Establishing the Society of Black Archaeologists

The field of African American historical archaeology witnessed a boom in social and political consciousness from Black scholars during the 1990s. In 1994 Theresa Singleton and Elizabeth Scott broke new ground with the founding of the Society of Historical Archaeology‘s Gender and Minority Affairs Committee. Several years later, African American archaeologist, Maria Franklin (1997a;1997b) published on the lack of racial diversity in the field and archaeology’s affect on the African Diaspora. The 90s also represented a critical time in African American historical archaeology, in particular, with the excavation and later commemoration of both the Freedman’s Cemetery in Dallas, Texas and the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, New York. Cheryl La Roche and Michael L. Blakey’s (1997) article “Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground,” stressed the importance of community collaboration, while Theresa Singleton’s (1999) book, I, too, am America: Archaeological Studies of African American Life, addressed issues of African American representation, and the need for alternative methodological and pedagogical practices within the field.

In years prior, scholars and students alike have historically discussed the need to create an organization (or institute) to identify and address these social and political concerns as well as foster additional dialogue. However, the low numbers of Blacks in the field thwarted previous attempts to solidify an organization until now. More than four decades after the establishment of the Association of Black Anthropologists and a decade after these publications, the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA) was established.

The groundwork for SBA was laid in 2011 by a few students at the University of Florida who saw the potential to address some concerns within the field of archaeology. At this year’s annual SHA conference in Baltimore, Maryland a group of Black archaeologists came together to discuss their experiences as racial minorities in the field. The meeting brought together veteran and amateur archaeologists, reaffirming the organizations commitment to promote the development of five goals:

  1. To lobby on behalf and ensure the proper treatment of African and African Diaspora material culture.
  2. To promote archaeological research and recruit more blacks to enter the field of archaeology.
  3. To raise and address contemporary concerns relating to African peoples worldwide.
  4. To highlight the past and present achievements and contributions that blacks have made in the field of archaeology.
  5. To ensure that the communities affected by archaeological work are not simply viewed as objects of study or informants. Rather, they should be treated as active makers and/or participants in the unearthing and interpretation of their history.

As of right now SBA currently operates as a listserv as opposed to a formal organization; however, it is currently engaged in two new projects. The first project is interested in exploring the history of blacks in archaeology. SBA is working to collect oral histories from individuals throughout the African Diaspora who have had exposure to archaeology. The Oral History Project was created to collect and archive oral history interviews of Blacks in the field to gain a better understanding of the roles and experiences Blacks have had in the past and present. The first interview was with Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and can be heard online at the SBA website. Listeners can hear Dr. Battle-Baptiste discuss how her worldview influenced her research, and her humble beginnings in the field of archaeology.

In addition to the Oral History project, SBA members have been working to increase the presence of archaeology in the field of African Diaspora Studies and organized a panel presentation entitled, “Our Things Remembered: Unearthing relations between Archaeology and Black Studies,” at the National Council for Black Studies 2012 annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. SBA has also been invited to organize an additional panel for the 2012 Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) convention to be held in Philadelphia this September.

If you have an interest in archaeology and would like to join our listserv please e-mail sbarchaeologists@gmail.com. The organization is still in its foundational stage and we are currently looking for relevant information to post on the website including job openings, internships, field schools, and articles for the blog attached to the website. We are always open to comments and suggestions.

Please check out the SBA website often for updates at www.societyofblackarchaeologists.com or find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sbarchaeologists

References

  • Franklin, Maria
    • 1997a “Power to the People”: Sociopolitics and the Archaeology of Black Americans. Historical Archaeology 31(3):36-50.
    • 1997b Why are there so few black American archaeologists? Antiquity: an international journal of expert archaeology 71(274).
  • La Roche, Cheryl and Michael Blakey
    • 1997 Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground. Historical Archaeology 31(3):84-106.
  • Singleton, Theresa (editor)
    • 1999 “I, Too, Am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American Life. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville

Race and the SHA

It is common for us to feel invigorated by the annual conference, after hearing great papers, discussing innovative ideas, renewing relationships, and embracing a new resolve to do the work of making SHA a better organization that we all be proud of. Although our poster wasn’t officially sponsored by the Gender and Minority Affairs Committee (GMAC) (they helped to inspire it), Cheryl LaRoche and I presented on “Race and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA): Steps Toward Claiming an Anti-Racist Institutional Identity.” It generated considerable interest, raised important issues, and will serve to support the board’s decision to embark on anti-racism training, for which they should be commended. The board’s commitment to doing this work is a bold step in an important direction that can truly transform our organization and make it more inclusive.

What follows is the text of our poster, a considerably condensed version of an essay we contributed to the Winter 2012 issue of the Newsletter.

Archaeology and Racial Hierarchy

Archaeologists know that racial hierarchy structures the material world, yet we have seldom considered how white privilege influences our practice.

The Whiteness of the SHA

White men created the SHA and structured it to meet their needs as members of white society. This is reflected in its personnel, programs, constituency, and mission, and the ways historical archaeologists are trained in the academy.

Racial Socialization

We all have been socialized in a racist society and consequently carry and perpetuate attitudes of either internalized racial oppression or internalized racial superiority. This socialization process serves to maintain racial hierarchy.

Transforming the Discipline

We can effectively address the racial disparities in our profession and begin to claim and put into practice an anti-racist organizational identity by examining the way we recruit students, foster their development, and inculcate academic values. In order to transform the SHA into a truly diverse and welcoming organization we must address the barriers to access that continue to maintain our organization’s white, male, heterosexual, and middle class membership and principles.

Our Collective Responsibility

The mission of seeking diversity involves all historical archaeologists and should be our collective goal as we work to transform our field and our organization in an effort to claim an anti-racist institutional identity.

The Gender and Minority Affairs Committee

It’s hard to believe that only a year ago the Gender and Minority Affairs Committee (GMAC) reconvened in Austin. Much came out of that collaboration, fueled by the active participation of SHA members in the committee organized forum, “Where do we go from here? GMAC at the crossroads.” Panelists and attendees raised key issues and discussion focused priorities for the committee going forward. One question consistently raised was: how do we create diversity within our organizations? Since Austin, a number of initiatives were started to work towards this effort. The new GMAC Student Travel Award is one such effort. This award facilitates student efforts to build and maintain networks as well as participate professionally in annual conferences. The committee also felt that, in the same vein, mentors for underrepresented students would support organizational diversity.

This is why the GMAC, in collaboration with the Academic and Professional Training Committee, is developing a mentoring program and seeks to connect students with SHA members who share research and other interests. Mentoring serves to build relationships over both long and short term as well as foster career growth. It is through these types of engagements that underrepresented students can obtain advice about critical skills and confront problems or issues specific to their experience. To learn more and share ideas about mentoring, attend the GMAC sponsored forum, “Mentorship in Historical Archaeology” on Thursday, January 5 at 1 PM.

The only way we can create a more equitable and diverse SHA is to get involved. Join us for the Gender and Minority Affairs Committee meeting on Thursday, January 5 at 7:45 AM or join the Student-Subcommittee of GMAC on Friday, January 6 at 7:45 AM.