It may not be a well known fact, but there have been black anthropologists around for years, at least since the early part of the twentieth century. Scholars such as Edward Blyden, W.E.B Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, George Washington Williams, and William Leo Hansberry are some early practitioners of the profession, though they may not have been defined as such.
When I chose that as my major when I entered college, folks wanted to know what exactly anthropology was, and why would I want to pursue it. It was reading as a youngster the travelogues of Era Bell Thompson in Ebony magazine and later the articles and books of J.A. Rogers that first attracted me; however, it was the writings of Zora Neale Hurston that sealed the deal. In fact, she had studied humankind under America’s most prominent anthropologist, Franz Boas.
The research of St. Clair Drake and Lorenzo Dow Turner were also inspirational and helped me to focus on linguistics and ethnomusicology as the subjects within the discipline.
Below I’ve listed six top black anthropologists today, and naturally this is a tendentious list, which ignores hundreds of extremely proficient scholars in the field, particularly those who labor almost without recognition in the nation’s academies.
Dr. Leith Mullings Marable is a distinguished professor of Anthropology at CUNY’s Graduate Center and president-elect of the American Anthropological Association. In her research she has applied a feminist and a critical theory of race to her essays and books in a most objective and productive way. The role of women in Africa has received a considerable amount of her research time and commitment. One significant contribution in this regard is her book On Our Own Terms: Race, Class and Gender in the Lives of African-American Women, (New York: Routledge, 1997). Dr. Marable also devoted much of her immense insight and knowledge of African-American history and culture to a number of other books that she co-authored with her late husband, Dr. Manning Marable. To this end she was vitally involved in his completion of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking, 2011)
For several years Dr. Lee Baker was happily ensconced at Columbia University and working in close association with Dr. Manning Marable and his wife, Dr. Leith Mullings Marable. But currently he is dean of Academic Affairs at Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of cultural anthropology and African and African-American Studies at Duke University. Among the many things that commend him as a scholar and author is his book From Savage to Negro—Anthropology and the Construction of Race: 1896-1954 (University of California Press at Berkeley, 1998). The book, in effect, should have been titled Black Anthropology because it illustrates with brilliant writing and analysis the conjunction of the discipline and race. He deftly navigates that tricky legal terrain where black life has always hung in the balance.
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole is perhaps the nation’s most celebrated black female anthropologist, having received her doctorate in science from Northwestern University with a fruitful academic stop at Oberlin College. Several notable colleges have been beneficiaries of her considerable learning and teaching skills, which was the ballast she needed to become, in 1987, the first black woman president of Spelman College. After a decade leading Spelman, Dr. Cole returned to the classroom as a distinguished professor at Emory University and, subsequently back into the administrative life as president of Bennett College for Women. Currently, she is director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She is also the chairwoman of the board of her own Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Recently, Dr. Cole received the 2011 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award, just one of a collection awards she has garnered as an author and educator.
Among his many academic duties, Dr. Arthur Spears is a professor and chair of the anthropology department at City College of New York. In the recent past, he also chaired the college’s Black Studies Department. A renowned linguist, he founded Transforming Anthropology, the journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists, which is affiliated with the American Anthropological Association. He is comfortable teaching in four languages—English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, all of which served him well in his steady climb to anthropological prominence. His most recent books include The Haitian Creole Language: History, Structure, Use, and Education (co-editor; Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), Black Language in the English-Speaking Caribbean and U.S.: History, Structure, Use, and Education (editor; Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).
Because she has been so productive for such a long period of time, it seems Dr. Audrey Smedley has been around forever. I arrived too late to have her as a teacher at Wayne State University in Detroit where she was a professor in the anthropology department. But her scholarship kept her in view across the years, especially her phenomenal work on the issue of race, and her definition of the concept has become one of the most cited. “Race is an ideology that says that all human populations are divided into exclusive and distinct groups; that all human populations are ranked, they are not equal. Inequality is absolutely essential to the idea of race. The other part is that the behavior of people is very much part of their biology,” she told an interviewer several years ago. And it is this kind of cogent, well-thought out explication that has earned Dr. Smedley such longstanding recognition and acclaim. She is currently a professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
It is rare to find a scholar who brilliantly negotiates the realm of popular culture and the world of elite academicians. But Dr. Robin Kelley is an exceptional thinker in so many diverse areas of intellectual activity. For his biography alone on the legendary jazz artist and composer Thelonious Monk the accolades are endless, earning him eternal credentials in the world of creative black artists. Even so, Dr. Kelley has found time to shepherd a number of talented students at the University of Southern California, where he is a professor American Studies and Ethnicity. From 1994-2003, he was a mainstay of the Africana Studies Department at New York University, a location that allowed him to keep it real on the contemporary music and literary circuit. His books on black workers are peerless and those research endeavors have rarely interfered with his activism, particularly his close association with a number of political formations and organizations. On May 20, 2007, he delivered the keynote address for the graduation ceremony of Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where his mother, Ananda Sattwa, was graduating with a Ph.D.