have meant that the theory and ways of practicing reflect this legacy, and must be viewed through a more critical, encompassing and nuanced lens. Black people do anthropology differently. These differences are reflected in various forms of praxis of vindication, dance performance, music, Black women’s lived experiences, community engagement and more. They have also challenged the idea that anthropology must not involve our personal feelings or connections to a groups or else our work is ineffective. Jomo Kenyatta who was a nationalist, political activist, and organizer based his ethnographic research on the Gikuyu of central Kenya — his own community. Kenyatta examined Gikuyu life in terms of kinship systems, land tenure, education systems, religion, sex life, government and more. This form of autoethnography framed the foundation of his work both as the future Kenyan Prime Minister and, in 1964, when Kenya became a new Republic, and Kenyatta became its first President.

‘A running river cannot be dammed forever without breaking its bounds.’ – Jomo Kenyatta.

In what would be come to be known as ‘Vindicationist Anthropology,’ Blacks engaged to refute racial typing and classifications, where they were seen simply as ‘uncivilized’ and wooly-haired, physiologically and psychologically vacuous human beings who were compared to apes (Hunt, 1863). The consequences of this meant that they were consistently placed as the lowest ranking of all groups in the newly constructed hierarchy. Vindication has been used in various sectors by Blacks as a form of resistance to exclusion and degradation, since the ‘dour’ legacy made racial classification synonymous with inferiority.

It was Arthur de Gobineau’s four volume work, Essai sur l’ inégalité de races humanities, ‘Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races,’ written in 1853-1855, that incited the response of Haitian anthropologist, Antenor Firmin and the beginning of vindicationist anthropology. Arthur de Gobineau tried to prove the superiority of whites and Aryans. de Gobineau suggested that ‘intermixing’ of other races with whites is what accounted for the grave disparity in any deviation of white superiority, with his clear dream for historical separatism. de Gobineau said:

If the three great types had remained strictly separate, the supremacy would no doubt have always been in the hands of the finest of the white races, and the yellow and black varieties would have crawled for ever at the feet of the lowest of the whites (Pg 208).

de Gobineau suggested that intelligence was a primary factor that clearly marked a definite line in the racial ranking and proved the inferiority of others. de Gobineau looked at the variation in black, yellow and white races, and asserted that ‘race was the single most important factor determining the nature of human society, with the white race being responsible for all the great advances in history. He saw the barriers between the races as natural, having existed from the beginning of human history, and that breaking them down through miscegenation would lead to the destruction of civilization’ (NWE).  His assertion was that the superiority of white people came as a result of their virtues including ‘intelligence,’ ‘courage,’ ‘attachment to life,’ ‘honor,’ that others lacked. The yellow race, though not as noble as the white race possessed physical and social characteristics that placed them above the negro, who he asserted ‘is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder’ (Pg 205).

Antenor Firmin is believed by some to be the first Black anthropologist. Though his work went greatly unnoticed when anthropology was a new discipline, in 1885 he published De l’égalité des races humaines : anthropologie positive, ‘The Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology,’ which was a response to anthropology and its foundation, and a direct response to de Gobineau’s claims on the superiority of whiteness. Antenor Firmin argued that scientists and philosophers who initiated these categorizations had made the attempt to rank people in hierarchies with information based on arbitrary information. That anthropologists who subscribe to this breadth of ‘scientific’ knowledge ignore this fact, which he calls a contradiction. For example, Firmin critiques the ability to concretely measure intelligence or the capability of one group or region to be superiorly intelligent over another, describing knowledge as flowing and changing over time, as well as changing, where ‘no single race holds the monopoly on intelligence’ (Pg. 166). Most profoundly, Firmim argued that not only were races equal, but that the polygenists themselves proved this within the flaw of their own logic which they suggested would be the result of the less white ancestry one possessed would scale them down on chart of superiority. For example, Metis, a hybrid race, possessed the same amount of intelligence, since it was argued that ‘interbreeding’ is what contributed to the decline of the intelligence. Firmin contended: ‘We can conclude therefore, that the mulatto is as intelligent as the White man; however, he does not inherit his intellectual aptitudes solely from his White parent, for intelligence is the common patrimony of the entire human species (Pg. 208).

