Franz Boas (1858-1942) was a Jewish German-American anthropologist trained in Berlin who eventually made his name as a professor at Columbia University in New York City, USA. His own lifelong experience with antisemitic prejudice and his research experiences living among the Inuit and peoples in the Pacific Northwest led him to a uniquely progressive cultural relativism. He explicitly argued against the presumption that white, European civilization was a benchmark against which to measure non-European societies and insisted that environment and culture, rather than race, shaped physical features and ways of thinking. Although he was not completely free of the prejudices of his time, his insights nevertheless inspired anthropologists like Margaret Meade and sociologists like W. E. B. Du Bois to see race as a construct rather than an essential fact.
In 1906, W. E. B. Du Bois invited Boas to Atlanta University to speak to the graduating class. In his address he chronicled a history of African contributions to human civilization and encouraged the students to be as clear-eyed about the nobility of their heritage as they had to be about the challenges of improving the lot of African Americans in a society riven by racism. Importantly, he drew on the experience of Jews in Europe to point to the depth of such divisions. Du Bois later said this speech occasioned an “awakening” for him, leading him to realize how African history had been silenced and distorted.
I have accepted with pleasure the invitation to address you on this day, because I believe that the broad outlook over the development of mankind which the study of the races of man gives to us, is often helpful to an understanding of our own everyday problems, and may make clear to us our capacity as well as our duty. I shall speak to you from the standpoint of the anthropologist, of one who has devoted his life to the study of the multifarious forms of culture as found in different races.
On the day when the student leaves the protecting wings of the institution which has nurtured and trained his mind, he naturally halts with a last glimpse backward. Then he looks forward timidly, but at the same time with the exuberant joy of having acquired the right of independent action, and now he is in the midst of the struggle which even to the best, is not all sweetness of success, but bound to bring the bitterness of disappointment. Then will come the test of your strength, of your loyalty to the ideals that your instructors have tried to instil into you.
If these trials are not spared to the youth who enters the struggle of life, a member of a homogeneous people, they will be encountered with even greater certainty in communities where diverse elements live side by side, and have to work for their joint welfare as well as for the protection of their separate interests.
The fundamental requirement for useful activity on your part is a clear insight into the capabilities of your own race. If you did accept the view that the present weakness of the American Negro, his uncontrolled emotions, his lack of energy, are racially inherent, your work would still be a noble one. You, the more fortunate members of your race, would give your life to a great charitable work, to support the unsteady gait of your weak brother who is too feeble to walk by himself. But you have the full right to view your labor in an entirely different light. The achievements of races are not only what they have done during the short span of two thousand years, when with rapidly increasing numbers the total amount of mental work accumulated at an ever increasing rate. In this the European, the Chinaman, the East Indian, have far outstripped other races. But back of this period lies the time when mankind struggled with the elements, when every small advance that seems to us now insignificant was an achievement of the highest order, as great as the discovery of steam power or of electricity, if not greater. It may well be, that these early inventions were made hardly consciously, certainly not by deliberate effort, yet every one of them represents a giant’s stride forward in the development of human culture. To these early advances the Negro race has contributed its liberal share. While much of the history of early invention is shrouded in darkness, it seems likely that at a time when the European was still satisfied with rude stone tools, the African had invented or adopted the art of smelting iron.
The occurrence of all these arts of life points to an early and energetic development of African culture.
Even if we refrain from speculating on the earliest times, conceding that it is difficult to prove the exact locality where so important an invention was made as that of smelting iron, or where the African millet was first cultivated, or where chickens and cattle were domesticated, the evidence of African ethnology is such that it should inspire you with the hope of leading your race from achievement to achievement. Shall I remind you of the power of military organization exhibited by the Zulu, whose kings and whose armies swept southeastern Africa. Shall I remind you of the local chiefs, who by dint of diplomacy, bravery and wisdom united the scattered tribes of wide areas into flourishing kingdoms, of the intricate form of government necessary for holding together the heterogeneous tribes.
If you wish to understand the possibilities of the African under the stimulus of a foreign culture, you may look towards the Soudan, the region south of the Sahara. When we first learn about these countries by the reports of the great Arab traveller Iben Batuta, who lived in the 14th century, we hear that the old Negro kingdoms were early conquered by the Mohammedans. Under the guidance of the Arabs, but later on by their own initiative, the Negro tribes of these countries organized kingdoms which lived for many centuries. They founded flourishing towns in which at annual fairs thousands and thousands of people assembled. Mosques and other public buildings were erected and the execution of the laws was entrusted to judges. The history of the kingdom was recorded by officers and kept in archives. So well organized were these states that about 1850, when they were for the first time visited by a white man, the remains of these archives were still found in existence, notwithstanding all the political upheavals of a millennium and notwithstanding the ravages of the slave trade.
