Statement on Working on Black History

This is a brief statement about working on Black history. The basic premise is that historically people like me (white cis-gendered men) have mistreated Black History- either ignoring it completely and pretending as if Black people had no history or portraying it as a side note to white history. What is oft taught as American history frequently excludes Black history (and Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, etc. history). That is, it’s not actually American history. So, I think it’s important to say a few words here about my identity and it’s connection to my current work.

Bear with me for a bit of background… I’m trained as an archaeologist with specialization in Pre-Columbian South America (specifically the coast of Ecuador and the exchange of the shellfish known as Spondylus). But, I have always maintained that the best way to teach archaeology is to do it. In that vein, I have developed a few small local projects (local as in close to Muhlenberg College where I teach). Since about 2015, I have been working on the historic modification of vast landscapes in Pennsylvania through the production of charcoal for the iron industry. I primarily use LiDAR- a tool that has changed the way we work in archaeology- and field survey (with students). This type of archaeology is “low impact,” which basically means we don’t dig. This reduces costs greatly and keeps artifacts in the ground. But, it also allows us to focus on the landscape scale. We have identified thousands of relict charcoal hearths (RCHs; where trees were converted into charcoal),  the remains of hundreds of collier huts (small conical structures built to temporarily house charcoal burners, a.k.a. colliers, for the up to 8 months they lived in the forest making charcoal), paths and roads connecting these along with the remains of associated structures and other modifications of the landscape.

Early in this research, I began noticing a connection between rural Black communities (which tend to be small) and these charcoal “fields” (tracts are thousands of acres and the RCHs are spaced out rather evenly hence the term “fields”).  During the Fall of 2020, due to the pandemic my students in Field Archaeology were dispersed all over the northeast for a “remote” semester. Normally, I run this as “field” class and we spend c. 8 full days in the field (usually Sundays). But since students could only come for a smaller number of field trips, I could not do the traditional field school. I also needed a place where things were a bit closer together (so that we could do 3 field trips instead). So, I decided to take them to Hopewell Furnace. There we could both see and learn about iron production and the production of charcoal for the iron industry. Since this was a relatively new landscape for me, I did lots of background research before we took the field trip. One map really made me take notice. From 1862, the map is from a Berks County Atlas (HERE). To the northwest of Hopewell Furnace (on the other side of hills that appear empty but are, in reality, the charcoal fields) was a grouping of houses labeled “Colored Settlement” with only one house indicated by name, “Jno Watson.” This contrasts with all of the other houses around it where each was labeled with an individual owner. Why would the cartographer not put individual names on individual houses for this “settlement”? Especially since other, very similar, maps from the same time (one from 1860 and one from 1872) name those home owners. This was both a perfect example of the power of maps- individual landowners had literally been wiped of the map and replaced with “Colored Settlement” – and an example of the racism of the time.

Here’s what that map changed. First, I began to feel like I was ignoring something really important. But, on the flip side, I also felt like I was not an expert in Black history so I shouldn’t be talking about it. Then again, by NOT talking about it was I doing the exact same thing as that map- quite literally erasing Black history. That realization did not feel good. I was sure that the relationship between this community (and other small rural Black communities) and charcoal lands was important, but, in my ignorance, I couldn’t say much more than that. Was it my responsibility to investigate this more closely BECAUSE it was Black history?

However, I kept feeling also that – because people with an identity like my own had done so much damage, not just to Black history but to Black people- I couldn’t just start researching this in way that I had been researching charcoal landscapes. If I was going to do this then I needed to do my research differently?  My basic answer is to listen. Really listen. No, I mean, listen better than I ever had before. There’s probably more than two important aspects of listening, but here’s what I came up with (in a nonhierarchical order). A) Listen to Black scholars. And B) Listen to descendent of these communities. But, what does that mean? 

Luckily, I was on sabbatical for Spring of 2021. Instead of my planned project, I basically dedicated myself to developing a bibliography and reading lots about Black history with a clear focus on southeastern Pennsylvania and the 19th century. I developed a bibliography – you can see it here, but be forewarned that it includes lots of material about charcoal and iron production as well as Black history. But just reading books is not enough. I had to ensure that I was really processing and incorporating this scholarship in my own work. And, of course, giving Black scholars the appropriate credit for their work. One of the realizations in this process is that there is so much that we already know that is not being shared and/or taught in HS history. That is, while I think that I can make a contribution, I also began to think about ways to boost the work that has already been done. As one small example, I mention two important books in my public talks- Cheryl Janifer LaRoche’s Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance (2017) and William Still’s classic The Underground Rail Road (1872). I have also developed a resource guide that I hand out when I present to the public. I have written a short article for the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation that argues that Black History is all around us, even in state parks and forests. These are small, even tentative steps. 

I have also tried alternative approaches to listening. I follow mainly Black scholars on Twitter (and Indigenous scholars, but that’s a different story). This allows me to “hear” some of the critique and comments that don’t get published. It’s helped me understand the vast weight put on Black scholars. It has helped me understand that their scholarship is not solely about the work but about the stressful battle against systemic racism.   

I also applied for and was accepted to a 3 week long National Endowment for the Humanities Institute at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC entitled, “Towards a Peoples History of Landscape: Black & Indigenous Histories of the Nation’s Capital.” Organized by Andrea Roberts and Thaïsa Way, the institute brought together a wonderful group of scholars as participants and as guest speakers. We visited important sites and spoke with Black and Indigenous scholars. We read- A LOT. I’m still processing the experience and probably will for a long time. I value the curated syllabus. I don’t say this lightly, but the institute changed the course of my research. 

Lastly, one of the central components of the NEH institute was care. I know, it seemed odd to me too. But, I (think) I get it now. Care is about people and attempting to provide time and space to understand. Practically, for me this means that I can only do this work by listening to the descendants of these small rural Black communities. So, that’s what I am doing. This project is guided by them and I have dedicated myself to work that they indicate will be a benefit for them. (Note that I am not posting names because I do not have their permission). This is part of the ethic of care. It also means that my work has been slow (or slower than in the past). But, that’s perfectly fine. I do, however, recognize that I am privileged to be tenured and, therefore, don’t have the same requirements as non-tenured scholars. 

I look forward to feedback on this post, but if your response to my focus on Black scholars and Black perspectives is that this is biased (or somehow “reverse racism”) you are wrong. Sorry to be blunt, but you’re wrong. For decades I have read the works of white scholars. It’s the foundation of my scholarship. Focusing on Black scholars at this point is simply trying to correct for the inherent bias in that experience. But, if that weren’t true, if I didn’t have that background it would still be 100% appropriate to focus on Black scholars and the Black experience. Indeed, I really like to think that this is working on tearing down that foundation and building a new, better, more respectful one. This would start correcting for a wider anti-Black bias in all of academia. We have a very long way to go before that work will be complete. 

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