The Primal Fear: Historical Archaeology and De-Accessioning
In 1996, former SHA Curation Committee Chair Bob Sonderman (Museum Resource Center, National Park Service)…
The epilogue of Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800 is a disarming and profoundly thoughtful account of his experience of life across the color line and how it informed his scholarly career. Ferguson’s book is justifiably heralded as one of historical archaeology’s most important contributions to the scholarship of African cultural persistence in the face of captivity, yet we risk overlooking the provocative epilogue that situates such scholarship in Ferguson’s own experience and in broader historical archaeology. Uncommon Ground’s succinct epilogue provides an important statement about the politics of historical archaeologies conducted across and along lines of difference, and a discussion about those politics can contribute to an increasingly rich and reflective scholarship and diverse archaeological community.
Ferguson’s epilogue relates a story of him and a boyhood friend watching an African-American railroad “gang” laying rails in a sweltering 1949 summer. An elder member of the group lorded over the workers, singing in a “rich, melodious voice” in time with hammers driving the rail, an experience that left the two boys “spellbound and envious.” That fascination and envy with African America has often been felt by many White people who have been equally spellbound if mystified by a rich culture that has persisted with strength, creativity, and dignity in the face of profound injustice. Many White historical archaeologists—myself included–have devoted much of our scholarship to illuminating African America’s centrality in American life because we share Ferguson’s humility in the face of the African-American experience, respect for this rich heritage, and conscious complicity in a half-millennium of anti-Black racism.
Ferguson acknowledges that he and his friend “heard and felt that workday performance in ignorance,” largely because they “had few black acquaintances and no black friends.” When his friend addressed the singer with a racist epithet, the boys were soundly rebuked and felt “rejected and confused.” Ferguson admits that through his “teenage years the alienation continued, and I alternately and somewhat arbitrarily enjoyed, scorned, and admired `colored people’ without ever knowing a single African American.”
That concession of fascination and admiration in conflict with apprehension and confusion is an exceptionally rare scholarly acknowledgement of the complications of life lived along and across color lines (compare Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s June 2012 SHA Blog for a similar example from an African diasporan perspective). Ferguson found himself in the midst of the South during the Civil Rights movement, and he recognized his White neighbors “struggled to rationalize away the guilt of imposing or accepting an inequality so familiar that most had never perceived it as unjust.” He acknowledges that he “came to see that the movement was reinforcing justice and compassion as basic American values,” and he began to comprehend that a deep-seated cultural heritage “beyond the eye and mind of the white majority” fueled the Civil Rights movement and rested at the heart of American heritage.
That recognition that racism was silently situated at the heart of American life and aspired to efface diasporan heritage provides an articulate coda underscoring the political significance of Ferguson’s study. Historical archaeologists have produced an enormous volume of illuminating, reflective, and even activist scholarship on the African diasporan experience and life along the color line for which we can feel justifiably proud. Nevertheless, Ferguson’s revelatory honesty is the sort of politics that we rarely see in print, and while many of us can honestly claim good works in our own local projects they often do not become public knowledge or accepted disciplinary practice, and they are not especially clearly stated as our common philosophical and sociopolitical interests.
Our pride in a rich African diasporan archaeology or our disciplinary attention to historical social complexity should not blind us to the need to ask difficult questions about diversity in contemporary historical archaeology, and SHA has the opportunity to lead a challenging and transformative discussion about the ways in which equity, privilege, and race shape every dimension of our lives, scholarship, and practice. We have collectively done an astounding amount of good research and community outreach, but we need to articulate that work in ways that acknowledge disciplinary inequalities; we should situate SHA in conscious opposition to structural inequalities in broader society; and we must continue to develop concrete mechanisms to make SHA a welcoming professional home for a broad range of members whose voices can shape archaeology and impact the communities in which we live. A historical archaeology practiced by a rich range of scholars that assertively examine global diversity is simply good scholarship that is true to a breadth of experiences and systemic inequalities throughout the world over 500 years.
