The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

African Diaspora

Archaeology as a tool for social justice
  • Archaeologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste at Eluthera field site.

Working with the Du Bois Center on campus, Battle-Baptiste aims to expand collaborative relationships to Springfield, Pittsfield, Great Barrington and New Bedford, all of which have had vibrant African American communities for generations and contact with Du Bois.

“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.”

One of only about twenty black archaeologists with PhDs in the U.S., Battle-Baptiste seeks an archaeology that is relevant to contemporary communities, one that uses material from the past to muddle 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, noting that she’s not shy about speaking up and asking uncomfortable questions.

Seeing her research and teaching as parts of a whole, Battle-Baptiste says, “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—identities often treated separately but which I intersect—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.”

Archaeology can change so much, because more than being about things, it is about people, she believes. “I have been invested in making sure my work involves engagement. For example, activities out at the Du Bois Homestead in Great Barrington, which is owned by UMass, encompass understanding complex ideas and opinions of the local and associated communities. Certainly, we have supporters of the effort to commemorate the homestead, but for political reasons others do not agree with the glorification of Du Bois. Acting as a facilitator opens up dialogue.”

Battle-Baptiste, whose book Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press) was released in 2011 to great reviews, 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… I’ve been able to grow as a scholar and a teacher. I’m closely tied to the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, housed in the library on campus and am interested in expanding our collaborative relationships in places like Springfield, Pittsfield, Great Barrington and even New Bedford, all of which have had vibrant African American communities for generations and contact with DuBois.”

As one of the first class of ISSR (Institute for Social Science Research) scholars, Battle-Baptiste is deeply engaged in an interdisciplinary seminar that meets regularly through the academic year to develop research ideas and plans. “ISSR is helping me make the idea of an archaeological field school accessible to underrepresented groups that have never thought about digging as an option during the hot summer months.” The aim is a summer archaeological field school in Great Barrington at the W.E.B Du Bois site in 2014, targeting local Community Colleges (especially in Berkshire County – Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Simon's Rock, Berkshire Community College) as well as some Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Battle-Baptiste is also starting up a project on the former Millars Plantation in Bannerman Town in Eleuthera, Bahamas. “This is a community effort, so we are working directly with the community to involve them in the process from the start,” says Battle-Baptiste. The plantation was left to the descendants of former captive Africans and they still control the property today. The town is empty and because of this, the settlements of Bannerman Town, Millars, and Wymess's Blight are fighting developers who want to purchase the property. Battle-Baptiste plans to conduct "Memory Mapping" with the community in the near future.

Battle-Baptiste is co-editor of the African Diaspora Archaelogy Newsletter and is engaged in the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Minority Issues and Affairs. Entrenched in all forms of social media (Twitter @blackfemarch) and blog (, she says it allows her work to reach audiences beyond the classroom. She is also working on ways to creatively include social media into the classroom. “Letting students tweet class content, for example, can be a huge plus. A hashtag can change things!”

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences