When Franz Boas' photography was printed on the cover of Time magazine in 1936, even US President Theodore Roosevelt offered his congratulations. At the same time, the famous anthropologist's books had been banned and burned in Germany, where Boas was born in the year1858 in Minde, part of a German-Jewish family that had been based in Westphalia since the 17th century.
And yet this influential academic (who has been almost forgotten in the meantime) didn’t have the typical refugee biography of those who had to flee Hitler's Germany, fearing for their lives. Boas moved to the USA as early as 1886 which enabled him to offer logistical and financial assistance, as well as moral support, to many emigrants. Charles King's book “Gods of the Upper Air", which chronicled the impact of the work of the research team around Franz Boas, has no Goethe-esque sense of "America, you’ve got it better”. Boas was deeply influenced by the experience of fighting World War I and then suddenly being considered an “enemy alien” despite being an American citizen with scientific honours. It gave him a sense of the fragility of his supposed security.
Above all it was USA’s unquestioned self-image which gave him an early pang of doubts. What was the real state of the country which was seen as a leader of the western world, replacing France and Great Britain in this role at the latest after it entered the war in 1917, but which continued to discriminate against African Americans, and not just in the southern states, but also in the industrialised north of the country? Moreover, in what way was cultural history written to the to justify the claim that the Western civilisation represents the peak of human development, serving as the benchmark for any value judgement? Franz Boas, who before moving to the US had made extensive trips to the Canadian Arctic and British Columbia to learn about the Inuit's way of life, raised questions about this prevailing sense of self-confidence. Of course he did not do this in a morally-charged tone, but with the almost cheerful seriousness of a researcher who is convinced that empiricism will always win out against ideology. And he had a number of dedicated comrades-in-arms, who were mostly women.
Boas raised questions about prevailing self-confidence at the time
Charles King describes them too us in his book, including Margaret Mead, the field researcher, a straight talker who who would become one of the most famous scientists in America; Ruth Benedict, Boas’ most important assistant and Mead’s big love, whose research for the US government contributed to steering the post-war future of Japan; Ella Cara Deloria, who preserved the cultural traditions of the prairie indians or Zora Neale Hurston, the outstanding thinker of the Harlem Renaissance-movement of Afroamerican artists, whose ethnographic studies under Boas directly influenced her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” which is today considered a classic.
The subtitle of King's book - “How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century” - precisely conveys the the subject of this incredibly exciting and detail-rich group biography: Men and women who, in the early 20th century, undertook research in a climate of equality, which was back then completely atypical, conducting field studies in the Pacific region where they drew conclusions that revolutionised the existing ways of seeing things: No, there are no “superior” races, and mental abilities and cultural structures are neither hereditary nor "natural", but rather result from adapting to the environment. And nor do the biologically based discrimination against women and dark-skinned people or the supposedly "given" heteronormative sexual structures bear up to scientific scrutiny. As early as 1911, Boas had discovered something which destroyed the reasoning behind any racist essentialism: That living conditions, from food to the environment, had a big influence even on the shape of the skull, which until then had counted as a fixed indicator of the type of human being. In the end it was also due to academics influenced by Franz Boas that homosexuality was crossed off the list of diagnosable illnesses in the late 1980s.
Unfortunately Charles King’s book does not mention how the term cultural relativism, which Franz Boas is known as having invented, has since been misappropriated.The noble concept of having respect for others has in the form of so-called ethnopluralism been given a far-right twist along the lines of “an Africa of the Africans or, a Europe or the USA of the whites”. But it there are also questionable offshoots of the left-wing “identity politics”” which, in reference to that very idea of respect, brush off cases of repression, homophobia and misogyny. We are told that the anti-racist Franz Boas, on the other hand, found it fully possible to believe in combining cultural relativism with democracy and a representational government. So it seems almost fateful that on the evening of his death on 21 December, 1942, Boas took part in a discussion about data which again revealed the lack of a scientific basis for racist theory and, for a last time, he publicly railed against the dangers of racism. It is high time to revisit - or meet for the first time - this group of people who were as clever as they were brave.
Schule der Rebellen. Wie ein Kreis verwegener Anthropologen Race, Sex und Gender erfand (engl. title: Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century), by Charles King, Hanser, München, 2020.