When Green Equaled Racist

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Ruth Benedict was a visionary American anthropologist and poet whose theories had a profound influence on cultural anthropology in the area of culture and personality. A student of Franz Boaz, her mark on anthropology was rooted in a strong humanistic background that she employed to thwart racism. Her first book was Patterns of Culture (1934); she demonstrates in her research of distant culutures “how small a portion of the possible range of human behavior is incorporated into any one culture; she argues that it is the ‘personality,’ the particular complex of traits and attitudes, of a culture that defines the individuals within it as successes, misfits, or outcasts.” With the publication of Race: Science and Politics (1940) she refuted racist theory proving that the human race is one race.

In 1947 Ruth Benedict and her colleague in the Columbia University anthropology department, Gene Weltfish’s In Henry’s Backyard: The Races of Mankind was published to mixed reviews. It was a collaboration with the legendary animation studio UPA, famous for its Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo cartoons, which had done a brilliant cartoon titled The Brotherhood of Man.

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The Races of Mankind, which she wrote with Gene Weltfish, was a small pamphlet that sold millions of copies, was translated into the UPA cartoon, and wrote Margaret Mead in Benedict’s 1948 obituary “has proved perhaps the most important single translation into genuine popular education of the many years of careful research on race differences to which anthropologists have made a major contribution.” Based on the drawings from animated cartoon, Dr. Weltfish and Violet Edwards under Dr. Benedict’s direction, created a document that argued against the power of the “green devils,” racists by any other name.

The New York Times Book Review criticized the art but also the premise of racial equality: “until much more is known about human genetics it will hardly be possible to lay down the law on heredity vs. environment in measuring racial capability.” Read more in this insightful essay from Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel.

The book is part of a genre, that includes Robert Osborn‘s War Is No Damn Good, which seeks to simplify complex ideas without reducing them to pablum. In a way, these are the precursors of today’s data visualizations and information graphics.

Below are excerpted spreads from Henry’s Backyard where Henry awakens into the grip of racism until his epiphany . . .

“Oh,” said Henry, “I’m beginning to get it . . . we’re not born haters. Our Green Devils of prejudice and fear grow inside us . . . because we are worried and afraid.”

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →