In a time where history books are being re-written to downplay the events and impact of the transatlantic slave trade and the African diaspora, there’s a group whose mission includes literally getting their hands dirty to tell our stories. With anthropologic and archeological programs and teams being dominated by mostly Caucasian men, it is no surprise that at one of the top conferences the number of people of color in attendance could be counted on both hands as observed by Dr. Ayana A. Flewellen. An observation that led to co-founding the Society of Black Archeologists (SBA) along with Dr. Justin Dunnavant in 2011.
SBA is a community for archeologists and those on the journey towards the profession who are currently in graduate and undergraduate school to collaborate for their research and share resources for success and representation in their field. One of their missions is to bring in more Black people into the field of archeology with a focus on doing the work on our history as well as cultured stewardship.
“Our work can push forward social justice movements and talk about black experiences from a variety of angles that don’t stop you from being otherized or feeling tokenized and having your knowledge and work demeaned,” states Flewellen when discussing her experiences at conferences, and in her departments. Due to those experiences, she strategically surrounded herself with black scholars, achieving a BA in Anthropology, while minoring in African studies the bulk of theoretical background comes from black studies scholarship. She continued on the track to have a black studies and feminist foundation and went on to receive her Masters focusing on the African diaspora then ultimately receiving her Ph.D. in Archeology.
Equipping herself with theoretical paradigms that talk about black experiences led her to want to seek out those that came before her and made her work possible for black women to do. Dr. Flewellen and Dr. Dunnavant’s oral history project entitled “Unearthing the History and Experiences of Blacks in Archaeology” is a series of interviews where black archeologist tell their stories of their work and how they make the field work for their personal lives and activist driven pursuits. “The project bears witness to our ancestors in this field, how we are treated and the techniques they use to conduct their research.” Of the interviews, Flewellen marks them all as influential and profound in their own way, naming Dr. Alexandra Jones who runs a nonprofit called Archeology in the Community in the DC area, as well as Dr. Peggy Brunash, and Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptiste as peers whose voices are encouraging and strengthens her resolve.
“I think it’s important for black people to see that our heritage is the ground of every place that we go,” says Dr. Flewellen, whose studies and research has led her to excavations on the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville Florida, to Tanzania looking at iron age foraging to most recently St. Croix where Flewellen and Dunnavant along with peers they connect with through SBA, are researching a 17th century Danish sugar plantation, Estate Little Princess. The project which is currently being undertaken by five black archeologists from different institutions is also a part of an effort by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and George Washington University to train black terrestrial archeologists to do maritime heritage work on African diasporic sites particularly those who that pertain to the transatlantic slave trade which is opening up opportunities to expand their research to other countries such as Costa Rica. “The majority of what we learn if we learn anything at all is post transatlantic slave trade. There is a wide depth of knowledge prior to that which has yet to be tapped into,” says Flewellen.
The founding of SBA reminds of Flewellen of the necessity of centering blackness in her scholarship as well as in her personal and professional life while focusing on the upliftment of black people and black historical experiences. Flewellen recounts the first-ever SBA meeting comprised of about ten people which are now held annually at the Society for Historical Archeology. Being amongst peers who were voicing their experiences out loud reinforced the purpose and need for an organization where black archeologists knew they weren’t alone. Their listserve sends members announcements about grants and jobs. Their community allows them to write grants with each other, publish articles together, give feedback on each other’s work including curriculum and syllabi. SBA is in the process of becoming a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization who will seek funding to do their own research and fund students of color to attend field school programs around the world as well as travel grants to attend conferences.
The road to success in academia can be lonely and requires sacrifice in all areas both personally and professionally. SBA allows for a focus on community and centering of black people helping other black people achieve black excellence. Which shows in the other archeologists Flewellen and Dunnavant surrounded themselves with on for the project in St. Croix. They don’t have to do it alone because they had a community to reach out to who could bring their expertise to the project, “having that ensures our survival,” says Flewellen. The first woman to receive their Ph.D. in Archeology was in 1989. The pool of Black archeologists is small but growing due to their efforts to support others in their field to persevere.
Found out more at www.societyofblackarchaeologists.com