Professor Michael L. Blakey.,served as scientific director of the New York African Burial Ground Project at Howard University.
Most renowned academic institutions in the United States are implicated in the macabre practices of “racial” science.
“They don’t see African Americans as the same real complete human beings that they and their white families and neighbors are.”
On Mother’s Day, May 13, 1985, the City of Philadelphia dropped two bombs on the MOVE Organization compound on Osage Avenue, killing 11 people including 5 children. Thirty-six years later, on April 21, 2021, we learned that two anthropology professors had held on to the bones of two of the MOVE children. Alan Mann, a currently retired forensic anthropologist, had kept the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa in a cardboard box at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and shuttled them back and forth between his jobs at UPenn and Princeton University. Janet Monge, Mann’s former student and currently a lecturer at both universities, used the bones in an online Princeton anthropology course titled, “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.”
We should not be surprised that a state built on white supremacy and maintained through anti-Blackness would murder children and then use their remains for their scientific “adventures.” While the story of the use of the remains of the MOVE children by anthropologists is particularly galling and ghoulish, it is, sadly, typical. One of the central stories of the scientific justification of U.S. racism and white supremacy has been the production of an academically-legitimated “knowledge” of race that has been based on the harvesting, collecting, studying, and displaying of the remains of Black and Native American peoples – all in the name of racial “science.” The history of racial science is macabre -- and extensive. Many of the most renowned academic institutions in the United States are implicated. With more than 30,000 skeletal remains, the Smithsonian Institution has the largest collection of human remains in the U.S., if not the world. Harvard’s collection of more human remains is numbered at more than 22,000. Other museums, and universities throughout the country – large and small – have human remains and bone collections -- as do those in Europe and Canada.
“The story of the use of the remains of the MOVE children by anthropologists is particularly galling and ghoulish.”
Meanwhile, the horrific travesty of the treatment of the Africa children is also a reminder that the remains of Black people are literally scattered, everywhere throughout this country. Parking lots and libraries, golf courses and parks, college stadiums and luxury apartments cover the unmarked graves, the desecrated cemeteries, of Africans people -- both enslaved and free. The presence of these African American burial grounds is so common that it generated a saying, “put a spade in the ground, find a bone.”
In order to both understand the long history of the anthropological use and abuse of human remains in the United States -- but also to understand how we can create an ethical approach to the dead -- The Black Agenda Review interviewed Professor Michael L. Blakey. Professor Blakey is an esteemed bioarchaeologist, biocultural anthropologist, and historian of science whose research examines the interfaces and interactions of biology, culture, and history. Professor Blakey is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies, and American Studies, and Founding Director, Institute for Historical Biology, The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Among Profesor Blakey’s many, many distinctions, he has served as scientific director of the New York African Burial Ground Project at Howard University, where he also curated the W. Montague Cobb Collection, and is on the Scholarly Advisory Committee of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Jemima Pierre is associate professor of Black Studies and anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her conversation with Dr. Blakey was transcribed and edited from a Zoom conversation which took place on April 30, 2021.
Dr. Jemima Pierre: I would like to start by stepping back from the specific issues concerning the remains of the MOVE/Africa children and ask you about some of the institutions involved in this: first, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and second, the two forensic anthropologists, Alan Mann and Janet Monge. Regarding Penn, why does an institution even have a collection of human remains and how did they acquire them? And regarding Mann and Monge, what even is the profession of forensic anthropology? And for both questions, what does race and racism have to do with it?
Dr. Michael L. Blakey: Anthropology developed as a field of natural history initially – at least physical anthropology – as the study of human biology. And the unit of analysis in the 19th century was race. Anthropologists believed then that the way of understanding human beings was to make comparisons. Human biologists, therefore, were comparing presumed human racial characteristics. There’s a whole industry in measuring people’s bodies with the organizing principle of race. This, of course, didn’t occur in a vacuum. We’re talking about the 19th century and early 20th century, when race had meaning within the ideology of white supremacy. The measurements of the skull and other parts of the body were organized in a way to show people’s relationships to apes, for example.
