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Archaeologist, Black Feminist Unearths Contributions of African Diaspora, Everyday People

Whitney Battle-Baptiste. (Photo:

Every February is Black History Month, which presents many opportunities to explore and contextualize the broader, nuanced and less familiar aspects of what it means to be an American man, woman or child. This is all the more true when it comes from an African Diaspora perspective.

So, what happens when one comes to understand that race is more of a social construct and not a biological fact?From that perspective, how should one interpret and convey the black experience in America?

And what does it mean to live “an existence where the direct effects of racism are still a part of the everyday?” These are questions that stem from the larger question: what is the meaning of race? Questions that Whitney Battle-Baptiste says will be answered according to how each individual thinks about this country’s historical past.

Battle-Baptiste is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and these are just a few of the issues posed in her new book “Black Feminist Archaeology” – a book in which she holds in juxtapositions the often-dueling oppression that accompany both race and gender identity.

Battle-Baptiste says that in understanding that she is “first racialized as Black and then further marginalized as a woman,” she found herself forced to “choose between two linked identities.” And whereas white woman have never had to fight against racism in their feminist struggle, for black women “the inability to remove race … has never been an option.”

Within this framework, the lives and voices of black women have a unique ability to inform in ways which society might otherwise remain ignorant.

Archaeology is a term that is usually associated with the single-mindedness of an individual or collective scholarly quest for historical artifacts in physical form. Archaeology is, as well, Battle-Baptiste says, the study of cultural and socio-political artifacts inseparably connected to physical relics of the same age. With this in mind, she writes in her book:

There was a quick shift in historical archaeology from what was considered Plantation archaeology or African American archaeology to what we now call African Diaspora archaeology … We need to take into account that there is no one definition of an African Diaspora, no single language, no monolithic or single culture … Diaspora has always been about inclusion and exclusion simultaneously.

Most Americans know the names of historical African-American women like Coretta Scott King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Ella Fitzgerald. Yet, in moving beyond the level of celebrity and legendary fame, awareness about significant contributions to society made by black women is quickly obscured.

Battle-Baptists says, “Our voices are known and our work is unique, but I feel that many of us have not named it a black feminist archaeology,” and this creates an endless supply of unconnected dots.

How well known is this short list of African-American women?

Mary McLeod Bethune: Founder of Bethune-Cookman College, who also served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal government.

Gwendolyn Brooks: A former poet laureate of Illinois and first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950.

Fannie Lou Hamer: Began to work at age six as a sharecropper and time keeper on a cotton plantation. Hamer was such a fierce advocate of civil rights that she was beaten by police while in jail to the point of being permanently disabled. Notwithstanding, Hamer rose to become a founding member and vice president of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Augusta Savage: In 1937, became the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, and in spite of the Great Depression, had a successful career: worked with the Works Progress Administration, opened an art gallery in 1939 and won a commission for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Madam C. J. Walker: The first African-American woman to become a millionaire in the US, who used her largesse in the fight to end lynching and for women’s rights.

A more enriched view of the African Diaspora’s material culture took a dramatic turn for the better, says Battle-Baptiste, when in 1991, the African burial ground In New York – a 6.6-acre burial ground in Lower Manhattan where both free and enslaved Africans were buried from the late 1600s to the late 1700s – was rediscovered as a result of scheduled redevelopment and urban planning for a federal office building. The site – described on the General Services Administration’s web site as “the single-most important, historic urban archaeological project undertaken in the United States” – has since been memorialized as the African Burial Ground National Monument, is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, is also a US National Historic Landmark and also enjoys the status of a US national monument.

Battle-Baptiste has spent time working at The W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It, too, is a National Historic Landmark; administered by the W.E.B. Du Bois Center of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“I think archaeology is an untapped resource for the exploration of the African past,” says Battle-Baptiste, and yet for a chosen career that has only “about 10 to 15” African-American females in the field with PhDs, it would appear that the surface has barely been scratched.

In a recent Skype conversation, Battle-Baptiste further explored these topics from both a professional and personal perspective, also sharing insight on her compelling new book.

