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In this scrupulously researched biography, Roy Richard Grinker charts the rise and fall of this colorful and controversial man—from his Scottish family and British education to travels in Africa and his great love affair with Joe Towles. Grinker, noted for his own work on the Pygmies, herein gives readers a fascinating account of Turnbull's life and work.
Originally published by St. Martin's Press
On most mornings in 1957, the Scottish anthropologist Colin Macmillan Turnbull would wake up in his hut next to his young Mbuti assistant, Kenge, their legs and arms intertwined in the way that Mbuti men like to sleep with each other to stay warm. At four foot eight, Kenge was more than a foot and a half shorter than Colin, so Colin could hold him easily with his long legs, arms, and wide hands, keeping them both warm in the damp forest nights.
By daybreak in the Ituri forest of central Africa the temperature often falls below sixty-five degrees, but it feels colder because dew drips incessantly from the forest canopy. Even if you are lucky enough to have a blanket, as Colin and Kenge did, the wool feels heavy and wet. The camp quickly comes alive with the pungent odor of small campfires and the sounds of children singing to welcome the new day. Light enters gently into the small hemispherical huts, made out of thin trees and thatched with mongongo leaves, overlapped like tiles. Kenge would emerge first to rekindle the campfire logs, with any luck still smoldering from the night before, for the Mbuti Pygmies do not know how to make fire.
In the afternoons, as thunder rumbled in the distance, Colin and Kenge would rush to the river to bathe. The skies in the Ituri open up, usually within an hour before sunset, releasing a hard and fast rain. When it stops, a few minutes later, the air feels cool and fresh, and black and white magpies and other birds can be seen flying out of their nests to wade in the new streams of rainwater. By nightfall, Colin and Kenge had begun to warm themselvesby the fire, perhaps eating the smoked meat of a small antelope or water chevrotain, or cassava leaves cooked in palm oil.
Colin spent most of his time with Kenge, who was unusually free to work for him. Kenge had only one blood relative in the area, a half sister, and so he was far less constrained by family obligations than others; because he was an outsider, he had license to be sexually playful with a wide range of people, and he used that freedom in excess. There were also few other Pygmy men willing to be so familiar with a European. Colin relished the nights they spent together, Kenge's sweet body odor, so distinctive to Pygmy men, and the hardness and compactness of Kenge's body, since Mbuti men have virtually no body fat. He would always remember the feeling of Kenge's callused feet rubbing against the soft skin on his legs and feet, protected from the elements by long pants, socks and shoes. Had Kenge commented on Colin, he would likely have talked about the ever-present smell of soap that the Mbuti associate with European bodies, the stark whiteness of his skin, and the enormity of Colin's body as he lowered over him during the day, and enveloped and insulated him in the night.
Colin learned quickly that Mbuti men enjoy holding hands and embracing each other at night. The Mbuti have no concept, no word, for sexuality or homosexuality, so physical affection between men does not denote a sexual identity and carries no stigma. Mbuti men can therefore freely express their love for each other. When Colin touched Kenge, he was loving him and making love to him. For Colin also believed that one could make love without sex. One could make love with the rain forest, with music, and with other spiritual phenomena. The Pygmies knew this. They even used the same word for dancing that they used for sexual intercourse. For both Kenge and Colin, love was much more about spiritual ecstasy than about orgasm, more about beholding a universe in the reciprocal gaze and embrace of two men than about mere physical pleasure.
To Colin, Kenge represented the sensuality of the rain forest, and in his 1961 best-selling book, The Forest People, he wrote about one evening in particular, when the Pygmies with whom he lived were rejoicing in the forest. Alone in his hut, Colin tried to fall asleep, but the moon was full and shone through. Outside the hut, he heard the Mbuti Pygmies dancing. It was late at night but eventually he felt compelled to get out of his bed, a small black rubber pad and a gray blanket. Anthropologists are, at least at the beginning of their fieldwork, like dogs in a family fight, responding to every stimulus, moving rapidly here and there, but seldom knowing what is really happening around them. They imagine themselves to be human tape recorders, regretting every missed observation or interview for fear it may have contained a revelation. So Colin fought against his fatigue, wrapped the blanket around his back and crawled through the entrance of the hut to watch the festivities. And as he stood up outside the hut, he noticed Kenge.
"There in the tiny clearing," he wrote, "splashed with silver, was the sophisticated Kenge, clad in bark cloth, adorned with leaves, with a flower stuck in his hair. He was all alone, dancing around and singing softly to himself as he gazed up at the treetops.
"Now Kenge was the biggest flirt for miles, so, after watching a while, I came into the clearing and asked, jokingly, why he was dancing alone. He stopped, turned slowly around and looked at me as though I was the biggest fool he had ever seen; and he was plainly surprised by my stupidity.
