Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century | Charles King | Doubleday | 431 pp. | 2019 | ISBN 978-0-385-54219-7
In Gods of the Upper Air, historian Charles King takes the reader on a dazzling intellectual journey. The volume’s subtitle spells out his thesis: how a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex, and gender in the 20th century. In this landmark study, King offers an enthralling narrative of a group of scholars who “found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that — despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom — humanity is one undivided thing.”
German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) and a group of female anthropologists that he mentored at Columbia University, including Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ruth Benedict, and Ella Cara Deloria, are the central characters of King’s story. First and foremost, Gods of the Upper Air chronicles the rich intellectual history of the Boasian* anthropologists and the mark they left on the world. At the same time, King produces vivid descriptions of time and place, detailing the cold logic and harsh realities of the world order — patriarchal, racist, culturally essentialist — against which these female social scientists struggled. This vital account demonstrates the power of knowledge production, which challenges what everyone had just assumed to be true, generating new and critical ways of understanding our vastly different but intimately connected lived realities.
By the turn of the 20th century, Western societies generally embraced the belief that all peoples could be categorized into a hierarchy of fixed races. In Ancient Society (1877), the prominent American ethnologist and anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan argued that all human societies exhibit the same linear sequence of evolutionary stages, progressing from savagery to barbarism — and, finally, to civilization. Evolutionist thinkers like Morgan evaluated non-European societies against a European model, which, for them, constituted the apex of progress. At the time, Morgan himself was writing against the more virulent forms of scientific racism espoused by theorists like the French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau, best known for his Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853–55). As King writes, Gobineau posited “an ancient ‘Aryan’ population from which modern white people were descended and decried its spoliation through inbreeding with lesser types.”
Bold Women (l) Zora Neale Hurston photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1938. Charles King observes that Hurston’s work as a folklorist “wasn’t so much about capturing a dying culture as trying to understand the here-and-now of a ferocious, angular way of being.” As Hurston herself later wrote, “Negro folk-lore is still in the making.” (r) Ruth Benedict in 1924, when she served as Boas’s assistant in his lecture courses at Barnard College. “The discovery of anthropology — and Dr. Boas — proved to be her salvation,” her sister would recall. (Credits: [l–r] Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; Library of Congress, Margaret Mead Papers)
Racial science was widely accepted not only in the field of anthropology, but it permeated virtually every other discipline and school of thought, profoundly shaping institutions and their legacies. As King notes, “The idea of a natural ranking of human types shaped everything,” from school curricula to court decisions and policing tactics to popular culture. Indeed, even as Boas and his circle were meticulously debunking the pseudoscience behind racism, U.S. colonial administrators in the Philippines were operating within the logic of racial hierarchies. The U.S. was not alone. France, Germany, and Britain propagated scientific racism throughout their empires, and its legacies remain with us to this day. As Lisa Lowe writes in The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015), “The operations that pronounce colonial divisions of humanity — settler seizure and native removal, slavery and racial dispossession, and racialized expropriations of many kinds — are imbricated processes, not sequential events; they are ongoing and continuous in our contemporary moment, not temporally distinct nor as yet concluded.”
Franz Boas turned to anthropology in the 1880s, and the battle he and his students took on would prove long and arduous. He lived to see Nazism prevail in the country of his birth. His final words were spoken at a gathering at the Columbia Faculty Club on December 21, 1942. To a distinguished visiting scholar who had fled Paris following the German occupation, Boas said: “We should never stop repeating the idea that racism is a monstrous error and an impudent lie.” Attempting to rise, the great anthropologist fell back in his chair. His heart had stopped.
King chillingly draws out the links between the rise of Nazism in Europe and the long and sordid history of white supremacy in the United States. He writes, “At the time, any right-thinking American took many of the basic ideas the Nazis espoused as natural and well proven, even if they weren’t accompanied by a swastika. The Germans had spent the 1930s not so much inventing a race-obsessed state as catching up with one.”
Gods of the Upper Air captures the immense impact that the Boasian anthropologists exerted through their research and their advocacy. As King shows, thanks to them, most anthropologists today reject the linear evolutionary model of progress, which sees peoples moving upward from “primitive” to “civilized” societies.
