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An Alter(ed)native Perspective on Historical Bioarchaeology

Abstract

This article analyzes intellectual and political work based in Howard University’s Cobb Research Laboratory relative to “new” and “emerging” ideas in bioarchaeology. Research conducted on remains from the Cobb Skeletal Collection and New York African Burial Ground is highlighted for this purpose. The analysis includes the period during which both collections were housed in the laboratory at the same time (1992–2003). I argue that the extent to which this work is considered relevant to scholarly developments in bioarchaeology is informed by the ways scholarship produced by people of color is regarded in general. It is often deemed “too specific” in focus to be generally relevant to disciplinary discussions. However, examination of the ways the discipline and researchers are socially embedded reveals this to be a product of racialized thinking that deems White scholarship universally applicable to intellectual inquiry—whereas the scholarship of non-Whites is not. Black-feminist theory and critiques of science are used to demonstrate that analyses of inequality centering on race are necessary for identifying and deconstructing the structural inequalities inherent in the discipline. Gina Athena Ulysse’s concept of an alter(ed)native perspective is used to illustrate how this literature provides language to name the complex subjectivities of researchers who both study and experience structural inequality.

Extracto

En este artículo se analiza el trabajo intelectual y político basado en el Laboratorio de Investigación Cobb de la Universidad de Howard en relación con ideas nuevas y emergentes en bioarqueología. Para este propósito, se enfatizan aspectos de la investigación centrada en las colecciones de cementerios africanos de W. Montague Cobb y Nueva York. El análisis incluye el período durante el cual ambas colecciones se amenazaban en el laboratorio al mismo tiempo (1992–2003). Sostengo que la medida en que este trabajo se considera relevante para los desarrollos académicos en bioarqueología se basa en la forma en que se considera el trabajo académico producido por personas de color en general. A menudo se considera "demasiado específico" en el enfoque para ser generalmente relevante para las discusiones disciplinarias. Sin embargo, el examen de las formas en que la disciplina y los investigadores están socialmente integrados revela que esto es un producto del pensamiento racializado que considera el trabajo académico blanco universalmente aplicable a la investigación intelectual, mientras que el trabajo académico de los no blancos no lo es. La teoría feminista negra y las críticas a la ciencia se utilizan para demostrar que los análisis de la desigualdad centrados en la raza son necesarios para identificar y deconstruir las desigualdades estructurales inherentes en la disciplina. El concepto de Gina Athena Ulysse de una perspectiva nativa alternativa/modificada se utiliza para ilustrar cómo esta literatura proporciona un lenguaje para nombrar las subjetividades complejas de los investigadores que estudian y experimentan la desigualdad estructural.

Résumé

Cet article est une analyse des travaux intellectuels et politiques effectués dans le Laboratoire de recherche Cobb de la Howard University, et traitant des idées nouvelles et émergentes en matière de bioarchéologie. Certains aspects de la recherche s'intéressant notamment aux collections de W. Montague Cobb et du Cimetière africain de New York sont mis en exergue à cette fin. L'analyse comprend la période durant laquelle les deux collections ont été accueillies dans le laboratoire à la même époque (1992–2003). Je postule que la mesure suivant laquelle ces travaux sont jugés pertinents au regard des développements de recherche en bioarchéologie est influencée par les manières dont le savoir produit par les personnes de couleur est considéré de manière générale. Il est souvent jugé « trop spécifique » quant à son thème central pour être plus généralement pertinent aux discussions disciplinaires. Cependant, l'étude des manières dont la discipline et les chercheurs sont socialement intégrés met en lumière le fait que ceci est le produit d'une pensée racialisée qui estime que le savoir blanc est universellement applicable à la recherche intellectuelle—alors que le savoir des non-blancs ne l'est pas. La théorie féministe noire et les critiques de la science sont utilisées pour démontrer que les analyses de l'inégalité centrées sur la race sont nécessaires afin d'identifier et de déconstruire les inégalités structurelles inhérentes à la discipline. Le concept de Gina Athena Ulysse d'une perspective alter(ée)native est utilisée pour illustrer comment la littérature fournit un langage pour nommer les subjectivités complexes des chercheurs qui étudient et font l'expérience de l'inégalité structurelle.

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Notes

  1. The author is using the current name of the laboratory, which reflects the cessation of Howard University’s anthropology program in 2010 (Bugarin et al. 2010).

  2. The vast majority of research on the Cobb and NYABG remains was undertaken by scholars of color.

  3. Many of the papers in a recent thematic issue of this journal, titled Challenging Theories of Racism, Diaspora, and Agency in African America (W. White and Fennell 2017), underscore these points about interdisciplinarity, boldly centering this literature in analyses. For instance, departing from the traditional interpretive canon, Anna Agbe-Davies (2017) draws upon DuBoisian pragmatism (among others) to engage in an analysis of blue beads found in Tidewater Chesapeake slave quarters dating from the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

  4. An executive session at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists focused on this very topic.

  5. Both are significant to Maria Franklin’s work toward developing Black-feminist archaeological perspectives connected to ideas that emerged during the 1990s. She was a student of Margaret Conkey at Berkeley in the early to mid-1990s, and, as with other Black-feminist analyses of the time, Hill Collins informs her work (Franklin 2001). This trajectory continues with Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s Black Feminist Archaeology, for which Franklin wrote the introduction (Battle-Baptiste 2011).

