Lee D. Baker, Duke University

Review of Rethinking Race: Franz Boaz and His Contemporaries. By Vernon J. Williams, Jr. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996. Pp. ix+152.

1997 American Journal of Sociology 1996 192(3):909-910.


Historian Vernon J. Williams, Jr. sifts through thousands of pages of correspondence and manuscripts to offer a rich and balanced portrait of Franz Boas' "gargantuan stature in intellectual history"(p.1). Williams does not paint Boas as the esteemed "father" of anthropology, the indefatigable Jewish crusader, nor as the little darling of political correctness. He presents Boas as a complicated intellectual whose struggle to understand the saliency of race in the U.S. at the beginning of the century defined the parameters from which we still grapple with racial issues at the end of the century.

Williams begins by exploring certain tensions in Boas' writings from the 1890s to the 1920s. He then details Boas' associations with, and influences upon, Black intellectuals that include Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Zora Neale Hurston. More importantly, he sheds new light upon Boas' relationships with historically important but less well known African American intellectuals like Monroe N. Work, George E. Haynes, Abram L. Harris, and George W. Ellis. Finally, he links Boas' early work on race to Robert E. Park and E. Franklin Frazier's theories of race relations, underscoring the importance of each in Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma and subsequently today's discussion of race and class.

Williams frames this book by identifying a paradox in Boas' anti-racist research program that emerged from opposing commitments to science and progressive values. Boas advanced ambiguous or equivocal ideas about equality, the author outlines, because he challenged racial hierarchies by using the same methods as racialist physical anthropologist. By closely reading Boas' work, Williams shows how Boas conceded to proponents of racial inferiority who dominated the social sciences but also how he demonstrated prejudice and racism--not innate inferiority--were Negroes' greatest obstacles in the U.S. One of Boas' methods for critiquing the Negro-as-savage notion, the author reveals, was to depict the great kingdoms of Africa as just as civilized as any other. Williams illustrates brilliantly how Boas was caught between turn-of-the-century social Darwinism and nascent environmentalism.

By identifying this Boasian paradox, Williams makes an important contribution because he underscores how "Boas's political awakening and empirical research were mutually reinforcing. That is, 'political beliefs' were as salient as 'scientific commitments.' "(p.6). Williams, however, interprets these tensions as a "paradox" that imprisoned Boas enabling him to only "grudgingly" extricate race relations theory from racist assumptions. I was not convinced that Boas did not strategically embrace these tensions to develop a reformist (opposed to a revolutionary) approach to challenge both scientific and the public ideas about racial inferiority. Boas was characteristically shrewd and very effective at debunking racist claims with normally racist methods such as measuring head sizes (Changes in Bodily Forms of Descendants of Immigrants [New York: Columbia University Press, 1912]).

Many scholars recognize that Robert E. Park worked closely with African American intellectuals to shape major trends in American sociology. This is the first book to detail how Boas also worked closely with African American intellectuals (actually many of the same people) to shape major trends in American anthropology. Between this and his first book, Williams has established the integral role African American scholars have played in shaping social science (From a Caste to a Minority: Changing: Attitudes of American Sociologists Toward Afro-Americans, 1896-1945 [Westport: Greenwood Press, 1989]).

Williams goes confidently beyond identifying Boas' relationships with Black intellectuals to show how his empowering images of African cultures and his assertions that racial inferiority had no scientific basis "transformed" the thinking of everyone from Booker T. Washington, Robert Ezra Park, E. Franklin Frazier, Gunnar Myrdal as well as W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Melville Herskovits. This alone makes Williams work significant and intriguing for anyone interested in the history of U.S. social sciences.

While Williams depicts Boas influence upon concepts of race well, he does not adequately interrogate Boas' equally important influence upon concepts of culture or even how Boas integrated his ideas of race and culture. Boas, his students, and close associates developed a tightly knit discourse that aligned theories of racial equality with notions of a historically specific cultural relativity. Williams does not show how many of the scholars he discusses unraveled the Boasian discourse of race and culture, adopting only his ideas of race and jettisoning his concept of culture. Similarly, Williams virtually ignores the important role Boas and his students played in the Harlem Renaissance. He dismisses Boas' department of anthropology at Columbia whose ideas of African cultural continuities in the Americas and support of Negro folklore formed an important intellectual underpinning during that period.

This is not a complete discussion of Boas' influence on anthropological knowledge of race and culture but an excellent-- albeit focused-- discussion of Boas' contribution to the study of U.S. race relations.




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