In the Arms of Africa: The Life and Work of Colin M. Turnbull

Roy Richard Grinker, Author, R. Richard Grinker, Author
Roy Richard Grinker, Author, R. Richard Grinker, Author Palgrave MacMillan $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-312-22946-7
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
Paperback - 354 pages - 978-0-226-30904-0
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Cultural anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924-1994) earned his reputation with bestsellers like The Forest People, his classic study of African Pygmies. In this groundbreaking biography, Grinker sheds much light on Turnbull's largely hidden private life. The London-born son of a possessive Irish mother and a stern Scottish father, Turnbull rebelled against his privileged background, identifying with non-Westernized peoples whom he saw as oppressed or marginalized. After graduating from Oxford, he went to India in 1949 and lived in the ashram of his female guru, Sri Anandamayi Ma. Grinker, who holds Turnbull's former chair as anthropology professor at George Washington University, suggests that this experience later inspired Turnbull consciously to try to join the people he studied. On the more intimate side, Grinker also chronicles Turnbull's 30-year love with Joseph Towles, a young African-American actor with whom he lived openly as a gay, interracial couple in a conservative rural Virginia town. Though Turnbull idealized the relationship, Grinker reveals that it was marked by violent fights, plus Towles's abuse of drugs and alcohol; he also portrays Turnbull as a domineering partner who pushed Towles into an anthropology career. Among the other little-known facets of Turnbull's life and work that Grinker illuminates in this fair-minded, superb biography is his advocacy on behalf of death row inmates. Yet Grinker does little to enhance Turnbull's stature as an anthropologist; he contends that Turnbull, who greatly exaggerated the amount of time he spent living among the Pygmies, often simplistically used noble ""primitive"" societies merely as a foil to condemn Western civilization. Photos. (Aug.)
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