Why Are There So Few Black American Archaeologists?

By Franklin, Maria | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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Why Are There So Few Black American Archaeologists?


Franklin, Maria, Antiquity


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 socio-politically 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.

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