This science was used to create a ranking of races. From the 1830s to the 1850s, Samuel Morton, a physician and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had a collection of 1300 skulls. He thought he could measure skulls to identify racial differences (a field called craniometry). His technique for measuring skulls included pouring mustard seeds and then lead shots (BBs) into the foramen magnum, which is the hole at the base of the skull where the central nervous system passes. But in the skull of a dead person it’s a hole. He poured this mustard seed into the hole and filled it up, filled up the calvarium, the brain case, and then poured that into a graduated cylinder. With this method, he felt he had a measured mentality and intelligence. And it was important for him to have skulls of different races and so he did.
“The unit of analysis in the 19th century was race.”
I just want to mention that this is all in line with the European Enlightenment idea of science -- about objectivity. And, let me say there are two ways of understanding objectivity. The first, I call Objectivity #1, is that one relies on the object for knowledge, evidence, material evidence. I think that is, surely, what science is, that way of knowing. But this Objectivity #1 is often confounded with Objectivity #2. Objectivity #2 is presumed neutrality, the ability to ascertain universal truths from observation. But if there is a neutral truth, we have no way of knowing that scientifically. We have no way of knowing that in terms of Objectivity #1. For example, human beings can’t imagine a way of being in every place in time to see if any truth ever lasted that long. So, the idea that we can be a neutral is like a religious idea. It’s about belief, it’s not a scientific idea. Yet, we’ve come to believe that it’s a quality of science, that scientists are neutral. That they have the magic method that takes them out of history, out of their culture out of their social background.
In fact, if you take the measurement – Objectivity #1 – if you measure the skull, you come up with a number. A skull is so many centimeters -- that’s true. But it’s meaningless. The observable measurement is meaningless. What gives it meaning is the interpretation: “Oh, I think the skull size reflects the brain size and that reflects the size of the mentality.” That’s a theory, but it’s also an interpretation. And in fact, Morton thought that brain size reflects mentality. But he was wrong. The reality is that the size of the skull has to do with height, with the proportions of the body. It’s different for men and women, but it has basically to do with height. So essentially, skull size is a proxy measurement of height, but for Morton it is being imagined – and this is where the bias comes in – as a measure of intelligence.
The point is that there is always subjectivity in science. But evidence is a good thing to have. Frederick Douglass, in 1854, responded to Samuel Morton’s work. Morton had just died and they published his ideas in something called the Types of Mankind. His ideas and those of Louis Agassiz at Harvard University were about the presumed biological inferiority of Blacks. Douglass argues many things very effectively. One of which is that neutrality is unverifiable. He says, and I am paraphrasing, “the neutral scholar is an ignoble man. It’s just a ploy for authority.” Douglass questioned science. He said that Morton was trying not to be accountable for his immoral conclusions by claiming neutrality. But he was not neutral. Douglass got that right away.
The Penn Museum, since last year, since the Black Lives Matter protests, has been trying to deal with their collections. We have found out that 53 of the skulls were from remains of enslaved Africans who were buried in Cuba but dug up and sent to Morton. And then quite a number of the other remains were from Black Philadelphians. I just wanted you to talk briefly about the focus on skulls. What was the name of the study of skulls? And what did Morton believe in terms of racial difference? I know that Morton believed in the notion of polygenesis, too, right?
This is where anthropology steps in. The justification for slavery now switches from this religious justification to a natural justification – that Blacks (and Native Americans) are biologically and naturally inferior to whites. This is an objectification that’s going on. The naturalization of the world. It’s a kind of imagination applied to take the differences among people – their inequalities – outside the arena of white immorality, of immoral choices, to place these differences now, not in the hands of God, but in nature (which comes very close to Godly). So, first among these anthropologists who were stepping in with nature to justify slavery and colonial genocide was Samuel Morton. It begins with his Crania Aegyptiaca, which is comparing Egyptian skulls to others. And Crania Americana for Native American skulls.
He assumed the Egyptians were white, correct?
It’s a bit more complicated than that, as my good colleague Maghan Keita would let us know. But that’s essentially the point: that the high culture of the Egyptians was created by Caucasoids, whites.
So, in that sense, race then circumvents history and geography so that those people in Africa who created the pyramids are now categorically defined as something that is not African. That is consistent with the notion that, as Antenor Firmin, the Haitian scholar, put at the end of the 19th century. Firmin said that to have measurements of the skull such that the African is biologically inferior, implying they’re always going to be lower than whites, you would have to go back and correct all classical scholarship, and tweak it to make it work. You would have to square a peg, to use my metaphor for Firmin’s analysis.