The American eugenicist Madison Grant is one of the characters that makes an appearance in King's book. He believed that immigration would push the country into a “racial abyss,” leading to its ultimate decline. As King notes, Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History (1916) was “hailed as a milestone in the application of scientific ideas to history and public policy.” Recent scholarship demonstrates how such ideas about race informed the logic and practice of numerous disciplines and institutions in the United States — and at every level of society. For example, in White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (2015), Robert Vitalis demonstrates that the field of international relations is historically rooted in spurious theories of race development as well as in anxieties about rising challenges to the white world order. He traces the genealogy of Foreign Affairs, the esteemed journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, which was originally established in 1910 as the Journal of Race Development. This is but one thread of many in this all but forgotten history unraveled by Vitalis, illustrating how international relations was designed to maintain white dominance in a changing world.
Gods of the Upper Air captures the immense impact that the Boasian anthropologists exerted through their research and their advocacy. As King shows, thanks to them, most anthropologists today reject the linear evolutionary model of progress, which sees peoples moving upward from “primitive” to “civilized” societies. Their interventions challenged and forever transformed academic, political, and social debates around race, gender, and culture by decoupling cultural difference from biology while directly confronting the fallacies of scientific racism. Notably, their work insisted on relativizing Western thought and social organization, forcing American intellectuals — and later, publics — to contend with the notion that their realities, rather than being based on objective science, are socially constructed.
In Boas’s seminal essay, “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology” (1896), he calls on anthropologists to renounce the idea of any standardized evolution of societies. He directly confronts claims made by evolutionary anthropologists, such as the idea that peoples that inhabit similar climates share cultural attributes and kinship systems. Instead, the Boasian project was one that highlighted the plurality of cultures. Boas worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from 1896 to 1905, rearranging artifacts to reflect specific cultural and geographic groupings. Until that point, objects in the museum were displayed to reflect broad stages of human or social development. This was a radical shift, and it laid the foundation for the essential contributions that were to come from the students of the Boasian school, including, most notably, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Mead.
Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) contended that many widely held beliefs about sexuality and adolescence were culturally contingent. King describes how Mead herself felt constrained by the austere strictures of her own cultural background. Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) is arguably the most cited and taught work of anthropological theory in the history of the field. Its impact has been profound. The notion of cultural relativism was popularized by Benedict's pioneering work, which illustrates the wide arc of human variation, detailing the social norms, customs, and values of vastly different societies. It is not a stretch to say that Benedict relativized Western cultural norms.
The Boasian anthropologists were not without their faults. Later scholars would go on to significantly critique this generation of anthropological researchers, while building upon their groundbreaking work. Despite its anti-essentialist intent, for example, Benedict’s Patterns of Culture ascribes psychological attributes to societies, homogenizing traits across a group as though intracultural variations did not exist.
King also writes about Zora Neale Hurston, the great writer and folklorist who did significant fieldwork among African Americans across the American South. A black female anthropologist in a white man’s world, Hurston died in obscurity and penniless in 1960, her work deeply undervalued if not forgotten for years following her death. Hurston’s contributions to the anthropological canon have only recently begun to be integrated into curricula across American universities. Of note: King takes his title from a deleted chapter of Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942): “I have walked in storms with a crown of clouds about my head and the zig zag lightning playing through my fingers. The gods of the upper air have uncovered their faces to my eyes.”
To be fair, the Boasian anthropologists were not without their faults. Later scholars would go on to significantly critique this generation of anthropological researchers, while building upon their groundbreaking work. Despite its anti-essentialist intent, for example, Benedict’s Patterns of Culture ascribes psychological attributes to societies, homogenizing traits across a group as though intracultural variations did not exist. Moreover, Mead and colleagues worked on behalf of the federal government during and after World War II to produce national character studies, which identified peoples and nations with defining cultural characteristics. Controversies within the field continue to exist around their purported role in aiding Cold War American imperialism. Others have praised them for their attempts to influence policy and emphasize cultural pluralism.
As King notes, the story of this circle of anthropologists is worth spending time with not because they were the first people to challenge misconceptions about race, gender, and sex. Rather, Boas and his students were unusually attuned to sensing the gap between what is real and what is said to be real. King illustrates this powerfully by interweaving the deeply personal stories of these cultural radicals throughout his narrative. This line of inquiry will resonate with readers who today are enduring a climate in which the boundary between fact and fiction is ever more blurred.
King eloquently draws connections from Boas’s time to our own, underscoring the racialized discourse that characterizes current debates on immigration, race, and nationalism. Gods of the Upper Air masterfully illustrates how a group of mavericks influenced generations of scholars to come on questions of race, gender, and sex. At the same time, the undying power of debunked ideas — about race and culture, difference and hierarchy — illustrates the limitations of bare facts in challenging dominant ideologies and powerful interests.
* Boasian: of or relating to the anthropologist Franz Boas or his anthropological theories (Merriam-Webster)
Nehal Amer is a program analyst with the Corporation’s Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program.