Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
In the ’80s, anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker went to Zaire to study the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri forest. Grinker often attended gatherings at which his hosts would sing traditional songs. At one point, they asked him to share the songs of his culture. So Grinker, an experienced musician, whipped out a Casio electronic keyboard, scribbled quick translations of American pop lyrics into the Pygmies’ language, and performed them. And as a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, he was pleased to discover that the Efes’ favorite tune was the Boss’ “Fire.” “I think it was the beat,” he says.
Now 38 years old, Grinker has already had an interesting life. He spurned psychotherapy—the “family business” for three generations—to become an anthropologist, studying not only the Efe but relations between North and South Koreans as an associate professor at George Washington University. But Grinker’s life isn’t as interesting as that of the man whose biography he recently authored: Colin Turnbull.
Turnbull—as outlined in In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull (St. Martin’s Press)—was born in Britain, served as a World War II minesweeper, studied at ashrams in India, and wrote lovingly about the Pygmies of Africa, who he thought had been unfairly maligned by the West. He published several influential books on anthropology. Some were revered, such as The Forest People, Turnbull’s defense of the BaMbuti Pygmies and his best-known work. Others were reviled: In The Mountain People, Turnbull wrote that the Ik people of Uganda were so depraved that they should be scattered far and wide in order to ensure the death of their culture.
Most strikingly, Turnbull lived openly with his lover of 30 years, Joseph Towles, an African-American of impoverished origin whom Turnbull pushed into an anthropology career. In rural Virginia, where they lived together for years, the two cut an unusual profile. Although the two men had a sometimes stormy relationship—Towles suffered from alcoholism and other problems that Turnbull probably exacerbated by driving him hard in a career he may not have been best suited for—their relationship was notable for its tenacity, up to the day in 1988 that Towles died of AIDS, the same disease that would fell Turnbull six years later.
“From the first months of their relationship, in 1959, Turnbull brought Towles to departmental receptions” at the American Museum of Natural History, Grinker says. “This was a decade before Stonewall. He didn’t care. It was very brave.”
When Grinker, who is straight, showed the first draft of his book to gay friends, they urged him to make the book more passionate and less “clinical” about the relationship between Turnbull and Towles. He did. Fortunately, Turnbull had documented his and Towles’ lives with the energy of a committed pack rat. Grinker found not only reams of professional documents, but also more mundane evidence of their shared life, from Veterans Day cards to scraps of paper that noted when one or the other was heading out to the grocery store. The files even contain “piles of empty chocolate boxes—you know, the kind shaped like big red hearts,” Grinker says. “They’re empty, and some of the wrappers are still in them. Obviously, they meant something important to them.”
Grinker—who holds the same GWU chair Turnbull once filled—says that his thinking about Turnbull has ebbed and flowed over the years. In college, Grinker was moved by Turnbull’s passionate writings about the Efe. After becoming a professional anthropologist, Grinker went so far as to spurn Turnbull when he received an unsolicited letter from him. At the time, Grinker considered Turnbull a less-than-rigorous scientist. But Grinker decided to write the biography not long after he realized that Turnbull, despite publishing sometimes controversial conclusions, had influenced and inspired generations of anthropologists.
“When I was starting the book, I respected his bravery and courage and ability to do what he thought was right, but there were times when I thought he was hurting Joe, and [times] when he was a paternalistic snob,” Grinker says. “Now I see him as a more complex, real character. This will have been a successful biography if readers come away not knowing whether to love him or to hate him.” #151;Louis Jacobson