Morton was a believer in polygenesis. Polygenesis considers the so-called races – “Negroids,” “Mongoloids,” “Caucasoids,” and “Americans” to be different species. Johann F. Blumenbach, who critiques Morton, supported the idea of monogenesis – that we all had the same origins, meaning that we are one species. At the turn of the 19th century Blumenbach, who was a German, was an originator of the concept of race. He took this idea from his mentor, Carl Linnaeus in Sweden, who really was the first to organize all species into categories. Linnaeus created the category of race in 1758. Blumenbach then creates the categories of five races (Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American). But here it is. During the European Enlightenment, a deeply Eurocentric form of Christianity is interwoven with this science. They are looking for God in nature. So some would say that science is different from religion. But these are deeply interwoven at that time. Science and religion will become more separate, but less so, I think, than most people are aware of.
Of course, at the center of Blumenbach’s theory that races are of a single origin are (and he created the term) Caucasians. As we move outward we find the Blacks and Asians, and then Natives and Malay. For Blumenbach, Caucasians were the “Adamic” race [the original race descended from Adam and Eve] and the other races were degenerates, degenerated from this common origin. Blumenbach was an abolitionist. He read Olaudah Equiano. He read Phillis Wheatley. And so, some would argue, that he wasn’t a racist. But he believed that whites were the norm, and the other races were degenerate. I think he actually represents something more similar to our current form of white liberal racism.
“For Blumenbach, Caucasians were the ‘Adamic’ race [the original race descended from Adam and Eve] and the other races were degenerates.”
Polygenesis was the opposite view. It argued that the different “races” are different species altogether, different origins. And European scientists would argue that this categorization is more scientific because it is not based on the Adamic myth. It was their belief at the time that this, polygenesis, was real science. But they still thought that creation accounted for all of those different species.
African American Frederick Douglass argued, eloquently so, that we are one human race. Antenor Firmin, the Haitian anthropologist, at the end of the century, argued the same things. And Firmin used the metis (mixed race populations) as his example. It was assumed by race science that, since Blacks and whites are different species, they cannot reproduce together. But the metis represents the fallacy of that argument. And it’s amazing. Firmin is arguing with the anthropological society of Paris in 1885. Slavery has ended and the anthropologists are still trying to argue that Black people and white people are separate species when they know very well, as white mid-colonial men, that the offspring of Black-white crosses – as it would be then – are fertile. They were selling their offspring. So it’s this duplicity. Like Thomas Jefferson’s duplicity. All throughout, there is duplicity.
The essence is, however, that science is developing with the idea of objectivity, objectifying the other – making objects out of people – and racial analysis is part of the development of natural science. It will evolve with Darwin, into a more dynamic recapitulation of the same human ranking. It is this same ranking of races within white supremacy that we get the idea of biological determinism. Biological determinism is the real poison of racism, I believe. Even as we have gone from when race was surrogate for genes or DNA, and now DNA is the surrogate for race. With biological determinism, the particular ugliness of racism persists. It’s the idea that we were born for our right place in society, to be capable or incapable. But in fact, all of those differences – in behavior, for example – are actually learned. But this biological determinism is the notion that they are not learned and that we are born with them and that it is simply the natural order of things. The result is that we are supposed to live with the inequalities of society and accept to not view them as morally reprehensible.
“It is this same ranking of races within white supremacy that we get the idea of biological determinism.”
Natural science as eugenics developed with these ideas and that one could, if you wanted to change society, if you wanted to improve it, you’d have to breed it differently. Prevent the breeding of the inferior, augment and support the health and breeding of the superior race – who always happen to be, by the way, the ones who are in control. It’s the only way that can work. And so you have Aleš Hrdlička at the Smithsonian, a Czech immigrant to the United States who founded professional physical anthropology, who was a eugenicist. He believed in restricting immigration of the darker Europeans. Eugenics is an agenda that was fully expressed in Nazi Germany, in the Jim Crow era, in South Africa. It was science and these little measurements that provided the authority for the eugenicists.