Max Eternity: You start your book off by exploring the meaning of race. What is its meaning for you as a black female scholar, author and anthropologist, and how does that weave itself into the multitude of black female experiences and voices?

Whitney Battle-Baptiste: I don’t want to say it’s by happenstance that I came to archeology, but in some ways it is. I went to a historically black college and majored in history. History is what I thought I wanted to pursue – to be a teacher and then a professor. But history did not lend itself to that underlying detail for life that I was trying to get to. It didn’t hold my attention.

So, archeology literally came because a fellowship program was offered, and the fact that there are very few black female [archaeologists] in the country with PhDs – about 10 to 15.

ME: It sounds like this was a way for you to find your own voice, while also doing meaningful work?

WBB: Our experiences have been muted within the larger pursuit of understanding the story of different people through material culture. Our voices are known and our work is unique, but I feel that many of us have not named it a black feminist archaeology.

ME: Could you share some insight on your objective criticisms of the archaeology community, as when you write in your book, “My hope is that one day archaeologists will openly discuss our personal influences, the influence of our backgrounds and experiences, and how these factors could be assets if added to a collective conversation, rather than words suspended in the isolating landscape of individual self-reflexivity.”

Should this actually become the case, how might you imagine a new archaeology in the public sphere?

WBB: What archeology would look like is what I’m trying to do right now – here at the Dubois site in Massachusetts, and another site I’m about to embark on in the Bahamas. It’s an archaeology where we as archaeologists don’t take the lead. It’s called an engaged archaeology; a community-based archaeology.

Imagine an archaeology in which you talk to people – you literally engage with a community that will be affected by the work you might do; prior to writing a grant or digging a site. That’s the archaeology that we should do – based on the community’s needs – which is how public engaged archeology is, as is feminist archaeology. But that’s still putting archeologists in a position of power, and that makes it hard to break free of our perceived notions in the field.

We have to ask “what does this mean to you all?” and that will generate continued support from the community. Instead of focusing on getting that big grant, or writing that book or getting tenure, it would be more of a chance to dialogue with people and get the ability to admit, “I never even thought of that before.”

ME: Elaborate on this, and if you might provide an example?

WBB: For me that’s kind of one of the visions that I see this archaeology engaged with, which came from the African burial ground in New York City. That was an engaged community project. From that site in the early ’90s, historically archeology changed. We had to be held accountable beyond our funding sources and our colleagues. One of my visions is to create this thing I call a living archeology, which is relevant to living people who want to hear the truth about how one approaches a site, and its research.

ME: In her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michele Alexander talks about the evolution of institutionalized anti-black discrimination – that it still exists and is terribly detrimental to the lives of African-Americans, but is in many ways unspoken and/or hidden in public discourse, especially now that we have a part African president. What about, as you say in your book, this “transition from overt racism to a new and veiled culturally-based racism?” Please illuminate this further.

WBB: I think that the cultural racism moves beyond color in a way that it allows the problem to persist. It is also class, and the denial of the existence of class in the West. The reason I say this is because cultural racism can mean that you’re not discriminating against black people, it becomes a blame game or an exercise in exclusion. At the University of Texas, affirmative action was [deemed] illegal. Professor Lino Graglia had the perspective that Africans and Latinos do not value education. He said it wasn’t based on race, but on cultural identities. It was based on people who valued education and certain people who didn’t. So, affirmative action was taken by people who didn’t deserve to be there; in culturally racist terms, not biological racist terms.

It’s [racism] touted in very masked terms, that people are no longer using Jim Crow derogatory names for us, but there are actions – and our values are [mis]interpreted in ways; that’s why we are discriminated against. This is very racist rhetoric that is now couched in cultural and class-based argument. Anthropologists state DNA race is not a biological fact, but the effects of race are very real.

ME: Racism seems to have many tentacles and continues to grow new ones.

WBB: This thing called new cultural racism is just as detrimental to black and Latino people as a Jim Crow situation. You can say race doesn’t exist anymore, but the fact that I’m still getting followed when I go into a store is evidence of how I’m still living. Race is here to stay.

ME: Yes, so let’s look at gender. What is your definition of feminism, and what happens when that word is enlisted with archaeology?

