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The Professor: Franz Boas


Franz Boas was born in Minden Germany on July 9, 1858 to a liberal jewish family. His father Meier Boas was a sucessful merchant and his mother was a kindergarten teacher. Both of Boas' parents were filled with the "spirit of 1848" out of which the failed revolution emerged. Boas upbringing in a liberal jewish household would later inform his pioneering ideas on race and ethinicity.

Physics and not anthropology was Boas' first course of study for which he was awareded a doctrorate from Kiel University in 1881. His doctoral dissertation on "Contributions to Understanding the Color of Water" demonstrated to him that there were domains of human experience "in which the concepts of quantity ....are not applicable"(Williams 7).Following a trip to Baffinland to write a book on psychophysics, an on which he acquired his first field experience while working Eskimos, Boas changed disciplines and began his anthroplogical work.

In 1887 Boas emigrated to the United States but it was not until he published that Boas truly began to make his mark as an anthropologist.

Unlike the evolutionists who dominated the discipline of anthropology in its early days, Boas argued that in contrast to popular belief, races other than white, "races such as the Indians of Peru and Central America had evolved civilizations similar to that in which European civilizations had its origins"(Williams 10). Although his writing belies the inherent racism of his time, he continued to use the smaller cranial cavity and brain weight of African Americans as evidence of white intellectual superiority, Boas pioneered ideas of racial equality that resound throughout the study of culture today. As the advisor of noted anthropolgists such as Margaret Mead, Melville Herskovits, and Ruth Benedict, Boas came to be known as the father of contemporary anthopology.

Of all of Boas ideas, the construction of ethnocentrism and his desire to see cultures studied in thier own terms is by far the most influential. In his own work Boas contradicted evolutionists who had viewed the culture of non-white races as inferior by exposing "the fallacy of ranking nonwhite societies according to the characteristics they shared with European and American Civilizations"(Williams 11). These ideas as well as Boas own liberalism made him the perfect teacher for Zora Neale Hurston.

Boas and Mules and Men

Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, is accorded the first words in Mules and Men. As Hurston's anthropology professor and advisor, Boas played an intregral role in the publication of the text both by informing its construction and by assisting Hurston in the evolution of her own ideas about race and culture. Hurston wrote to Boas constantly while she was on her folklore collecting expeditions both for advice and further areas of inqiury. A letter written in April of 1929 while Hurston was in New Orleans studying hoodoo characterizes thier professional relationship as one of teacher and pupil :

Is it safe for me to say that baptism is an extension of water worship as a part of pantheism just as the sacrament is an extension of cannibalism? Isn't the use of candles in the Catholic church a relic of fire worship? Are not all the uses of fire upon the altars the same thing? Is not the christian ritual rather one attenuated nature-worship, in the fire, water, and blood? Might not the frequently mentioned fire of the Holy Ghjost not be an unconscious fire worship? May it not be a deification of fire? In a statement that Hurston later echoed in her autobiography Historical events rather than race appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilization than thier faculty, and it follows that the achievements of races do not warrant us to assume that one race is

May I say that the decoration in clothing is an extention of the primitive application of pain (coloring) to the body?

May I say that all primitive music originated about the drum and that singing was the attentuation of the drum-beat?(Meisenhelder 15).

Boas influence on Hurston can not be overstated. The Boasian ethic that Hurston most adhered too was first published in in his classic article "Human Faculty as Determined by Race." In this article Boas states that "historical events rather than race appear to have been more potent in leading races to civilization than their faculty, and it follows [that] the achievements of races do not warrant us to assume that one race is more highly gifted than others" (Boas 225). Hurston echoed this belief in her autbobiography Dust Tracks on a Road when she wrote:"It seemed to me that the human beings I met reacted pretty much the same to the same stimuli. Different idioms, yes. Circumstances and conditions having the power to influence, yes. Inherent difference, no(Dust Tracks on A Road p.171).

Hurston first met Boas when she came to study at Barnard College as an anthropology major.She assisted Melville Herskovits and Boas in the two summers preceeding her graduation by measuring the heads of African Americans in Harlem.Because of her assistance and his growing interest in Hurston's career Boas obtained a fellowship from Carter Woodson to enable her to collect folklore in Florida. This fellowship provided Hurston with the initial funds needed to gather the material that would become Mules and Men.

Boas would remain Hurston's advisor even after Hurston's introduction to Charlotte Osgood Mason and her subsequent controlling patronage of the text, and it was of primary importance both to Hurston and to the publisher that Boas involvement be publicized. Hurston wrote Boas repeatedly to request that he write the introduction to the text:

"So please consider all this and do not refust Mr. Lippincott's[the publisher] request to write the introduction to Mules and Men. And then in addition I feel that the persons who have the most information on a subject should teach the public. Who knows more about folklore than you and Dr. Benedict? Therefore the stuff published in America should pass under your eye. You see some of the preposterous stuff put out by various persons on various folk-subjects. This is not said merely to get you to write the introduction to my book (Miesenhelder 19).

Boas's preface provides the initial frame of Mules and Men and characterizes the text as an insiders perspective into folkculture. According to Boas Hurston's relationship to her birthplace and the citizens therein form the greatest merit of the work, "she entered into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted as such by the companions of her childhood." In Boas construction the text reveals "the Negro's reaction to everyday events, to his emotional life, his humor and passions," and "throws into relief also the peculiar amalgamation of African American and European tradition which is so important for understanding historically the character of Negro life"(Mules and Men Preface).

Although readings of Mules and Men as folklore belonging to the discipline of anthropolgy are complicated by various idiosyncrasies of the text( See Ways of Seeing: Anthropology), Boas preface affirms the texts place in the canon of American Folklore and asserts the primacy of Hurston's place to it.

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