I might also speak to you of the great markets that are found throughout Africa, at which commodities were exchanged or sold for native money. I may perhaps remind you of the system of judicial procedure, of prosecution and defense, which had early developed in Africa, and whose formal development was a great achievement notwithstanding its gruesome application in the persecution of witchcraft. Nothing, perhaps, is more encouraging than a glimpse of the artistic industry of native Africa. I regret that we have no place in this country where the beauty and daintiness of African work can be shown; but a walk through the African museums of Paris, London and Berlin is a revelation. I wish you could see the scepters of African kings, carved of hard wood and representing artistic forms; or the dainty basketry made by the people of the Kongo river and of the region near the great lakes of the Nile, or the grass mats with their beautiful patterns. Even more worthy of our admiration is the work of the blacksmith, who manufactures symmetrical lance heads almost a yard long, or axes inlaid with copper and decorated with filigree. Let me also mention in passing the bronze castings of Benin on the west coast of Africa, which, although perhaps due to Portuguese influences, have so far excelled in technique any European work, that they are even now almost inimitable. In short, wherever you look, you find a thrifty people, full of energy, capable of forming large states. You find men of great energy and ambition who hold sway over their fellows by the weight of their personality. That this culture has, at the same time, the instability and other signs of weakness of primitive culture, goes without saying.
To those who stoutly maintain a material inferiority of the Negro race and who would dampen your ardor by their claims, you may confidently reply that the burden of proof rests with them, that the past history of your race does not sustain their statement, but rather gives you encouragement. The physical inferiority of the Negro race, if it exists at all, is insignificant when compared to the wide range of individual variability in each race.
The arguments for inferiority drawn from the history of civilization are also weak. At the time when the early kingdom of Babylonia flourished the same disparaging remarks that are now made regarding the Negro might-have been made regarding the ancestors of the ancient Romans.
Thus, impartial scientific discussion tells you to take up your work among your race with undaunted courage. Success will crown your endeavors if your work is carried on patiently, quietly and consistently.
But in taking up your position in life you must also be clear in regard to the relation of your work to the general life of the nation, and here again anthropology and history will help you to gain a healthy point of view. It is not the first time in human history that two peoples have been brought into close contact by the force of circumstances, who are dependent upon each other economically but where social customs, ideals and — let me add — bodily form, are so distinct that the line of cleavage remains always open. Every conquest that has led to colonization has produced, at least temporarily, conditions of this kind.
The best example, however, is that of the Jews of Europe, a people slightly distinct in type, but originally differing considerably in customs and beliefs from the people among whom they lived. The separation of the Jew and the Gentile was enforced for hundreds of years and very slowly only were the various occupations opened to him; very slowly only began to vanish the difference in customs and ideals. Even now the feeling of inequality persists and to the feeling of many the term Jew assigns to the bearer an exceptional position. And this is so, although the old barriers have fallen, although in the creative work of our times, in industry, commerce, science, and art, the Jew holds a respected place. Even now there lingers the consciousness of the old, sharper divisions which the ages have not been able to efface, and which is strong enough to find — not only here and there — expression as antipathy to the Jewish type. In France, that let down the barriers more than a hundred years ago, the feeling of antipathy is still strong enough to sustain an anti-Jewish political party. I have dwelt on this example somewhat fully, because it illustrates the conditions that characterize your own position.
Even members of the same people, when divided by social barriers, have often been in similar relations. Thus has the hereditary nobility of Europe — although of the same descent as the people — held itself aloof for centuries and has claimed for itself superior power and a distinct code of honor. In short, you may find innumerable instances of sharp social division of a people into groups that are destined to work out jointly the fate of their country.
You must, therefore, recognize that it is not in your power, as individuals, to modify rapidly the feelings of others toward yourself, no matter how unjust and unfair they may seem to you, but that, with the freedom to improve your economic condition to the best of your ability, your race has to work out its own salvation by raising the standards of your life higher and higher, thus attacking the feeling of contempt of your race at its very roots.
It is an arduous work that is before you. If you will remember the teachings of history, you will find it a task full of joy, for your own people will respond more and more readily to your teachings. When they learn how to live a more cleanly, healthy and comfortable life, they will also begin to appreciate the value of intellectual life, and as their intellectual powers increase, will they work for a life of greater bodily and moral health. The vastness of the field of improvement and the assurance of success should be an ever present stimulus to you, even though it will take a long time to overcome the inertia of the indolent masses. On the other hand, if you carry on your work with side glances on your white neighbor, waiting for his recognition or support of your noble work, you are destined to disappointment. Remember that in every single case in history the process of adaptation has been one of exceeding slowness. Do not look for the impossible, but do not let your path deviate from the quiet and steadfast insistence on full opportunities for your powers.
Your advance depends upon your steadfastness of purpose. While the white man may err from the path of righteousness and, if he falls by the wayside, will have to bear the blame for his weakness individually, any failure of one of your race, and particularly any fault of one of you who have enjoyed the advantages of education, will be interpreted only too readily as a relapse into the old ways of an inferior race. If, therefore, you want to overcome the old antagonism, you have to be on your watch all the time. Your moral standards must be of the highest.
Source: Franz Boas, “Commencement Address at Atlanta University, May 31, 1906,” Atlanta University Leaflet, No. 19.
Franz Boas on African achievements and how to challenge racism (1906) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.