In the United States, it has only been more recently that the amount of Black people who participate in anthropology has grown; this growth has been result of proactive recruitment from communities who feel they have been underrepresented in the discipline. Just as recently as 1997, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education discussed the absence of Black faculty in Anthropology Departments. The article showed that even at top-ranked universities the numbers are mostly zero and in other places they never reach double digits. Anthropology has often been viewed as the ‘stuff white people like.’ This is not a coincidence. But it is a direct reflection of anthropology’s history, and provides a way to understand why organizations such as the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) which is a section of the larger entity, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) worked to bring more people of African descent into its ranks.

The Association of Black Anthropologists emerged from the Caucus of Black Anthropologists. The Caucus of Black Anthropologists emerged out of the Minority Caucus, a small group that assembled around concerns about the lack of representation of non-white participants (Harrison, 1987). Before the 1980s, only 13 Blacks earned a doctoral degree in the discipline (ibid), and of course with such low numbers it wasn’t unsurprising that Blacks seemed absent from participation in conferences such as the annual AAA meeting, which is a convergence of anthropologists from around the world who convene to discuss current and future research projects. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s influenced the Association of Black Anthropologists. On a large-scale basis, Black people began to resist social oppression. Education was no longer overtly restricted as it once was when Blacks were forbidden to learn to read and write, and Black Studies sprang up around the country. Black and African Americans began to want more representation and role models in anthropology (ibid), which led to the eruption of the association that was comprised of the only few Blacks of anthropology at that time. The ABA encourages more anthropology among Black people. It also ‘seeks to ensure that people studied by anthropologists are not only objects of study but active makers and/or participants in their own history’ (, a vast difference to the legacy of the discipline. Finally, the ABA also places a strong emphasis on ‘encouraging the participation of students of anthropology, recruiting Black graduate students, enrolling Black graduate students to the ABA and mentoring students involved’ (ibid)

In ‘African American Pioneers in Anthropology,’ editors Faye V. Harrison and Ira E. Harrison write:

‘African Americans, and subordinate-group analysts generally have historically occupied a largely peripheral and, as W.E.B. DuBois’s insightful metaphor veiled or hidden position within the hierarchical order of knowledge that anthropology represents. As a consequence, much of the scholarship they have produced has been rendered largely invisible in texts and discourse that define anthropology as the authoritative – yet overwhelmingly Eurocentric and masculinist study of mankind’ (Pg. 2).

Though the numbers of Afro-descendent people who have participated over the years has been very few, those who have been involved made anti racism, anti-oppression and community empowerment central to their agenda. Then and now much of the attention was placed on bringing forth new ideas and ways to enact social equality that would extend to the larger population. This has been by critiquing the varied nuances of racialization and social dominance using an anthropological framework to work towards these accomplishments.

Expression of the body has also been used in ways that enacted vindication in anthropology. For Blacks, this was a defining area in the history of the diaspora.

Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus emerged during the early and mid 20th century. This was at a time when American slavery had only recently been abolished in the U.S. and other countries in the few decades past, yet covert racism ravaged the country and others, and legalized forms of segregation were rampant. Dunham was the first to view the way cultural acculturation takes form as a result of colonial contact, opposition to such contact and survival.

Dancing’s weapon against social injustice was an effective tool. For Pearl Primus, it was a means used ‘not to entertain but to help people better understand each other’ (Schwartz and Schwartz, 2011). During times in the United States where state sanctioned injustice was overt, the poem by the late Lewis Allen on lynching in the southern states, one where Pearl Primus incorporated body movement. In their biography The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography of Pearl Primus, authors and friends of the late Black feminist anthropologist tell us that ‘The breadth of Pearl’s artistic, cultural, political and anthropological beliefs merged in this dance’ which spoke to the horrors of lynching. That it contained such significance that Primus would rather withhold rights to it than to see it performed badly, referring to an artist’s ability to transmit the ‘infinite and critical nuances of intention and meaning so the solo could rightly illuminate its fundamental question and response: How has mankind allowed such injustice?’ 