The Negritude writer, Aime Cesaire, wrote in his Discourse on Colonialism, about the push for anti-racism after WWII when these marginal whites – Jews or Italians in the U.S., for example – were now being incorporated into the same racialization that people of African descent have been experiencing for 150 years. It’s like the racism awareness trick that some race counselors will use when they take something like what happened to Sandra Bland, a Black woman being dragged out of a car, and then say, “now imagine she’s white.” And so the western society came to see enough of its immorality to begin a degree of antiracism and at the same time the anticolonial movement was proceeding apace. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. would have to mount its own efforts to extend that sensibility about [anti]racism to Black people and to the politics of the country.
In the beginning, the United Nations took it on. All the scientists met together and, in 1951, drafted a statement on race that was really quite fair and reasonable. It says basically now we can see that all people are equal and capable of the same level of civilization. They wanted to argue against using the concept of race itself. So in effect, what they did was say that there are “ethnic groups” but not races. But all the examples of ethnic groups were white ethnics. Read that statement carefully. The focus on white “ethnic groups” was really the technical re-incorporation of Jews and Italians into mainstream whiteness. But, though the author of the new statement on race kept saying that we shouldn’t use the concept of race, and that there were only ethnic groups, also kept intact the three made-up racial divisions – Negroid, Caucasoids, and Mongoloids. So race was still being adhered to in this equivocal way.
In terms of Alan Mann and Janet Monge, I want to point to where science is throughout these changes in the US. Janet Monge was a student of Alan Mann. Mann was a student of William Bass at the University of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee, with the famous “body farm,” produced forensic anthropology. We use the same methods. I’m a bioarchaeologist. I’m trying to understand communities, society, epidemiology, and paleodemography. The folks at the University of Tennessee do some of that as well, but their forte is human identification – identifying bodies for the police and courts. Similar methods but for a different purpose. They don’t need to know about culture. But they (think they) know about race. Because that’s the kind of question the police would ask. What are the person’s race, sex, age, and maybe stature? Then they see if they can get dental records and other things that might be more specific. These are some of the most objectifying of my colleagues. (Though I will say this: just a couple of years ago, I was at Tennessee. The old guys have left and the young people seem to be very concerned about their old reputation and are trying to make a turn.) But the forensic anthropologists at Tennessee hung on to the belief that race is real for a very long time. So did the Smithsonian, which does a lot of forensic anthropology. They used to do forensic anthropology for the FBI. So Bass (and his peers) may do bioarchaeology, but he’s a believer in biological race. So while many others of us have gone on to other understandings of populations – as historical and social groups that, albeit have biological differences – that did not depend on a notion of race as real, the forensic scientists stuck to the old notions of race as biology and to the old notion of scientific objectivity. They still believe they could determine racial identity based on a couple of measurements of the hip and thigh.
“The focus on white ‘ethnic groups’ was really the technical re-incorporation of Jews and Italians into mainstream whiteness.”
The problem with these forensics folks is that they are so confident and feel that they have the magic method. And, they really believe in this race as objectivity. They believe that the study of race is neutral and that notions of race are not related to culture. And they believe that to be the real science. And Mann and Monge are in that group.
In a 2011 article, Mann and Monge are part of a group of anthropologists that set out to prove that Samuel Morton’s skull measurements, which had been heavily critiqued as biased, were indeed correct. (Importantly, all the contributors were from all elite schools, which is not surprising since these schools also supported eugenics.) In their article, they are contesting the result of a very important work, The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen J. Gould. Gould shows that Morton’s interpretation and measurements were biased, as part of a demonstration that all science is subjective. Let me pause to say that we (scientists) are all interpreting. There are more or less possible interpretations. I like evidence. Gould was arguing that we don’t have the means of absolute truth and that sometimes these scientists’ biases are very strong and serves political purposes. So science always must struggle with this. In making this argument, Gould used Samuel Morton’s skull measurements as centerpiece and demonstrated that his measurements were actually incorrect. Well, in their article Mann, Monge, and the others sought to show that Gould was wrong about Morton. They went after that. They remeasured Morton’s skulls and stated that his measurements were actually reliable. But they also argued that Morton was not biased because he was objective.
