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Gods of the Upper Air

How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

By Charles King
15-minute read
Audio available
Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century by Charles King

Gods of the Upper Air (2019) details the story of how Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and other researchers challenged pseudoscientific theories upholding racism and established the modern discipline of cultural anthropology. Tracing the travels, romances and ideas that bound this group together, these blinks recount what became a seismic shift in notions of race, sex and gender identity.

  • Students of anthropology, sociology and gender studies
  • Zora Neale Hurston fans
  • Americans interested in racial history

Charles King is a writer and professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. His seven books include Midnight at the Pera Palace and the National Jewish Book Award winner Odessa. King’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Foreign Affairs.

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Gods of the Upper Air

How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

By Charles King
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century by Charles King
Synopsis

Gods of the Upper Air (2019) details the story of how Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and other researchers challenged pseudoscientific theories upholding racism and established the modern discipline of cultural anthropology. Tracing the travels, romances and ideas that bound this group together, these blinks recount what became a seismic shift in notions of race, sex and gender identity.

Key idea 1 of 9

In the Jim Crow era, society’s deepest prejudices informed policies grounded in pseudoscientific beliefs.

Are you familiar with the American national anthem? If you think about it, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” only began to ring true after the dissolution of slavery. Indeed, Americans in the post-Reconstruction era took pride in being a society that afforded equality to all people.

Yet the reality of US governance told a different story.

From the 1880s until the 1960s, the United States introduced a system of racial disenfranchisement through new segregation laws that came to be called Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws segregated schools, hospitals and other public buildings. They also mandated that people of different races weren’t allowed to be buried beside one another and created racially segregated cities by determining where you were or weren’t allowed to buy property.

And it wasn’t just African Americans that the state was hostile toward. At the turn of the century, Jews, Italians, Poles, Slovaks and other immigrant communities were increasingly seen as tainting the American population. In order to slow the influx of these immigrant populations, in 1924, U.S. Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which, among other regulations, set quotes on how many people from specific nations could immigrate to the United States.

Just like the attitude of white European colonizers administering local natives in Africa, Jim Crow laws and new immigration regulations reflected the general sentiment that Anglo-Saxons were a biologically superior race. However, for some, this assumption called for even further scientific justifications. In the late nineteenth century, the fervent interest in race gave rise to a new social science called anthropology, envisioned as the study of human beings.

Early anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan claimed that global societies fell into a hierarchy of evolutionary development. Morgan and others argued that society progressed from savagery to barbarism and, finally, to civilization. Among other things, this affirmed that the so-called “civilized” society of the United States was superior to the so-called “savage” tribes of Sioux Native Americans that had recently lost their rights as a sovereign state.

Yet while early anthropologists affirmed the pseudoscientific beliefs of white supremacy, the new field also led to another type of research – one that saw all humans as inherently equal. It all started with a German immigrant named Franz Boas.

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