Report on Webinar Featuring Georgetown Professor Includes List of Further Reading
Georgetown University Professor Charles King joined HCCDC’s Carl Lankowski for a well-attended Zoom conversation on July 1 about how early 20th century thinkers debunked early “scientific” ideas about the hierarchy of races and culture, forming the field of cultural anthropology.
The event, titled “Evolving Concepts of Race and Gender: Boas and His Circle,” was part of a new Zoom program from Historic Chevy Chase DC. A video of the event is linked here.
King discussed the premise of his 2019 book, “Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century,” crediting German emigre Franz Boas and the anthropologists who became his students and colleagues with challenging the prevailing assumptions about the “natural” hierarchy of races and culture. He pointed out the evidence of this early ideology in the sculptures encircling the gold-domed 1897 Library of Congress Jefferson Building. The 33 ethnological heads locted in the window keystones depict the races of the world, from Arab to Zulu, and are arranged with whites taking pride of place in the front, leading to Asians around the sides and finally African images in the back. Dismantling this hierarchical view of race, embedded not only in stone but in our culture, was the work of Boas and his circle.
Following the event and reflecting on questions posed by audience members, King shared a set of references that may be of interest:
- Sarah Churchwell’s recent piece on the strains of fascism and race in US political history: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/06/22/american-fascism-it-has-happened-here/.
- James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model, a terrific book on the Nazi-US connection in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Adam Cohen, Imbeciles, on the Carrie Buck case and the history of eugenics in America (for a much longer, exhaustive study of the same topic, the classic read is Edwin Black, War Against the Weak.)
- Nell Irvin Painter, History of White People, best short(ish) intro to the making of race in American history (more exhaustive is Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning.)
- Ian Haney Lopez, “White by Law,” a fascinating study of the legal construction of race, especially the massive amount of US case law that determined what kind of race, say, Armenians or Filipinos belonged to, which was a key issue when it came to enforcing whites-only covenants in property law.
- Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote “Warmth of Other Suns” on the Great Migration, has a new book coming out this summer, Caste, will be a blockbuster study of race and inequality in American history.
This event was the third in a series of virtual events sponsored by HCCDC. Up next in the series, on Sept. 16, will be a presentation on the 1920s displacement from Chevy Chase DC of African American landowners from our own neighborhood on Broad Branch Road. HCCDC’s Tim Hannapel will interview a descendant of that community, James Fisher, and discuss HCCDC’s effort to honor those families unfairly ousted by renaming Lafayette Park to Lafayette-Pointer Park and Recreation Center. The “Pointer” in the name refers to the family patriarch, freed slave George Pointer, whose descendants settled on the property in the 1840s.
To support these types of relevant and thought-provoking programs, please become a member of Historic Chevy Chase DC. Our annual membership is $25. You can sign up on our website here.