  6. Harrison (2016) notes that the language of decolonization was being used by intellectuals and activists around the world during this time to critically examine interpretations of knowledge. In addition to Harrison’s publications, see McGranahan et al. (2016).

  7. It goes without saying that I exercised my own alter(ed)native liberties in applying an ethnographic perspective to my positionality as a biological anthropologist––and stand by doing so. I am providing Ulysse’s description of “an alter(ed)native perspective to the conventionalities of the dominant discourse within anthropology” here (Ulysse 2007:7):

    It is alter as in other and native as I was born in the region and ascribed that identity. It is alter(ed) because of how my approach to this project has been modified both by my training and by my encounter with ICIs [study participants]. The term connotes an anti- and postcolonial stance, with a conscious understanding that the continuities of history mean that there is no clean break with the past. With that in mind alter(ed)native projects do not offer a new riposte or alternative view; rather they engage existing ones, though these have been altered. Alter(ed)native perspectives are those in which tools of domination are coopted and manipulated to serve particular anti- and postcolonial goals.

  8. Returning to the Challenging Theories of Racism, Diaspora, and Agency in African America issue of this journal (W. White and Fennell 2017), Ayana Omilade Flewellen’s article, “Locating Marginalized Historical Narratives at Kingsley Plantation,” provides a clear example of this distinction between counter-narrative and alternative viewpoint Ulysse is making. Flewellen draws upon the work of Black feminist and cultural geographer Katherine McKittrick to center Black women’s sense of place in a critique of dominant plantation narratives focused on the White male planter’s viewpoint (Flewellen 2017).

  9. Cobb notes that Todd had a set of skulls he called the “humiliators.” “[T]hey looked like one thing but he had photographs and documents to show what they were. And he would have the experts look at these skulls and say what they were, and prove them wrong” (Rankin-Hill and Blakey 1994).

  10. I take up elsewhere how anatomical collections are situated in a way that excludes them from considerations regarding ethics and scientific translation discussed here (Watkins 2018a). I use Hortense Spillers’s body/flesh distinction to frame the sense of “breathing life” into skeletons by way of social and historical context, while maintaining them as ready research subjects. Other colleagues speak to this by way of noting how historical treatments of anatomical collections typically focus on their creators rather than the people in the collection; see Geller (2015).

  11. Public engagement with the Samuel Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania also stands as a rare exception. Janet Monge, as curator of the collection, promotes its use in programs at the museum geared toward educating the general public about the history of American physical anthropology, as well as the history of race in science. Monge also allows members of the general public to engage the collection outside formal programming (Monge 2008; Renschler 2008; Renschler and Monge 2008).

  12. To date, no remains from the Cobb Collection have been claimed by members of the general public.

  13. Voices in American Archaeology, edited by Wendy Ashmore, Dorothy Lippert, and Barbara J. Mills, is one of a few exceptions (Ashmore et al. 2010).

  14. Johan Galtung developed the concept of structural violence to explain the harm done to individuals and groups by way of socially embedded constraints that limit access to resources and power (Galtung 1969). These structural forces play a key role in direct injury or death. Paul Farmer is credited with proposing an anthropological orientation toward structural violence to understand social inequalities in modern life related to health (Farmer 2004).

  15. I argue elsewhere that U.S.-based anatomical collections continue to be studied in disciplinary silos. Studies produced by historians are often limited to the actors involved in the creation of the collection and the social and intellectual climate in which it was created. For instance, Ann Fabian’s The Skull Collectors focuses on Samuel Morton as architect of a collection of crania that played an important role in racial science (Fabian 2010). Redman’s Bone Rooms discusses remains as highly sought after resources for establishing scientific authority during and after anthropology’s turn from racial science (Redman 2016). In both cases, the individuals in the collections are discussed primarily as data. Bioanthropological studies are now more socially and historically contextualized, but remain rather segmented from historical and cultural studies (Watkins 2018a).

  16. To encompass the breadth of existing bioanthropological research on structural violence, de la Cova’s (2012) study of trauma patterns in European and African American women must be included. Her research indicated that some injuries reflected interactions between individuals who were subject to institutionalization and the state. Specifically, she uses the concept to uniquely connect accidental injury, intimate partner violence, and state structural violence (in the form of institutional policies and protocols) to understand the racialized and gendered experience of trauma.

  17. Novak (2017) addresses this in a recent article critiquing the ways in which samples of human remains are constructed as a cohesive group, obscuring multiple social and temporal locations within the sample.

  18. For instance, Franklin and Paynter (2010) note that the Black Power movement was an influential force in developing diaspora studies that influenced studies of race and African American archaeology.

  19. Franklin and Paynter also characterize the project as being “from start to end about cultural resource management in service to the community” (Franklin and Paynter 2010:115).

  20. For a full read of the panel description and paper abstracts, see the following Webpage: <http://meeting.physanth.org/program/2017/session41/>.

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Acknowledgments:

Thanks to Shannon Novak for inviting me to participate in this important discussion, as well as her important feedback. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers, Rachel Cantave, Maria Franklin, and Kamela Heyward-Rotimi for their important contributions to the development of this paper.

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Watkins, R.J. An Alter(ed)native Perspective on Historical Bioarchaeology. Hist Arch 54, 17–33 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41636-019-00224-5

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Keywords

  • W. Montague Cobb
  • New York African Burial Ground
  • structural violence
  • Black-feminist theory
  • ethical epistemology