WBB: Feminism is the ability to recognize how gender – and men have gender too, by the way – influences how we see the past, present and future. It is the ability to recognize how different members of a community or social group connect or contribute to maintaining that community.

I do a lot of work looking at home sites, where people live, act, grow, learn, love and die. There are people who are remembered, and then there are people who are invisible. In terms of labor – in terms of a daily function of a household – feminism brings out the contribution of all members of a household and community. It forces us to recognize how we value and devalue different members of our society, including children.

Women’s labor is often invisible, because it’s not seen as bringing money in, in a capitalist society. However without these functions – these jobs – the capitalist world does not exist. These things have to be fulfilled.

As a woman, feminism allows me to understand the contributions of women of the past, also allowing me to relate to young women in ways that bring out gender in a society where [many] young women don’t know there was ever a fight to get equal pay; to not work inside the house exclusively. Many generations take for granted going to college or working in places where men work. These things are important to understating our past, or where we are now.

Feminism allows how women contribute to a larger understanding of our general past.

ME: And what about your personal process with this?

WBB: Feminism was not something that was easily claimed. It was a hard road for me to call myself a feminist, because I associated feminism with second wave – mostly white women’s – movements that did not include me or my foremothers. It did not appeal to me.

It was based on a lot of myths, on my part. But as I began to focus on women in my work, I realized I could not do work without having a feminist approach.

ME: I see, and in your work who and what specifically are you hoping and seeking to find?

WBB: The key word is everyday people; in the sense of, I have three children, and I was very close to my grandmothers. Those are the gamuts for me. In between that, I feel, is me.

When I say everyday people, I’m talking about the lives and experiences of people – in how we see the lives of people. Archaeology is supposed to look at everyday people who are the not the Thomas Jeffersons or the Barack Obamas.

ME: And through professions like archaeology and anthropology, lives are reconstructed and remembered?

WBB: Archaeology provides the material base; the tangible evidence of someone’s life. The feminist element – whose existence might be erased by time – and the black, brings these things together in a way that could be influential. We can tell the stories of our ancestors, however menial what they did was. Those are the stories that black feminist archeology can tell. Those are the stories that I can tell my children and other children – that show our contribution in building and the maintenance of the US. Without those stories, our history is skewed between those who have and have not.

I want to use archaeology in a way that I’m literally pulling everyday people out of the ground. Our stories are everywhere and they need to be highlighted, so that our children don’t have to doubt what our contributions are in this society and this world.

ME: I see this as a new and more encompassing understanding of archaeology, serving more broadly and with more intent.

WBB: The term archeology is not unfamiliar, but most of us are not in the profession and may not know – beyond the material culture – the value of this work, especially as it relates to engaged members of the African Diaspora.

I think archaeology is an untapped resource for the exploration of the African past. We’re doing archeology in different places across the globe, and fortunately there is a constant push to dialogue with each other, wherever we are.

Some of it is part of a painful process when you’re from the larger descendent community. By that I mean that there are not a lot of archeologists of African descent. It’s a very isolating kind of existence, and sometimes you have to decide if you’re going to be part of that ancestry decent or be a researcher and scholar. It’s difficult, because there are not a lot of archeologists of African descent: Are you a descendent or are you a scholar? That’s a big bone of contention.

For me, you don’t have to be a black woman to do this kind of archeology. You just have to open your mind to consider learning about perspectives you might be unfamiliar with; to think differently about the past.

ME: So, here’s this: What if we were all black women?

WBB: That’s a very deep statement.

I’ve imagined what it might be like to be a black male. I’m married to one and I have two sons. We live in Amherst – the Happy Valley – where there is supposedly no racism here, but there is. What if we leave the Happy Valley? I would have to prepare myself and my sons. And, how do we prepare for this? I have to be honest with myself; discussing this and interacting on a social level for a second.

Imagining if you were a black male, how would you handle certain situations; the same, if you were a black female? Imagine as an archaeologist digging a site, would you see anything differently if you were a black woman? That perspective shakes the comfort zone, but is what I hope some of this work does.

ME: And that seems to get to the heart of your book.

WBB: I wrote this book for the archeology community, but also for my community – to keep our stories alive.

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