1943 Strange Fruit Pearl Primus from Podiumstudie

‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit;
blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze;
strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South;
the bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh;
then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck;
for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck.
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop;
here is a strange and bitter crop’ (1939).

‘Dance is my medicine. It is the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustration common to all human beings, who, because of race, creed or color are ‘invisible.’ Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice. It is the veiled attempt I feel for those who patronize with false smiles, handouts, empty promises, insecure compliments. Instead of growing twisted like a gnarled tree inside myself, I am able to dance out my anger and tears.’ (Schwartz and Schwartz, 2011).

Black Feminist Anthropology

Even though our numbers have been few, A Lynn Bolles tells us that:

For almost as long as there have been graduates of Anthropology Departments, there have been Black women who have studied this field of inquiry.

Black Feminist Anthropology uses the simultaneity of gender, race, class, in order to reconfigure anthropological discourse, igniting new theoretical insight based on this social location. Though women of the African Diaspora who are also anthropologists and who term ourselves ‘Black feminist anthropologists,’ construct the framework of Black feminist anthropology, it is not a monolith. But Black feminist anthropology draws on the converging social, political, economic locations to construct its analytical framework. These identities have been ways to locate more in-depth areas of research when immersed in communities. Black feminist anthropology posits that conventional methods of practicing overshadow a more in-depth approach that drew from Black women’s position in society.

‘Black feminist anthropology moves beyond an interest in merely compiling data to confirm the existence of gender, racial and class oppression to a position that highlights Black women’s testimonials, the life lessons that have emerged in the context of oppressive religious, economic, political and social conditions and their varied strategies for survival and resistance.’ – Kimberly Eison Simmons

i need bfa because...
I need Black feminist anthropology because…

And hear this: Black feminists (however we map the boundaries) have never been largely derivative of White or north Atlantic metropolitan feminists’ movements. Moreover, despite dejure or defacto racist segregation, they’ve never been bounded or ghettoized. Their ideas for mobilization have influenced all the women’s movements in the U.S. and internationally. These models emanated, however, from Black abolitionists, Pan-Africanists, club women’s internationalism, civil and human rights activists as well as, more recently, self-identified feminists. And the struggle… for intersectional justice and peace continues. – Faye V. Harrison

‘When they entered the room, not only did the entire race enter but so did their womanhood and their anthropological expertise.’ — A Lynn Bolles

Whitney Battle-Baptist wrote ‘Black Feminist Archaeology’ to show that another dimension could be added to archaeology when looking to understand the material past.

‘New Face of Anthropology’

What I think is awesome about Black people in anthropology is that although more than any other groups we we were always placed at the exact bottom of the social heirarchy — seen as savages and intellectually inferior but began using these same tools that anthropology created to challenge it. And we work in our communities and others.

Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology

Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age

Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics

anthropology websites and blogs i visit:

Anthro Doula: Thoughts on Birth and Culture

Aphotic Chronicles:

Black Feminist Anthropology: This page focuses on Women Of Color’s contribution to the discipline, with a special emphasis on the past, current, and future work of women of the African Diaspora.

Body Image Central: Defining the ideal from a sistah girl’s perspective

Claudia Serrato: Sociocultural alterNative anthropologist, with a focus on midwifery herstories, indigenous womb-ecologies and taste memories, the politics of baby food and reproductive health care, mothering, and Indigenous nutrition/food ways.

Katherine Dettwyler: Thoughts on Breastfeeding

Living Birth: Written by Klarissa — an anthropology student, doula, aspiring midwife, feminist, daughter, sister, wife, friend, magic believer and star lover.

Shenita Ann McLean: PhD Student in Forensic Anthropology Sociologist Forensic Anthropologist Open-Minded Academic at Heart

The Ghetto Intellectual: Thoughts of a Ghetto intellectual

Teenthropologist: Anthropology. Ethnography. Adolescent Homo Sapiens

Other Anthropology Resources:

Archaeology in the Community

Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA)

Society of Feminist Anthropology

Society of Queer Anthropology

practice anth
Keep Calm and Practice Anthropology

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