Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Graduate School Experiences: Studying African Cultures

BOND: So you graduated from college and then go on to get a master's and begin, I guess field work, your first fieldwork and what's that?

COLE: Well, I'm sent by [George Eaton] Simpson to [Melville J.] Herskovits and Northwestern --

BOND: Oberlin to Northwestern, Simpson to Herskovits -- ?

COLE: To Herskovits, and my doctoral dissertation is based on work done in Liberia. My master's, however, was on a church on the south side of Chicago at a time when anthropologists weren't encouraged to do what we now call native anthropology, that is, studying among one's own people. Because the assumption in the discipline was that it would be impossible to be objective, studying one's own folk. And the great advantage of anthropology, so it was thought, was that one from a particular culture went to understand the world through another culture. Well, here I was insisting on the right to study my own people.

BOND: And what kind of resistance did you --

COLE: Terrible resistance from himself --

BOND: Oh really, from Herskovits himself?

COLE: From Melville J. Herskovits, who after all had pioneered in the study of African-American cultures in the United States and in the so-called New World. And as you may remember that 1941 publication, Beacon Press, The Myth of the Negro Past had documented the very -- the very fundamental notion that Simpson had illustrated in that first class. That black folk had come into the New World carting culture, carrying life-ways: dance, music, political institutions, religious beliefs from Africa. Not only that, Herskovits had clearly documented the -- particularly in the religious life of black folk in Haiti, in Jamaica, yes, in the United States -- we were continuing to express Aficanisms. So why won't the man let me do it? Why can't I go?

BOND: Hypocrisy here, that it's okay for him to do it and not for you?

COLE: Clearly, clearly. But how do you confront your major professor? So the time is running out. I still can't get permission from Herskovits to study Greater Harvest Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago -- Reverend [Louis] Boddie's church. Finally time has really run out and so I've been encouraged by my schoolmates, "Just confront the man." So I go into his office -- now, I'm five feet-eight, Herskovits was five-two maybe, on his tippy toes, and I quickly get my seat, and get in the, you know, position that all graduate students should get into. And I just finally said, "Professor Herskovits, I cannot leave your office until you give me permission to do this study." And he finally said, "Miss Betsch, I think I will give you permission, and I will direct this thesis. But you must know that I have a fear that if you do this study, Reverend Boddie will gain a parishioner and I will lose a graduate student."

BOND: Oh boy.

COLE: Anyway, I got his permission and I did this study. It's not a work I'm particularly proud of, it is so Herskovitsian. I mean it just drips with, of course, imitative passages from Herskovits' theories. But on the other hand it was an important lesson, not only that I had to stand up for my own way of engaging in intellectual work. But it was an important -- it was an important demonstration to me of some things that I continue to admire about African-American culture because I saw in that church not just what I went to look at, namely the possession complex and the way in which people got happy and the prominence of water and all of those Africanisms. I saw Reverend Boddie creating a parallel system of institutions to provide for black folk. Because when people got sick in that neighborhood, the ambulance didn't come very quickly, so Reverend Boddie bought an ambulance. And when folk lost their jobs and couldn't get work and couldn't get on welfare, Reverend Boddie had a way of providing, and so I never wrote a great deal about that, but I've thought over the years about that again as one of those things that was a by-product of segregation and of racism that we might do well to think about again.