"'But I'm not dancing alone,' he said. I'm dancing with the forest, dancing with the moon.' Then, with the utmost unconcern, he ignored me and continued his dance of love and life."
Turnbull dedicated The Forest People to Kenge, for whom, he wrote, the forest was many things, including his lover. Through Kenge, Colin realized a total and consuming passion for both the forest and the Pygmies who lived there, and he would remember the night of that dance as a revelation. For it was on that night, amidst the music and the effervescence, in a momentary vision and a brief conversation, that he became convinced of the human capacity for love and for goodness, which he believed was embodied in the Pygmies. His life and his anthropology were pilgrimages to a beautiful dream world that, in the African rain forest, was inexplicably real. His greatest challenge was to find that same humanity, that same dream, outside the rain forest.
Turnbull looked for it everywhere, and thought he found it in Joseph A. Towles, a young African American man the same age as Kenge, whom he met in New York City two years after he left the Pygmies, in 1959. When Turnbull first laid eyes on him, he thought to himself, "I am back in Africa. " Turnbull was thirty-four years old and he would live with Joseph for the next thirty years. In 1959, Towles was an aspiring actor and model but he would soon become an anthropologist. While the Pygmies could be romanticized in writing in words that Colin shaped to fit his own vision) Towles, however, was not so easily fixed.
With the evocative and magical words of The Forest People, Colin Turnbull conjured an image of the Pygmies and their world that seized the public imagination and brought him both fame and wealth. Next to Margaret Mead and Louis Leakey, he is perhaps the most well known anthropologist of the twentieth century. A gifted and persuasive writer, Turnbull used the power of his words and personality to project onto the Pygmies a reflection of his own ideals, altering forever the way that most European and American readers would see the African rain forest and its peoples. Though many anthropologists have disdained the romance and idealism of The Forest Peoples failed science, almost every anthropologist who has ever written about hunter-gatherers anywhere in the world has made use of his work, and what we know about the Pygmies today is derived almost entirely from his work. Many professional anthropologists trace their career decisions to a single reading of The Forest People, and the book remains required reading in many high schools and colleges.
If The Forest People made his reputation, Turnbull's next major publication, The Mountain People (1973) made him controversial. His book told the story of the starving Ik of Uganda, a people on the brink of extinction whose depravity he described in stark detail. In The Forest People, he had thanked the Indian guru, Sri Anandamayi Ma, with whom he lived just before he left for central Africa, for giving him his mantra, Satyam, sivam, sundarm (truth, goodness, beauty), and for convincing him that those qualities could be found if he looked hard enough; they were the same qualities he had found among the Pygmies and that he believed the Ik had cast aside. If, for Turnbull, the Pygmies showed us the "noble savage" we once were, the Ik, dislocated from their villages to a drought-stricken wasteland, showed us what we might one day become. He portrayed the Ik as a materially and morally impoverished collection of selfish individuals, a people who had abandoned the values of family, love, and altruism for a cutthroat individualism matched only by what he had seen in World War II while serving as a gunnery officer. He watched with horror as Ik men and women attacked each other, even within their own families, to induce vomiting and then eat the vomit; people defecated on each other's doorsteps; expressed joy at the tragedies of others; and having abandoned any effort to cooperate or share, the stronger left the weaker, usually children and the elderly, to die of starvation. "That is the point," he wrote in The Mountain People, "at which there is an end to truth, to goodness, and to beauty . . . The Ik have relinquished all luxury in the name of individual survival, and the result is that they live on as a people without life, without passion, beyond humanity."
He proposed to the Ugandan government that the Ik society should be eliminated, that individuals should be rounded up and dispersed over an area wide enough to make sure they never found each other again. The Ugandan government and the anthropological community were outraged. Angered by Turnbull's proposal and what was called a complete lack of objectivity, Fredrik Barth, the anthropologist who led the international attack against him, wrote that The Mountain People "deserves both to be sanctioned and to be held up as a warning to us all," that the book was "dishonest," "grossly irresponsible and harmful," threatening to the "hygiene" of the discipline. Turnbull, who had never shared science's devotion to objectivity and had never thought of himself as a conventional scholar, was unmoved.
His life was marked by a heroic piety to such lofty concepts as goodness, perfection, and love-words many people might find sentimental or vague, but which Colin Turnbull elevated to the sacred. For this reason, he decided to write more about experiences and feelings than about scientific facts. He wanted to show the world the goodness he had found among the Pygmies and the evils he had found among the Ik. The truth of the Zairean rain forest or the tragedy of the Ugandan mountains could not be conveyed in an academic publication to be read by a few hundred scholars. It had to reach millions of people and to come from the heart, not through science but through the emotional and spiritual paths for which his anthropology was an ongoing quest.
