One evening in 2012, in a presentation room at the Mariott Waterfront in central Baltimore, I attended one of the first meetings of the Society for Black Archaeologists (SBA). Talk about a niche association. The SBA is a welcome addition to the array of professional organizations that already exist in American Archaeology. For the longest time, the concerns of African American archaeologists was only addressed by the Gender and Minority Affairs Committee of the Society for Historical Archaeology (As far as I know, there is no corresponding minority affairs committee in the Society for American Archaeology [SAA] or the American Institute of Archaeology [AIA], which does much to explain why there are almost no black members in these associations).
At the time, I didn’t really feel like the formation of this group was anything extraordinary while attending that meeting in Baltimore. After all, there are dozens of professional archaeology associations each with numerous committees and sub-committees. I was already a member of a few international and local associations. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized the potential impact the creation of this society can make.
A few academic journal authors have noted the near absence of African Americans in American archaeology. Nobody knows how few black American archaeologists there are, but the SBA is the first archaeological society for black people in the United States. One of the first black archaeologists to comment on the dearth of black archaeologists was Maria Franklin who asked in 1997, “Why are there so few black American Archaeologists?” (Antiquity 71). Franklin commented on the oft quoted 1994 SAA survey that indicated only 1-2 SAA members were black, while she stated that she knew there were at least 4 that she knew of (including herself). Five years later, Anna Agbe-Davies noticed the greater number of African American historians as compared to black archaeologists in her article in the SAA Archaeological Record “Black Scholars, Black Pasts” (2002 2:24–28). Marveling at the seemingly large number of African American historians, she also wondered what this discrepancy meant.
While it is difficult to quantify the total number of black American archaeologists, other archaeologists are apparently encouraged by the fact that the number of black archaeologists is slowly growing. It is true. I’ve noticed a few more blacks in archaeology in the 11 years since Agbe-Davies wrote that article. When I first started attending the SHA conference, I only noticed three other black archaeologists. There were very few black students in attendance. Oftentimes, I was the only black person in the conference room. I’m from Idaho, so this didn’t seem odd to me until I thought about the fact that about 13% of all Americans are black. Today, including Agbe-Davies, whom I have met, and myself, I personally know at least nine African American archaeologists– five of whom are PhD students (which I soon will be myself). There were at least 13 black archaeologists in attendance at that meeting in Baltimore, so I guess our numbers are so large I don’t personally know all of us anymore. I have been doing CRM archaeology for about 10 years and had the privilege of working with one other black archaeologist during that entire time period.
Increasing African American participation has been a central goal for the SHA and other societies. It has long been understood that the contributions of underrepresented social groups can provide invaluable perspectives to archaeological interpretation. Connecting with African Americans and members of other ethnic groups in a manner that motivates them to pursue archaeology has been a huge obstacle in increasing the numbers of black Archaeologists. I touched on this in the interview with the Society for Black Archaeologists, but wanted to more straighforwardly propose several solutions to the lack of African Americans in archaeology:
1. Demonstrate financial benefit– It’s hard to convince young people that archaeology is a viable profession when esteemed magazines like Forbes are telling them anthropology/archaeology is the worst college major. It’s also hard for college professors that raise most of their funding from grants to recognize the potential millions of dollars in government disadvantage set-aside contracts that go unclaimed by African Americans simply because there aren’t any of us trying to get them. A highly motivated, business-minded black CRM company owner would, hypothetically, do quite well for her/himself. Plus, CRM is a multimillion dollar industry that employs over 10,000 people and there have been some extraordinary success stories.
2. Relate to others like real people– Most of the black archaeologists are college professors, which means they have a PhD and are our school system’s most successful products. As such, they are generally out of touch with the “C’s-get-degrees,” 99%-ers across the country. Those of us with graduate degrees, regardless of race, are intimidating to the average uneducated American. In order to connect with everyday Americans, we need to make a sincere effort to connect with them as real people. An overly academic or “proper” persona is a major put-off for most African Americans, as my relatives have told me more than once.
3. Use some elbow grease– I don’t personally know about the efficacy of other black archaeologists’ outreach efforts in the black community, but I know my own success rate is 0%. As a CRMer, I have more opportunities to help the archaeos I encounter in my profession, which means I have had zero interactions with other up-and-coming black CRM archaeologists that I could mentor. I was a volunteer docent at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, which didn’t give me much of a chance to talk about archaeology to other black people either. I have also spent some time giving presentations to young people, primarily high school students, and have encouraged all of them to pursue archaeology if they’re interested. Several black students have expressed interest. All I can do is hope they go into anthropology in college.
While I have done a pretty pathetic job convincing other black folks to pursue archaeology as a career, my past performance is not an indication of future success. I plan on reaching out to the black community during graduate school and working with other black archaeologists to help explain what archaeology can do to improve our understanding of ourselves and what we have contributed to our country. Following in the footsteps of Dr. Alexandra Jones, I want to do everything I can to help African Americans make careers in archaeology.
Upon noting the disparity between black representation in history and in archaeology, Agbe-Davies asked, “what are we, as a field, like; how did we get this way; where do we seem to be going?” While not specifically asked in my SBA interview, these questions are at the heart of the SBA’s quest to document the backgrounds of the few black archaeologists in the United States. I am the first black CRMer interviewed by the SBA and I am more than honored for that privilege. I hope that my story will help other African Americans understand that they can make a career for themselves in archaeology. That CRM is something that we do too. That archaeology is not just for white folks and the field desperately needs to hear the voice of the underrepresented because the voices of the voiceless past can really only be heard through archaeology.
Please go to the SBA website and listen to my short interview. I welcome questions with open arms. If you have something to ask, feel free to send me an email or write a comment in the box below.
“Resume-Writing for Archaeologists” is now available on Amazon.com. Click Here and get detailed instructions on how you can land a job in CRM archaeology today!
Small Archaeology Project Management is now on the Kindle Store. Over 300 copies were sold in the first month! Click Here and see what the buzz is all about.
Join the Succinct Research email list and receive additional information on the CRM and heritage conservation field.