September 26, 2011
Archaeologist Focuses on African Diaspora through Race, Gender and Class
Whitney Battle-Baptiste with her family: husband Trevor
A. Baptiste, PhD holding daughter Ololara, son Ayotide,
and Battle-Baptiste holding infant Adelomo.
“Archaeology is often thought of as ‘exotic’—far away from the everyday, in Egypt or Israel, Greece or Europe,” says assistant professor Whitney Battle-Baptiste (anthropology). “I see African Diaspora archaeology as a vehicle for social justice, a way to make the discipline relevant to those we have traditionally talked about instead of talked to. It’s about interpretation, about how different communities and stakeholders see a given site.”
Battle-Baptiste seeks an archaeology that is relevant to contemporary communities, one that uses material from the past to complicate accepted ideas about places, regions and populations. “Archaeology can teach incredible lessons by using tangible items to open up dialogues for young and old,” she says. “It’s the stuff that museums leave out that archaeology can open up.”
One of only about twenty black archaeologists with PhDs in the U.S., Battle-Baptiste is interested in the intersection of race, gender and class and how these complicated identities impact methods used to interpret the material past. “I see a large part of my contribution to the field coming through my approach that uses a lens of race and gender, identities often treated separately,” she elaborates.
Battle-Baptiste’s first work was on Southern plantations. “So what happens when I bring my brand of historical archaeology up North and talk about race, gender and class in New England?" she asks. “It becomes the W.E.B. Du Bois Homesite in Great Barrington and the Lucy Foster site in Andover—and both are chapter subjects in my new book, Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011).” Battle-Baptiste will be on hand at the library for a book signing on October 14, from 3-5:00 p.m, in room 2601.
So, how did a black girl from the Bronx, New York, become an archaeological anthropologist? “I grew up in a vibrant African traditionalist community,” says Battle-Baptiste. “Our faith system is based on the Yoruba culture, indigenous to what is now southwestern Nigeria. This practice traveled throughout the African Diaspora and is alive in places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and the U.S. Also thrown into this incredible community was a heavy dose of black nationalism, so I think I was pretty much destined to choose a path that included bringing racial awareness to somebody!”
At Virginia State University, a historically black college/university, Battle-Baptiste studied history and secondary education. “I was seriously frustrated with my history major,” she says, “but fate shifted my path when I was accepted into the College of William and Mary and landed a historical archaeology apprenticeship at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. This opportunity changed my life—you can read more about it in my book! So I shifted to archaeology, went off to the University of Texas Austin, and never looked back.”
Archaeology can change so much, because more than being about things it is about people, Battle-Baptiste believes. “I understand that my work may have an impact on communities of color, so I look for feedback from those communities. I treasure talking to young people who never thought about archaeology as a possibility, or elders who never knew that someone who looks like me could do this kind of work. I say this because I struggled to find my writing voice, to believe what I had to say was academic enough. That is why my book is so important to me. It is time for us black archaeologists to be more vocal.”
After a two-year post-doctoral fellowship and a stint as visiting professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell, Battle-Baptiste began her affiliation with UMass in 2007. “UMass was my first choice,” she says. “I love that it is a public institution with some of the highest caliber researchers in the country. The Five College system impressed me, and the Amherst area seemed laid back and more accessible to New York City than Ithaca, which was important to us as a family.”
On campus Battle-Baptiste and other new SBS faculty were “mentored to death…an inside joke!” she laughs. “But it was great to build relationships with peers in other departments. I really got the sense that SBS was following through on its commitment to and investment in us.”
Battle-Baptiste continues to feel supported and encouraged to ask uncomfortable questions. “Some of my research topics are ‘touchy.’ They are not simple or straight to the point. When we critically think and interrogate issues such as race, gender or class—especially when we clearly gaze at their intersectionality—things get complicated. Students engage in critical thinking and often apply what they have learned to different aspects of their lives. This is real talk and real-life academics.”
Life for Battle-Baptiste is full. In May she had her third child, and she is participating in book signings and “launches.” Also in the works are presentations at the 20th anniversary of the UT Austin African Diaspora Graduate Program in Anthropology (her alma mater) and William and Mary, among others. “I also have been named co-editor of the African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter and have an increasing role in the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Minority Issues and Affairs. I’m completing some articles, maintaining a vibrant Twitter presence (@blackfemarch), writing my blog (whitneybattlebaptiste.com) and of course keeping up on Facebook. I couldn’t do it all without the support of my incredible husband, who has his own set of obligations. Together we juggle and balance and tag team.”