But anybody who is looking at this critically would know that because Morton’s interpretations were wrong – that brain size actually does not determine intelligence – then, of course, he was biased. The fact that he used the same measurements over and over, of the fact that the measurements were accurate, does not mean that his results were unbiased. It was Morton’s interpretation of the measurements that mattered. And they were biased – used to make claims about racial superiority and inferiority. Mann and Monge confounded objectivity #1 (basic evidence) with objectivity #2 (presumed neutrality in interpreting evidence). They did not understand the difference. And, clearly in that article, they were defending Morton but, more importantly, they were defending the institution of science – themselves – that Gould had threatened. One might say that they could have used Gould’s critiques to work towards a scientific practice that is more conscious of its biases. My own extension of that is to find a science that is more accountable to the ethics of descendant communities. These folks are moving in the other direction. They are hunkered down on, chomping down on the idea that science is objective and neutral. The essential thing is that Mann and Monge (and their colleagues) believe that Morton was objective. And they attempted to prove that if the science is objective then racism has no real role in Morton’s interpretation. If a group of scientists argue that, while some aspects of Samuel Morton’s work was racist, the work was nevertheless objective, they are trying to make that racism to be only superficial.
If I can extend this analysis: what Mann and Monge did by taking the [MOVE] Africa baby or two whose families had been bombed in Philadelphia, when all they had was a responsibility as medical examiners for reporting on the identities of these babies – taking them without parental permission (which I’m sure they would never have received) and using them as a display for forensic education online – represents the disempathy that that kind of objectifying of the “Other” produces. It would appear that they don’t see African Americans as the same real complete human beings that they and their white families and neighbors are. Because they didn’t do that with their white family members. So it’s a deeply baked-in expression of whiteness and the authority of objectivity is part of that. The story of the creation of the immoral ranking of people who become the instrument. In this case, as Aristotle says, it is the head and the hand of the enslaved that are the natural instruments. And so it seems to me upon reflection that whites always insist that Blacks be their instruments. Abhorrent behavior that they don’t see. Because they simply see an instrument.
But, I would just say, there are other things of value in skeletal collections.
It's said that human remains were excavated from Penn's football field. In the past, you have also dealt with questions of burial and memorialization through the African Burial Ground in New York. Can you tell us about that experience, the difficulties in navigating commemoration, and the lessons that Penn might learn from it?
The African Burial Ground is the cemetery that enslaved Africans used for pretty much the entirety of the 18th century, the 1700s, in New York City. It originally contained approximately 15,000 burials and, in the early 1990s, it was uncovered by a federal government building project and, long story short, the African American community protested strongly with hundreds of people in the street. Plus, memorialization is a basic human quality, and this expression of their basic humanity was being desecrated. Now there were archaeologists, and it is legally required for archaeologists to go in and protect cultural resources. And these skeletons would be considered part of that. The problem is that these archaeologists (40 of them who were all white, with half of them quickly trained) were ill-equipped to study an African or African American population. It is in this context that I brought in a team based at Howard University that would grow to take the place of the researchers that were there. We, along with the New York African American community, fought to have control of the site.
What I instituted as a bioarchaeologist, initially, was an extension of something that I had learned working with Native Americans. I’ll tell this story. I had been working with the World Archaeological Congress which, in the mid-1980s, was the only organization of archaeologists who were working with indigenous peoples trying to find a new way of doing archaeology. We were challenged by the collections, the objectification of Native remains and sacred objects in museums all over the world. I was at the 1989 Inter-Congress in Vermillion, South Dakota with the World Archaeological Congress and there were many Native Americans and Australians there – cultural workers, leaders, etc. And the lawyer of the Native American Rights Fund and I were sitting together. At that time, I smoked a pipe. I had the pipe on the table. And this guy took my pipe. He said, “don’t worry about it. I can learn a lot about you from this pipe and it will benefit you.” So, you know, I had fairly expensive pipes. And he had taken something that was mine. And he said, “you know, that’s no way to begin a negotiation.” And that’s essentially what American archaeology and physical anthropology had been doing. Taking. And then saying, “don’t worry. It’s gonna be good for you.”
