Welcome to the publication, “Representations.” This is a project designed to bring the perspectives of a wider variety of groups to the forefront of the anthropology classroom. To celebrate Black History Month, we are covering the accomplishments of 28 Black anthropologists across 28 days. Learn more about our project; read on for the amazing accomplishments of St. Clair Drake.
St. Clair Drake interrogated and transformed the ways that anthropologists establish “knowledge” throughout his esteemed career in anthropology. Drake left his mark on political and social activism in both the United States and West Africa while encouraging other social scientists to do the same. He was a prolific writer whose works push the boundaries between anthropology and social thought while offering essential new perspectives on historical evidence and story-telling.
Drake was a vindicationist scholar; vindicationism is the study, critique, and deconstruction of racist ideas and behaviors (Drake 1990). This approach toward cultural research questions and re-examines the mainstream narratives that establish and perpetuate dangerous hierarchies of race, gender, and beyond. In Drake’s view, good scholarship inevitably leads to transformative social action (Baber 1999). In other words, the scholar cannot uncover unequal social systems without also taking practical action to address inequality and injustice. Through his meaningful research, publications, and mentorship, Drake had a profound influence on the field of anthropology and upon future generations of anti-racist scholars and activists
Modern anthropologists and students of anthropology are encouraged to move away from the colonial tradition of “speaking for the other.” When we study a community to which we do not belong, the danger of oversimplifying or misrepresenting the lived experiences of our informants persists. Postmodern anthropologists like St. Clair Drake overcome the power imbalance between anthropologist and informant by putting an emphasis on the informant’s own expertise and perspective. Drake focused on amplifying the voices of historically marginalized communities as Willie L Baber wrote in his memory, “An approximation of total knowledge is impossible if data derived from the experiences of any known group are unavailable.” In other words, the social sciences cannot ever claim to possess an empirical, holistic understanding of the human experience as long as the voices of historically marginalized groups are not brought to the forefront of the conversation in their own terms. In the preface of his work, “Black Folk Here and There volume 2,” Drake embraces the importance of his own perspective when he writes that he, “consciously and deliberately makes whatever sacrifice of academic ‘objectivity’ is needed to present this subject from a black perspective” (Drake 1990). As anthropologists are humans studying humanity, today’s cultural anthropologists and students of anthropology are encouraged to recognize, admit, address, and incorporate their own perspectives in their publications in this same manner.
St. Clair Drake’s “Black Folk Here and There” is a 2 part book that examines the construction of blackness symbolically, religiously, and historically across cultures and across time. The work offers an exhaustive interrogation of prejudicial notions that are — largely — defined, established, and maintained by academia. Drake’s cross-cultural and historical examination of racism established the groundwork for modern scholars and activists — across all disciplines — to engage in meaningful critical analysis of race and racism today.
Drake conducted field research across the world. In the 1930s and 1940s, Drake collected data and interviews within Black neighborhoods in Chicago (Baber 1990) and published “Black Metropolis.” By extensively examining mixed-race identities, access to political or professional positions, and access to cultural areas of entertainment, Drake’s work offered a clear picture of racism and segregation of the time (Bonilla-Silva and Baiocchi 2008).
Drake, and his co-author Cayton, made the profound observation that physically integrated communities still remained socially segregated as opportunity and privilege were made available differently to each racial group (Berry 2008).
As was true through his career, Drake prioritized the pursuit of diverse knowledge over academic tradition by embracing the then-controversial ideas of Marxism and black nationalism in his publication (Baber 1990). Throughout Drake’s career, he faced pushback from academics who refused admit the importance of what we now call “native anthropology” (Bolles 2001) and yet — in spite of resistance — he persisted in trailblazing a new approach to anthropological research.
St. Clair Drake also dedicated much of his life to the independence and Pan-African movements across the African continent and diaspora. As an early scholar to establish his scope of research as the African Diaspora, Drake wrote that his research, “involves the concept of a ‘homeland’ and various situations outside of it into which individuals have migrated and where persisting ‘diaspora communities’ survive” (Drake 1997 from McClaurin 2001).
Drake conducted research on the colonial struggle in Liberia in 1954. From 1958–1961, Drake served as the head of Sociology at the University of Ghana (Baber 1990) and he spent many years in that country working with the founding government of post-colonial Ghana.
Baber, Willie L. “St. Clair Drake: Scholar and Activist.” African-American Pioneers in Anthropology, by Faye Venetia Harrison and Ira E. Harrison, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 191–212.
Baiocchi, Gianpaolo. “Anything But Racism: How Sociologists Limit the Significance of Racism.” White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, pp. 137–151.
Berry, Brent. “Indices of Racial Residential Segregation.” White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, pp. 203–215.
Drake, St. Clair. Black Folk Here and There: an Essay in History and Anthropology. Center for Afro-American Studies, Univ. of California, 1990.
McClaurin, Irma. “Theorizing A Black Feminist Self.” Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics, edited by Irma McClaurin, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2001, pp. 49–76.
Weiss, Margot. Society for the Anthropology of North America, www.sananet.org/travel-grants/who-was-st-clair-drake/.
Photo courtesy of African American Registry.