Certainly many of the first archaeologists who gathered in 1967 to form the SHA were focused on British colonial heritage and the spread of European cultures and materiality in the New World. Questions about globalization and social diversity gradually trickled into the research questions and discussion: Charles Fairbanks, for instance, soon led archaeologists into African diasporan archaeologies, and James Deetz profoundly shaped the discipline by advocating archaeological attention to the many peoples ideologically forgotten in historical narratives. Many of us continue to justifiably focus on colonial European subjects, but that work is inevitably enriched by a rigorous and reflective focus on diversity, just as archaeologists examining race need to push beyond archaeologies of African America. For instance, there is the potential to do an exceptionally interesting historical archaeology of race among White consumers who often embrace—and routinely evade—the privileges of White subjectivity. This attention to social diversity certainly does not discard all the illuminating historical archaeologies of colonial European contexts, but scholarship revolving around race, patriarchy, classism, sexuality, or ethnicity can be embedded into many archaeological studies that sometimes are conceived by us as being somehow “outside” diversity. The “questions that count” in contemporary historical archaeology simply must address diversity to be rigorous and challenging scholarship. The weight of such scholarship can have profound effects on how many of our neighbors view our collective heritage and in turn how they view contemporary lines of difference, so confronting disciplinary and SHA inequalities and embracing diversity among membership and in our scholarship are important missions for SHA.
SHA has underscored its commitment to equity and diversity in the last year, with the ambition of being an increasingly diverse membership that provides a welcoming professional home for a wide range of scholars. One step in this process was my participation in a People’s Institute Undoing Racism workshop in Washington, D.C. in July. Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Chair Florie Bugarin attended the workshop with me and about 40 people who worked for a variety of non-profits and community organizations as well as neighborhood folks from Washington. This is quite a different group than virtually any scholarly conference, classroom, or excavation site, but in many ways it would be a familiar and illuminating discussion for the many historical archaeologists who conduct community archaeologies and are committed to engaged scholarship—often across color lines and power divisions.
Many historical archaeologists have given thought to the complications of scholarly/community partnerships, but we have not often considered how racism shapes such relationships or how White scholars exercise privilege without even recognizing it as such. A 2011 SHA Newsletter piece by Michael Nassaney and Cheryl LaRoche, for instance, discussed the persistent impression of racism on American life and the ways it and White privilege inevitably have an impression on historic archaeology practice and the very organization of SHA itself. Anna Agbe-Davies joined this conversation in the Spring 2012 Newsletter, arguing that Nassaney and LaRoche’s column underscores the need to encourage both organizational change in SHA and individual good works—for instance, as we transform structural inequalities vested in organizations like SHA, we can individually take small but consequential steps like those often-invisible trips to local elementary schools, the energy devoted to championing equity in our local institutions, and all of our voices advocating for an archaeology that reveals the historic roots of inequality. The People’s Institute experience framed a larger discussion about how power is vested in organizations like SHA, how a broad range of members with different degrees of access and power are served by SHA, and how all of our members can secure genuine agency and grow professionally within SHA.
These discussions have led to a series of initiatives that are intended to make our mostly unspoken disciplinary and SHA commitment to diversity concrete and increasingly part of our structural practice.
Historical archaeologists have long embraced an archaeology of peoples who have been structurally silenced and ignored as their experiences are effaced from dominant narratives. SHA is committed to supporting such work because it is simply good scholarship that is true to our collective heritage, and working to mirror the same diversity in our membership is simply true to contemporary social life. As Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground epilogue stresses, lived inequalities inevitably shape our scholarship, but we have not often examined how our collective experiences become part of the structural fabric of academic departments, cultural resource management firms, or the SHA itself. Many of us have had these conversations with colleagues for years on excavation sites, in department meetings, and even in the hallways of SHA conferences, asking ourselves how we can foster reflective transformations in institutions and everyday practice. We need to keep moving that discussion into our shared disciplinary discourse and make it part of good practice, pressing to ensure that historical archaeology and SHA practice genuine equity in our scholarship and advocacy and welcome a breadth of voices.