This is a way of making the point that ancestral remains do not belong to everyone. They certainly don’t belong to white people. Unless they’re white remains. These ancestral remains are, as has been throughout all time as far as we can tell, under the stewardship of their own people, their family at best, to determine their disposition. And at that point, though, I had worked with Leslie Rankin-Hill at the Smithsonian, and we had worked with Lawrence Angel on the largest collection of African American remains, then, from Philadelphia. They numbered 150 people from the early 19th century. We, along with the firm John Miller Associates, who were very good on this issue, reburied those remains after this research. And this is the first reburial of a large population at the Smithsonian. And Leslie (who was an Afro-Cubana bioanthropologist) and I followed the truck all the way to the Eden Cemetery to make sure that they got there because this was not what the Smithsonian wanted to do. So we had that much sense. But I was in Vermillion (South Dakota), working to understand the problem better and at that point it was clear to me: it’s the descendant community and the culturally affiliated group that ethically has the right to determine the disposition of its remains. And I served on a number of committees trying to make that point but it was contested.
Tthe World Archaeological Congress was the only organization of archaeologists who were working with indigenous peoples trying to find a new way of doing archaeology.”
I had gotten into anthropology and bioarchaeology because I thought that this information would be useful. Enslaved populations are written about by their enslavers. Their histories are buried. I thought our tools would be able to reconstruct history from the remains, even if that’s all that’s there in the artifact. The idea that I had, and I offered it to the Native American fund in 1989, was that I would serve their purposes. If we could find a project that they would decide was worthy of any biological archaeological analysis then I would work with them. Otherwise, of course, my skills were not needed. At the time, they had the skulls of three Pawnee Scouts. At that time before NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), the only way you could rebury remains was if you knew their names. The three decapitated scouts’ names were known. They called me to say that these skulls were at the Smithsonian and said, “we want to verify that these are our people,” and “we want you to help us repatriate them.” It was the first of these sorts of partnerships.
When the African Burial Ground was found, with 419 remains, it was a great opportunity, then, to continue, to develop this “Clientage Model,” as I call it. We, as archaeologists, biological anthropologists, cultural anthropologists, geneticists, historians, art historians – all these people worked on the African Burial Ground. And there were, ultimately, 30 or so PhDs, 200 students and technicians at 9 different institutions or labs. But in the beginning, it was just a few of us, so we began negotiating with the community that had stopped the excavation, politically, with the power that they had on Capitol Hill, and in Gracie Mansion where David Dinkins was New York’s Mayor. Obie Patterson was state senator, which was very important. All these Black legislators.
The African American community’s question was: will we rebury these remains right away or will they be science? Our response to the community was: Let’s talk about it. Because there was very little history written about 18th century Africans in New York. They trusted us somewhat. We earned some of the trust. Being African American ourselves helped greatly. Plus, we demonstrated a common empathy and a common knowledge of a literature of the other anthropology, as it were, and history, that St. Clair Drake called “vindicationist.” African Americans in New York, senior women who wore traditional African clothing, cultural nationalists, and otherwise – all were very conscious of their African heritage. So we had hearings and we submitted a research design for comments, incorporated the questions that they had as descendants, into the research design, talked about the methods, some of which were destructive of bones – we asked if that was going to be alright, maybe those methods with DNA had to do with finding African origins.
The origins question was a key one for the community. And for the first time, geneticists were being asked to investigate the origins of African Americans. We [researchers] had never thought of that. There were all kinds of questions from the community, which was great. If you read Alondra Nelson’s Social Life of DNA, it makes it clear enough that direct to consumer genetics ancestry testing – that’s gone all the way from African ancestry to 23 & me – came from our project. And it entered our project because it came from that community, because that community asked the question. We had a number of questions, questions about resistance. They wanted to see the modes of resistance. White projects weren’t asking that question. They asked about transformation towards becoming African Americans. And they wanted to know about the physical quality of life for their ancestors, many of whom were enslaved in New York City.
Because there was public interest, the people in the community were in control. It was the descendant community’s project. They had the go or no-go power, and they said, “go with it.” That’s how we got the $6 million to produce the most sophisticated bioarcheological report ever done. Cause it meant something to someone other than those of us who live within the covers of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. And so, it represents public engagement, not only an ethical advance for anthropology. That is, we used the principle of informed consent: those who are most affected by our work, would discuss and understand what we would do. They effectively decided what we would do, and had the right to say no. That’s the most fundamental ethical principle. But my colleagues, they rail against it because they want to feel entitled, many of them. Whiteness is entitled. We had the humility of being willing to follow. As I said in a recent article, if my colleagues can’t learn how to follow and listen, they shouldn’t touch African American remains or anybody else’s.
