Public archaeology, public history, and race

A lot has changed in public history and archaeology since 1992. And, a lot hasn’t. In 1992, there were very few African American archaeologists. Within that class, even fewer of them were historical archaeologists specializing in African American material culture.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

The early 1990s were a critical time in cultural resource management/public history/historic preservation. Congress had just passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the world watched as archaeologists excavated the graves where more than 400 Africans were buried in downtown Manhattan. The archaeology was being done in advance of federal building construction and the site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. At the time, debate swirled about what would become of the site and the people buried there.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, not only are there more African American historical archaeologists but there are more Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians specializing in the the field and turning their professional expertise inwards on their own pasts.

Yesterday I posted something on Facebook about the start of Black History Month. I’ll reproduce the conversation here in transcript format.

[1]  My original post:

Black History Month kicks off this weekend. In many communities it’s the only time during the year that African American history is mentioned in public discourse. I have an article coming out next week that explores how Black History Month is yet another manifestation of white middle-class hegemony over history, place, and community identity. Without naming names (you know who you are), I’d like to thank one friend (FB & IRL) for a very frank and constructive exchange today as I worked through various drafts. One point that became crystal clear to me that I hadn’t fully fleshed out in words previously is how African American history (and historic preservation) is simply a portion of the whole that is overlooked in city planning documents and official published histories. It is segregated and fragmented into times (e.g., Black History Month vs. the 12-month year), spaces (new municipal developments vs. neighborhoods and public buildings), and narratives (separate documents that “celebrate” black history vs. the city’s history in general). When I see it in these terms, it really does add a new dimension to the old concept of separate and unequal ….

[2] An Atlanta, Ga., resident replied with this comment:

It has only been within the last decade or so that, the concept of “Public history” has given African American history a more visible presence. This history has always been there, but the audience has been very small. Question: how many black historians are there in Atlanta Universities other than the HBCUs?

[3] I responded and included a copy of a 1992 op-ed published in the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing and the Philadelphia Inquirer:

That’s a very good question. But I wouldn’t limit it to historians. How many black sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and economists are there in Atlanta’s (and other cities’) non-HBCU institutions? I wrote a column for Atlanta’s Creative Loafing on one aspect of this issue way back in 1992 (attached; a shorter version also was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer). Fortunately, in many places there are greater numbers of archaeologists and anthropologists choosing to work with African American subjects. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case in Atlanta.

Grave Robbers (Creative Loafing, 1992)

[4] The Atlantan replied:

This is why I like the term “Public” history , because all of these disciplines should be intertwined . Also you have to remember that Atlanta is only one county amongst 159 and a lot of laws that legislate our education are created by a lot of politicians that have agendas that has little to do with educationally empowering their constituents.


Inclusion instead of diversity

The Atlantan is an African American arts professional who is passionate about history and historic preservation. He raises some serious points about who the gatekeepers to history are. All history matters. African American history appears to be the only type of history that Americans intentionally try to erase, minimize, and appropriate. It’s partly due to racism, partly due to shame over slavery and Jim Crow.

His questions demand a more introspection among historians and more critical reviews of our work by the public. Over on the National Council on Public History’s site, History@Work, historian Angela Thorpe has written a compelling series of posts on diversity in public history.  I especially liked her final post. She wrote that diversity is too narrow a goal in our field: “This conversation isn’t about quotas or color or race. It’s about putting practitioners in place who are equally capable of meeting the needs of historical institutions and engaging with public need, based on ability, cultural understanding and sensitivity, and experience, among other factors.”

Thorpe calls for ditching diversity for “inclusion”:

Although inclusivity encompasses diversity by nature, it also helps us consider a number of other things as well, including skills beyond merely historical research. If we take a step back and focus on making our institutions more inclusive, rather than more diverse, we will cultivate a culture of public historians more equipped to offer programs and services that are accessible to, and inclusive of, an evolving public.

I agree.

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

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