Despite his popularity, much about Colin Turnbull has remained a mystery, especially the relationship between his own, often tragic life, and the kinds of work he produced. Few people know that he devoted most of his adult life to one partner, with whom he lived openly as a gay, interracial couple in one of the smallest and most conservative rural towns in Virginia, or that despite Turnbull's refined public demeanor and even temper, his relationship with Towles was often cruel and violent. Few know that, in India, Turnbull was one of only a few Europeans ever permitted to live in the ashram of an Indian saint, Sri Anandamayi Ma, that he was fully ordained as a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama, that he helped build one of the most famous boats of the twentieth Century, The African Queen, that he rejected university tenure (lifetime job security) when it was granted to him, or that he had a major influence on anti-death penalty advocacy. Even fewer know of Turnbull's bizarre reaction to Towles's death from AIDS in 1988.
This is a book about Colin Turnbull's public and private lives, and because it is an intimate study it explores some dimensions of experience that biographical subjects or their estates sometimes want to keep confidential. But Turnbull wanted to disclose the full details of his life with Towles, if only because he wanted Towles's life to be widely known. Turnbull believed that Towles was an African American hero, a gay hero, who could model for a younger generation the capacity to overcome oppression. To that end, Turnbull arranged all of his and Joe's papers for Joe Towles's future biographer, and wrote a rambling, unedited, one-thousand-page manuscript he called "Lover and Beloved." Ostensibly a history of his relationship with Towles, it is primarily a transcription of Joe's diaries and a record of Joe's efforts to become a professional anthropologist.
Colin Turnbull donated his private collection of hundreds of African artifacts, ten thousand slides and photographs, tape recordings, videos, and all his field notes to the Avery Center for Research on African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, South Carolina. He called it the "Joseph A. Towles Collection." Turnbull also gave the Avery the hundreds of greeting cards he and Towles exchanged on holidays over the years, even empty boxes of Valentine's candy. He made sure that if anyone went to the Avery to look through the collections, that person would also find the name of Joseph A. Towles. And any future biographer would have access to everything, from insurance forms and tax returns to sexually playful notes written on scrap paper. The collection had another purpose, to make sure that no one could learn about Turnbull without also learning about Towles, that the life of Colin Turnbull would be visible as a transparency lit only by Joe.
The archive shows Turnbull's extraordinary commitment to Towles. Shortly after they met in 1959, they took wedding vows and considered themselves to be married as husband and wife. Colin called Joe "Josephine" and his love for his wife became a sacred object of worship and devotion. Thirty-five years later, he would pray daily to a shrine consisting of Buddhist and Hindu relics and three photographs, one of his former guru, Sri Anandamayi Ma, who Colin believed was an embodiment of God, the other two of Joe.
The archive and the history Turnbull wrote of his relationship with Towles are both expressions of the way in which Colin sought to merge his life with Joe's. Each took on parts of the other. Towles played out Turnbull's rage and recklessness so that Turnbull appeared to the world as a modest, unassuming and even-tempered man. Towles even fully realized Turnbull's deep-seated wish to be imprisoned, a wish that can be traced to Turnbull's early childhood. On the other side, Towles's imperfections satisfied Turnbull's need to fashion someone born without privilege, wealth or pedigree, and in showing Towles's worth, to prove, by comparison, his sense of his own mediocrity. Turnbull adapted to Towles's own sense of worthlessness-indeed, the very worst of his idea of his blackness-by becoming a stable father figure, one who could give Towles unconditional approval. Turnbull spent much of his life attempting to shape Towles into a world-class scholar. He became convinced that he could single-handedly bring to life the brilliance of Towles's undiscovered and unpolished mind.
Colin Turnbull struggled to create Joseph Towles, but he did so without the arrogance and whimsy of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins, and he remained largely oblivious to the reasons behind his actions. He was perhaps more like the original Pygmalion, the ancient King of Cyprus, the noble bachelor and sculptor who crafted and fell in love with an ivory statue of a maiden so beautiful she looked as if she must be a work of nature. The tragedy of Towles was that he tried to comply with Turnbull's need to create him. Turnbull helped make Towles an unsuccessful professor who would never publish or find continuous academic employment and who would continually threaten his ideals with affairs and alcoholism, and later with the psychiatric complications that accompany AIDS. His hope for Joe was a heavy burden for both of them, a burden that no intellectual vigor could lay down.
Both Joseph Towles and the Pygmies were the creations of Colin Turnbull, who was motivated by a deep-seated wish to find goodness, beauty, and power in the oppressed or ridiculed and, by making those qualities known, reveal the evils of western civilization. The vision of the world he summoned was so perfect, so true, so right for him, that it gave all the appearances of being real.