Why are there so few black American archaeologists

an international journal of expert archaeology
Why are there so few black American archaeologists? Maria Franklin.
Abstract: The small number of African American archaeologists is surprising, given the
discipline's 100-year history in the country. According to a survey conducted by the Society for
American Archaeology, most of its members are European Americans, with only a few black
Americans in its rolls. Ironically, archaeology is a potent tool for discovering African-American
culture and history. By examining the processes and effects of oppression, ethnocentrism,
racism, sexism and class inequality can be countered. Archaeology can thus be a means for
empowering black communities.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 Antiquity Publications, Ltd.
A Society for American Archaeology survey (1997) reports that its membership is
overwhelmingly 'European American'. Although it is no longer true that archaeology in the US is
simply man's business rather than woman's, where are the practising archaeologists descended
from historically marginalized groups so much of archaeology studies?
'Why are there few black American archaeologists?' is a question only now being raised as it
relates to the appropriation and social construction of the past by archaeologists (e.g. Bond &
Gilliam 1994; Schmidt & Patterson 1995). These issues are significant if one believes that
archaeological interpretations are often uncritical histories created by state-supported specialists
whose work is widely used to justify, not challenge, 'existing power relations' (Schmidt &
Patterson 1995: 5). Thus, a growing number of archaeologists, questioning their role as 'stewards
of the past', are experiencing critical self-reflection (e.g. Leone et al. 1987; Potter 1994; Pinsky
& Wylie 1989; Wylie 1983; 1985). Nearly every American archaeologist is white, and some now
acknowledge that their (often self-promoted) public image as sole authorities of the past, their
privileged access to cultural resources and the ideological power generated by their sociopolitically conditioned interpretations of the past can have dire consequences for descendant
communities, including African Americans (Bograd & Singleton 1997; Franklin in press; Stone
1997). One response, proposed and variously implemented, is to diversify the practice of
archaeology by bringing members of minority groups in through education and recruitment
(Honerkamp & Zierden 1997: 142-3; McKee 1994). Ideally, this would assure that the needs of
their various communities are met, and that the process of creating histories is shared by
representatives from all groups. If archaeologists are having to take such measures, it may be
worth asking 'why', in a discipline with a 100-year history in the US, there is a relative absence
of blacks from the archaeological scene.
Just how many professional African-American archaeologists are there in the US? The only
reliable empirical evidence for this comes from the Society for American Archaeology (SAA).
Fortunately, many (most?) anthropological archaeologists belong to the SAA, which is the
largest American organization of professional archaeologists, with nearly 6000 members (Zeder
1997: 12). In 1994, the SAA distributed a survey in order to obtain a membership profile (Zeder
1997: 12-17). Out of the 5000 questionnaires sent out, 1700 members replied. In the 'ethnicity'
category, 98% of those who responded (about 1500) indicated 'European American'. The
remaining 2% consisted mostly of Latin American nationals. Only 1-2 respondents were black
Americans (Melinda Zeder pers. comm., 1997).
Currently, there are only a handful of African Americans in the US with PhDs who specialize in
anthropological archaeology (four, by my count). Still, if people working for CRM firms, the
National Park Service, museums and at historic sites as professional archaeologists with BA
degrees and above are counted, the numbers would still be low. Why is this so?
On so many fronts, our struggle to overcome barriers instituted and perpetuated by racism has
deeply impacted the choices we make regarding careers. A portion of black Americans who have
managed to obtain a higher education are pursuing caaHers where there is greater potential for
economic and social mobility. Many individuals have chosen professions in response to the
urgent needs of black communities, pursuing careers where they may have more immediate
effects on public policy, health care, civil rights legislation, etc. The fields of business, medicine
and law immediately come to mind as presenting better opportunities for blacks to excel in
American society, and to 'give something back' to our people.
Still, a few of us have chosen anthropology. Although holding no promise of power and prestige,
we are attracted to the challenge of combating ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and class
inequality by elucidating the processes and effects of various forms of oppression. Many, if not
most of us, feel compelled to study the people of the African diaspora, in essence choosing to
study ourselves. This is in keeping with a black intellectual tradition that has concerned itself
with arriving at some understanding of black people and their experiences not imposed upon us
by whites. This being the case, one still has to wonder why there aren't more black
archaeologists, given the plethora of African-American archaeological sites investigated in the
past 30 years. Issues include the public perception of archaeology, and our attempts as
archaeologists to build relationships with the public, especially with descendant communities.
When the American public believes that archaeologists are strictly involved with studying the
exoticized 'other' or 'ancient civilizations', they are not far off the mark. Americanist archaeology
was formalized with the study of Native Americans, and perhaps most of us still investigate
American prehistory. The popularity of museums, National Geographic magazine, a growing
proliferation of TV documentaries on archaeology, and the image of Indiana Jones, all go to
construct a public perception of archaeologists as digging in far-away lands, searching for clues
of long-lost societies. American historical archaeology is a relatively recent development, and its
initial focus on early Anglo-Americans continues to capture much of the spotlight (e.g. recent
excavations of the fort at Jamestown Island, Virginia).
Archaeology might hold more appeal for black Americans if they knew of its potential as a
powerful tool for uncovering black histories. Yet, despite the growing number of historical
archaeologists studying African-American culture and history, black Americans in particular
remain unaware of such endeavours. Thus, archaeology's potential as a means of empowering
black communities remains largely unrecognized by the very people who stand to gain or lose
the most as a result of these interpretations of various black pasts. This is largely due to the
omission on the part of archaeologists to communicate their findings specifically to impacted
communities and descendant groups (e.g. Davis 1997: 85). I remain optimistic, however, for I do
see changes on the horizon.
As archaeologists have come around to realizing (often at the 'prodding' of descendant
communities) how problematic it is for an overwhelmingly white, homogenous, and largely
uncritical group to have cornered the market on American history and prehistory, a growing
number are making earnest efforts to transform the discipline. A few historical archaeologists are
now recruiting African Americans to participate on excavations, with the hopes of encouraging
them to enter the profession (Andrew Jackson's Hermitage in Tennessee, and Colonial
Williamsburg in Virginia are two good examples of this strategy). Some archaeologists are
working with local black history interest groups, and other concerned members of the
community (e.g. Franklin in press; Honerkamp & Zierden 1997; Leone 1992; McDavid 1996).
As this dialogue between archaeologists and black Americans continues to grow and take shape,
the discipline's potential for addressing socially relevant issues, and for empowering black
society ('knowledge is power') only strengthens (e.g. Epperson 1997).
Archaeology is being forced to undergo growing pains at a fairly rapid rate. Archaeologists must
now strive to be socially responsible, and accountable to various communities that we have
historically avoided. Our continual support from the public demands that we change our ways.
While there are currently few black American archaeologists, the numbers can only go up. The
word is out, and the visibility of African-American archaeology in particular is heightening. I've
noticed lately that I am no longer the only young, black American present at archaeology
Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Karla Slocum, Rachel Watkins and Leah Johnson for
their helpful advice. I would also like to acknowledge Vin Steponaitis, Christopher DeCorse and
Ywone Edwards-Ingram for providing me with information needed to complete this report. I am
also grateful to Melinda Zeder for graciously sharing with me her research on American
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