Charles King Highlights Renegade Anthropologists In ‘Gods Of The Upper Air’
Many people can look back at their upbringing and recall encountering ideas about race and racism. But outside of a classroom setting, people aren’t necessarily thinking about how history shaped those ideas.
“Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century,” tells the stories of anthropologists with revolutionary ideas roughly a century ago. Their work demonstrated how categories such as race or gender didn’t determine talent or intellect, which challenged policy and everyday life in the United States.
Author Charles King, a Georgetown University professor, details the careers of several anthropologists studying how society and environments shape humans rather than categories such as race or sex. King is a recipient of one of Cleveland's 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which honor writers who address racism and diversity.
“A century ago, if you read virtually any book on world history or you took a course in anthropology at the major universities in the United States, you would be told that humans naturally come in a set number of racial categories, races, that some of those races are more fit to lead than others, some are world conquering, others are backward,” King said. “And onto the scene comes Franz Boas, who says that, in fact, human science shows exactly the opposite thing, that we can develop a scientific understanding of human unity that sees those categories as the product of history and culture, not the product of your innards. And that revolutionizes the social sciences.”
Franz Boas, a Columbia University professor, went on to foster a generation of anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Zora Neale Hurston. These women pioneers in the field authored widely read books and dedicated their careers to furthering “that there are no natural divisions beyond the ones that a given society at a given time creates,” King said.
The title of the book, “Gods of the Upper Air,” derives from a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road,” for which Hurston won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1943.
“She’s saying, you know, ‘I don't know that anything in life is true for the world. I haven't discovered any universal truth, but I've discovered a lot of truths for me, for the people I've come across. And I've had these experiences where I've gazed down on human beings from the heights, from the perspective of the gods of the upper air,’” King said.
The interview with Charles King is part of a series featuring the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners.