She Digs is a monthly column featuring some of our favorite women in the archaeology field. Meet Black feminist, storyteller, artist, and archaeologist Dr. Ayana Omilade Flewellen.
By: Tess Brock
A Miami native with deep roots in Texas, Dr. Flewellen developed an interest in history and artifacts at a young age. Her educational background at the University of Florida and the University of Texas at Austin led her to develop a passion and drive to explore and expand on the histories she saw herself reflected in.
Today, Dr. Flewellen has become an important and admired professional in the archaeology field. We sat down with her to learn more about her award-winning research and to discuss her teaching interests shaped by Black feminist theory, public and community-engaged archaeology, and more.
Secrets of the Dead: Tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got started in the field.
Dr. Flewellen: As a child, my mom would take me to the National Mall up in D.C., and we would go to the different museums that were available to the Smithsonian. I’ve always been the person who can go to a museum and spend hours just looking at everything being offered in that space. That’s how I got this fascination with history and with objects in particular.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I took a course called the Archaeology of African American Life and Culture taught by James Davidson. Something that Davidson taught was really thinking about everyday life and everyday formations of Black identity. My particular introduction to archaeology through this scholar, who was so firmly entrenched in talking about and leading with racial politics in the field, made it possible for students of color to actually see themselves in the work. So, I saw myself in the work is really the answer to your question. I was able to have an intro to archaeology that allowed me to see myself be able to question and interrogate and expand on histories that had me reflected in them. And I feel like that made it a possibility for me to build a career in this space.
Secrets of the Dead: What was it like when you first started going into the field?
Dr. Flewellen: My first dig was in 2009 at the Kingsley Plantation with James Davidson on Fort George Island located in Jacksonville, Florida, which is considered the sort of hub for African diaspora archaeology in a North America context.
We were excavating in one of the enslaved people’s cabins and on an adjacent property a burial site was uncovered. I was one of the first students who came across burial remains at that site. I remember that really sticking out to me. It’s one thing to be able to touch the objects that people used in their everyday lives, but it’s another thing entirely to come across people’s remains at that site. It was a powerful entryway that for me was deeply rooted in the humanity of the people we were studying.
Secrets of the Dead: What are the feelings when you find those types of artifacts?
Dr. Flewellen: There’s this feeling that this work is important. It’s very real that this work is about people who during their lifetime were not considered people in the larger society. From that experience, I really took with me a desire to always humanize the work that I’m doing. As archaeologists, we sometimes get so caught up in the things that we uncover, focusing on objects, for the work that’s centered around sites of enslavement, it becomes much more important that archaeologists not further objectify people in their afterlife, as they were objectified during their lifetime.
Secrets of the Dead: Do you find that since you’re going into these spaces where people were enslaved that it’s more difficult to work on these projects versus something else?
Dr. Flewellen: For the most part, my work revolves around slavery. Every site that I’ve dug on has had to do with colonization, enslavement, and post-emancipation. Topics of Black hardship, racial and social injustice, and sexual violence are very explicit in these spaces and are always ones that are hard to swallow and think about.
I’m constantly talking about the harsh realities that Africans and people of African descent faced, but the work that I do really focuses on Black life and how even in the face of injustice, in the face of unimaginable hardship, people were building lives, building families and trying to be in a practice of maintaining their humanity, even up against such odds. Because the work I do centers on Black life, there’s a different lens to it, and that helps me not spiral around the day-to-day confrontations of violence that these people encountered.
Secrets of the Dead: Have you always identified yourself as a Black feminist archeaologist? If not, what inspired the shift?
Dr. Flewellen: There was a point in my life where I did not know that Black feminism was a thing. My first introduction to Black feminism came from the African American studies program at the University of Florida.
There was a seminar that specifically focused on critical theory around the politics of identity and Blackness. It also took a really deep dive into Black feminism specifically. It was in that space where I learned Black feminism makes it its goal to articulate the everyday lives of Black women as spaces of knowledge production. That really resonated deeply with me.
The main reason why I have that clear articulation around being a Black feminist archaeologist is acknowledging the questions that I’m asking of history and the methods that I use in my research are deeply rooted in an epistemology that centers Black women. That is what I always return to in my research.
Secrets of the Dead: Can you describe intersectionality and its importance in archaeology?
Dr. Flewellen: Intersectionality for me revels in the complexity of human existence and doesn’t try to glaze over that. To talk about intersectionality is not to talk solely about gender, but to understand the complexities of people’s lives in the way that particular formations of power and oppression are intersecting with other facets of identity that shape people’s lives in the past. Within our field, when people hear intersectionality, when people hear about Black feminist theory, they might only want to apply that to more hyper-visibly racialized bodies. But everybody is living an intersectional life.
The work of intersectionality is to clearly articulate the complexity of people’s lives, but also the complexity of knowledge formations that really state that your social positionality in the present dictates what you feel is possible and dictates the frame of reference that you have when thinking about the past. It’s a twofold thing where it’s doing the work of understanding the social positionality of the researcher and also the social positionalities of the historical characters that we’re talking about.
Secrets of the Dead: How do you approach teaching through a Black feminist lens?
Dr. Flewellen: This year will be my first teaching as an assistant professor. I feel like, especially here in America, there’s a real polarization that’s happening right now. It’s important to understand that the topic of gender, race, sex, class, and sexual orientation are polarized statements. I’m interested in talking about these and highlighting how it shows up in the work. I’m really trying to dismantle this desire for students to be in argument with the readings that they’re doing and rather really push this understanding that we’re in conversation and that this work really rests on the idea that we can be in play with one another and divest it from this desire for domination over a topic and instead be in conversation with it and to play with different ideas in this space and not feel as if there’s a right or wrong way to do this work because that doesn’t exist. There are so many different avenues that are coming together to tell these rich stories about our past that our discipline needs to recognize how that is not an individual approach.
Secrets of the Dead: What projects are you excited about right now?
Dr. Flewellen: I have two different projects that I’m working on right now. First, I’m the Co-PI (Co-Principal Investigator) on the Estate Little Princess Archaeology Project. It was awarded the Diversity Field School Award in 2018 by the Society for Historical Archaeology, primarily because the project itself centers around training Black and brown youth on the island of St. Croix, as well as providing training opportunities for students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), who oftentimes don’t have any anthropology programs.
Along with my four colleagues Justin Dunnavant, Alexandra Jones, Alicia Odewale and William White, we have a number of different questions that we’re asking on the site, all pertaining to the lived experiences of Afro-Crucians during the Danish occupation period from the mid-18th century through 1917. We’re looking at the enslaved village area and really thinking about how people lived their everyday lives. Asking questions like:
Where were their subsistence gardens? How were these domestic structures shifting and changing over time? What did outside and shared spaces look like between different cabins?
We’ve been digging down there for three years now, and have about two more years built into the project design, and one last year of actual excavation. Prior to that, my dissertation research looked at the legacy collection centered on African Diasporic history at the Levi Jordan Plantation, which is a 19th-century sugar plantation located about 60 miles south of Houston, Texas. This collection has over 600,000 artifacts, and my book project is looking at the clothing and branded artifacts from that site.
I’m having a conversation about the ways in which people dressed their bodies to really be in negotiation with how they lived their everyday lives with racialization, racism, sexual exploitation, and economic disenfranchisement. I’m looking at that within the realm of labor, thinking about what folks were wearing as they were doing work as agricultural workers and domestic laborers and how they were transmitting information about their social livelihoods through the ways they dressed. Also, I’m thinking about the ways in which the body was altered itself, such as the brushing of hair, hiding of the skin in bleaching practices, and what 3D supplements, like clothing and jewelry, were being added to the body as well.
Secrets of the Dead: When you find something, even as small as a button, how do you piece together the story behind it? How do you figure out its significance?
Dr. Flewellen: Part of it is having multiple lines of evidence so you can really have a discussion around the choices that people were making. I look at what’s in that artifact or the archaeological record, and I play that with a pathetic conversation with oral histories, slave narratives, as well as documentary sources and photographs from that time period as well.
Right now, I have a collection of stereoviews that surround my desk. Stereoviews are from this early photography method that captured the sort of everyday trends of ready-made clothing that was available. I was trying to find images of everyday dress practices, and oftentimes early photography centered portraiture consists of fancy-dress practices and not what people wore in their everyday life, especially for Black folks in those portraitures who were in their Sunday best. But in these stereoviews that centered on labor production, they’re in more ready-made clothing that would have been similar to what was available at the time for them to wear.
You can see how fascinators were held together, different parts of outfits, and things of that sort. There are a number of different conversations that can be held from these photos. And of course, it’s always in conversation with the fact that the images themselves are staged, and the images themselves are taken by white men. So, there’s a limitation to it, but there are also a lot of fruitful spaces of possibility.
Secrets of the Dead: Has there been a specific item that is the most memorable to you?
Dr. Flewellen: Whenever I’m asked this question, the first thing that always comes to my mind, especially from working at the Kingsley Plantation, was whenever we came across toys, doll parts, and marbles on the site. Part of it is this longing and desire to talk about childhood and play because even with the stereoviews that I have, you can see there are young children who are also there picking cotton alongside adults.
Talking about the experiences of children, you’re able to really further humanize the experiences of people of African descent and Africans during enslavement. There are experiences of birth, life, and death in these spaces, so that’s why these objects of life that children would have handled, even as they were in this system that was so precarious to their livelihood, deeply resonate with me.
Secrets of the Dead: How can archaeology benefit from more women in the field?
Dr. Flewellen: Archaeology is in the habit of creating history. And, in the space of creating history, it is important to have as many voices as we can at the table. That means having more voices from women, women-identified folks, people of color, different spiritual-religious affiliations, and sexual orientations. Archaeology is still very Anglo-centric and heteronormative. The benefit of including more voices in the field is that we get a greater diversity in the histories we’re creating.
Secrets of the Dead: What is one piece of advice you have for young women interested in archaeology?
Dr. Flewellen: Reach out to archaeologists. With the expansion of technology, there are so many new outlets for people to get in contact and be in the know about folks who are doing this work. The blog Women in Archaeology highlights a bunch of different women who are in this field. I’m the co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA), and they’re oftentimes reaching out to us to highlight our members. All that so when young women want to join this field, they have the resources and at least the representation to see that there are women who are out there who are digging, and there are women who are out there in the lab analyzing the artifacts.