Penn is not the only museum with remains. Many, many U.S. universities and museums are holding human remains. Howard has the Cobb collection. What is it, and what would you recommend for Howard and other collections?
W. Montague Cobb was the first African American physical anthropologist and an anatomist. He was very prominent. He was an activist. He was also president of the NAACP. His publications, of which there were 1100, were often on questions of the impact of racism on African American health and the impact of segregation upon medical education. In general, he is a part of the legacy of biocultural anthropology. He understood that biology was the consequence, as Frederick Douglass said, of circumstances. In Cobb’s time in the 1930s – he was at Howard University from the 1930s until about 1970s – there were about two other big collections of human remains. These bodies come from unclaimed dead – often from prisons and hospitals from the poor. Ostensibly, they were offered to families who chose not to claim them. And a municipal board in each of these cities allocated them.
Cobb said that his work was for Black people to make our own contribution to scientific knowledge, not to defend our humanity. But I hear him covering himself. Everything about him was an activist scholar. He was the one using that collection and was able to defend the humanity of Black people. Jesse Owens, for example. He measured every part of Jesse Owens to prove that Owens did not achieve his running success by virtue of his anatomy (which was the racist claim at the time). So he used biological anthropology to oppose biological determinism. And it was also important institutionally. Cobb was trying to build at Howard University a comparable institution to be able to, in the words of a former colleague, “cross swords with anyone” – that’s what those students were supposed to be trained to do. And I received the collection from Cobb and had it curated in the state of the art interior steel cabinetry with an NSF grant in the 1990s. I was proud to be part of that legacy of protecting it. It was not our interest to use these bones for race estimation criteria – like Morton or the Smithsonian would use them – but to take the collection seriously as a sample of the poor, and engage in studies of the health and conditions of impoverishment because we had some information on the lives of these unclaimed dead. This could be a resource for bio-cultural studies. I also proposed, then, and my former student, Dr. Rachel Watkins has launched the proposals in publications, that we announce in the press the names of all these people who comprise the collections so that families may have the right to claim them. I am not fully convinced that the families had proper opportunity to claim them originally. Technically, it was true that these remains were unclaimed, but it’s kind of a little hard to believe. Repatriation of remains to families should be a standing offer.
There are some things beyond taking the collection as a social group for reading their circumstances from their biology that are more customary and that is: if you want to learn the relationship between skeletal morphology (the form of the pelvis or any other part of the skeleton) and sex, for example, you need a skeleton whose sex is known. If you want to know what the skeletal manifestations are of age, year by year by year, (and they’re largely degenerative after 25), you need a skeleton of a human being whose age is known. Then when you develop those protocols, those methods, it will allow you then to go to an archaeological site, like the African Burial Ground, and reconstruct the demography, which is so powerful in understanding the condition of the people in the past. While I’ve seen some really good plastic cadavers out right now, maybe we’ll reach the point when the plastic ones will be good enough. (Now in VA, cadavers have to be donated – which is a long way from robbing graves) But there is still some value to having access to remains for estimates of age and sex. Without these we couldn’t do it, we couldn’t have the African Burial Ground study.
I’ve been in touch with Howard University. They are working towards the fuller ethical protocol they may have to deal with these collections. But I think in the end, the recent proposal by the Association of Black Anthropologists (to have a national database of human remains kept in museums and universities) is right because, first of all, you need to know what’s there. That’s how NAGPRA began. The first thing was inventory. So that the tens of thousands of Native American remains in museums that had federal money, were first inventoried. We need to know which of these remains are African. What do we know about these individuals? That would allow an ethical protocol. In the case of NAGPRA, culturally- affiliate groups have the right to make claims. One thing you will learn is that the repatriation office at the Smithsonian is underfunded. The Tribes are underfunded. They have to bear some of the costs of repatriating their remains! So I hope that there will be an effort to get legislators to support repatriation. I think the schools and museums need to pay some. But I think that it would be good if funds were made available to help the communities or individuals claim their remains.
In the end, it has to be decided ethically.
Editors, The Black Agenda Review
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