(Swans - June 28, 2010) Jerry Gershenhorn is associate professor at the North Carolina Central University and the author of Melville J. Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (University of Nebraska Press, 2004). This book was based on his Ph.D. thesis that was completed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2000. Gershenhorn's critical biographical investigation documents how Herskovits -- who is perhaps best known as the founding president of the African Studies Association -- worked closely with liberal foundations throughout his career (see "Foundations and the Racial Politics of Knowledge"). This interview was undertaken by e-mail in May 2010.
Michael Barker (MB): Why did you choose to undertake doctoral studies, and what inspired you to study the life of Melville Herskovits?
Jerry Gershenhorn (JG): I decided to pursue a doctorate in history because of a lifelong interest in history. After pursuing a career in business finance for eleven years, I decided to go back to school to pursue a career in teaching history. I earned an M.A. in history at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), where I also earned certification to teach high school social studies. I did not pursue high school teaching because I was offered, and accepted, a position as an adjunct instructor in history at NCCU. I then continued my education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I earned a Ph.D. in American history. While casting around for a dissertation topic that would engage my interests in African American history and the history of race relations in the U.S. during the 20th century, the life of Melville Herskovits was suggested as a possible topic. A study of Herskovits's writings and career provided an opportunity to pursue my intellectual interests. His role in the development of African American studies and African studies, his interactions with black and white scholars and philanthropic foundations, his engagement with racial politics in academia, and his involvement with American policymakers during the Cold War meant that a study of Herskovits would provide an excellent opportunity to pursue themes related to racial politics and the production of knowledge.
MB: When you were undertaking the doctorate research for this biographical study were you surprised when you discovered the critical influence that foundations exerted on Herskovits's career?
JG: Because I had some familiarity with studies of the political and intellectual influences of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford foundations, I was not surprised that these foundations would have some influence on Herskovits's career, but the degree to which they helped shape his career was surprising. His study of the physical anthropology of African Americans that culminated in the publications of The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing (1928) and The Anthropometry of the Negro (1930) were the result of foundation interest in emphasizing the biological, not cultural or environmental, origins of racial differences. During the Cold War, Herskovits's involvement with African studies was in large part a result of foundation and government interest in training African experts to help the U.S. expand its influence in Africa and fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
MB: You mention how a number of scholars were critical of the influence of philanthropic foundations. Could you please talk about where these criticisms were publicized and how they were received within the academic community?
JG: [W.E.B.] Du Bois and [Carter] Woodson, among others, were critical of Thomas Jesse Jones of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a foundation interested in black education. Jones wrote a report on black education in 1917 in which he argued that the foundations should only support black colleges that stuck to vocational education, along the lines of Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute. Du Bois and Woodson attacked this report in print. In this case, Du Bois's critique was published in the Crisis, the NAACP journal. During the post-World War II era, black scholars criticized the foundations for funneling almost all funding for African studies programs to white universities. For the most part, St. Clair Drake and Horace Mann Bond, who were particularly critical of the foundations, made their criticisms privately during that era. It's likely that they did not want to alienate the foundations while they still hoped to win funding. (1)
MB: As a result of publishing your doctoral thesis and your subsequent book did you come across any criticisms from the academic and/or philanthropic community, and if so how did you deal with these?
JG: I am not aware of any criticisms from the philanthropic community. In my research, I received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Archive, and I also did research at the Ford Foundation, and both research centers were very helpful. Of course, any book will absorb some criticism from other academics, but I do not recall any criticism with respect to my analysis of the influence of the foundations on knowledge production in African American studies and African studies or their influence on Cold War-era research.
JG: I would define power as the ability to enact policy, to institute change, and to control institutions. Access to money is an important component of power. The foundations can use their money to influence what gets studied, and that has an impact on information and ultimately, on policy. The aphorism, knowledge is power, comes to mind as relevant to my work, but also, its inverse perhaps, power can determine knowledge. Today with the growth of think tanks in support of the political parties, the money behind these think tanks helps to determine the nature of public discourse, which can limit the possibilities of how to solve particular social, economic, or political problems. So access to money or resources has a lot to do with power.
MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations (like the Ford Foundation) are so few and far between?
JG: I'm not so sure that criticisms of foundations are rare. If they are, the obvious answer would be that one may not want to bite the hand that feeds you.
JG: I believe that my work supports many of Berman's conclusions about the philanthropies. I would agree that the foundations are fundamentally undemocratic institutions in that they are not accountable to an electorate. They certainly represented elite segments of society in terms of race, class, and gender, during the period I studied. And the foundations represented the interests of capitalism, which is not surprising, given their origins. I would also argue that they were very intertwined with the federal government and its interests. There were many individuals who worked for the government and the foundations at various times. Former State Department officials Vernon McKay and William Brown headed up two of the first African Studies programs founded during the Cold War, and they gained foundation support, in great part, because of their previous government service, which was a sort of stamp of approval for the foundations that supported US Cold War foreign policy interests.
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)
1. "I located Drake's and Bond's criticisms of the foundations in the Drake Papers (Schomburg Center in NYC) and the Bond Papers (Duke University has microfilm). I recently published an article in the Journal of African American History, which includes this information: "'Not An Academic Affair': African American Scholars and the Development of African Studies Programs in the United States, 1942-1960." Journal of African American History, 94 (Winter 2009): 44-68.
"The Du Bois critique I mentioned was in the Crisis (February 1918). It's also in W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader, edited by David L. Lewis, pages 261-269." (back)