Lots going on in the United States at the moment as our legislators debate the behavior of the President. Emotions run high, names are called, slurs are common, all decorum seems to have disappeared in places, such as the Congress, where it is most needed. I took a break these past few days and immersed myself in the book pictured above, Gods of the Upper Air. I saw this book at the library and thankfully didn’t mistake the title for a discussion of higher deities. The title repeats a quote by Zora Neale Hurston, but it doesn’t help a reader understand the purpose of the book. For that one must read the bottom description: “How a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex and gender in the twentieth century.”
Despite the hype of the subtitle, the book does an excellent job of presenting a group of anthropologists, including Franz Boaz, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and Zora Neale Hurston. The early part of the American twentieth century was flooded with “scientific” proof of the superiority of Northern European people over the rest of the “races” of people. The concept of race was touted as eternal, supported by such various measures as head size, height and the newly invented I.Q. test. Social eugenics promoted sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and Margaret Sanger promoted birth control for immigrants from Southern Europe.
The anthropologists mentioned refuted all this with field studies of their own. They asserted the value of many cultures and spoke of the “mind blindness” of many American scientists who could only see hierarchy between cultures rather than the results of different people living in different places with different solutions to human problems. Living among other cultures they realized and documented that while all people attach to others and bear children, there is no agreement about such arrangements. Some valued monogamy, others didn’t. Some encouraged the artistry of men, some of women. Some had set gender ideas, some found gender more fluid.
Intellectual history at its best, Gods of the Upper Air provided me with a solid refutation of the resurgence of white nationalism now cropping up with the endorsement of one of the top White House advisors. I am grateful that there are always people willing to speak truth to power.