Stanford University archaeologist Ayana Omilade Flewellen has devoted her life to exploring America’s most profound truths.
They have been studying the remains of enslaved Africans on a Florida plantation.
They’ve descended into the murky Gulf of Mexico to explore a remarkably intact slave ship off the country’s coast.
But of all the disturbing realities Flewellen has encountered on land and at sea, few are more vexing than the aversion some Americans show to teaching US history through the lens of race and identity.
That animosity weighs on Flewellen at a time when politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who spoke Sunday at a book event at Simi Valley’s Reagan Library, are campaigning against what he calls “awakened” education. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has targeted an AP Black college course as little more than anti-American propaganda.
“It’s strange to believe that you could somehow raise citizens in this country who don’t understand all of history,” said Flewellen, 32, a nonbinary American who uses the gender pronouns “they” and “she” used.
Instead of politicizing courses and books, Flewellen says, Americans should instead use them as starting points for thinking about “the ways the past affects this present moment.”
Flewellen has helped raise the profile of the relatively quiet field of historical archeology at a time when black history is under attack.
Co-founder of the American Society of Black Archaeologists, they are also board members of the non-profit organization Diving with Purpose. The all-volunteer organization trains black divers to help map, survey and preserve shipwrecks, including sunken ships whose cargo was enslaved captives en route from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. The divers’ work is supported by the Smithsonian’s Project Slave Wrecks. The group, which also includes UCLA archaeologist Justin Dunnavant, has been named PBS, CNN and in National Geographic.
There are thought to be as many as 1,000 uncharted, sunken ships linked to the transatlantic slave trade, which brought an estimated 12 million Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean over four centuries.
With so much history yet to be documented, not just under our oceans but also in the continental US, Flewellen believes, “We don’t even know the darkest parts.”
“It’s hard to ignore the reality of Indigenous boarding schools when one has to consider the myriad of nameless burials associated with these schools,” says Flewellen. “It’s impossible to ignore the travesty of the massacre of the Tulsa race when faced with the mass burials of African Americans who tried to live there.”
Flewellen is particularly concerned about the apparent lack of interest among some political figures in students who come from communities whose histories have either been whitewashed or left out.
Political and education leaders in places like California, Texas and Florida, where the scholar grew up, have taken steps to ban the study of systemic injustice under the guise of eliminating critical race theories. Some school districts have placed restrictions on gender education because affirming images of LGBTQ people is harmful to children.
Days later, the Florida Department of Education, led by DeSantis, rejected a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies as politically divisive, the College Board removed controversial lectures and classes on topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and mass incarceration from the curriculum. Critics accused the nonprofit of bowing to pressure from the right.
As a self-proclaimed black feminist who uses terms like “intersectionality” to describe being a member of multiple oppressed groups and who has worked to make archeology more inclusive, Flewellen says these movements feel personal.
Flewellen flashes back to South Miami high school, where a teacher stressed that Africans enslaved other Africans, as if that somehow exempted the US from the buying, selling, and forced labor of black people.
They recall being “overwhelmed” by discussions in college that did not shy away from linking slavery and racism in earlier eras to the systemic discrimination and inequality black Americans face today – and felt outraged that this teachings were not offered in primary school.
“Everyone is talking about the contemptuous ways this history will be taught, and I am constantly reminded of the contemptuous ways it is already being taught,” says Flewellen. “I remember feeling discouraged and divided as a student and feeling helpless.”
During a conversation on Zoom, their voices become shrill when the conversation turns to California. As an educator in her own right, Flewellen wants students, even in this progressive state, to think more deeply about the removal of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, the exploitation of Chinese immigrants, and the use of black indentured servants to mine gold in the Sierras. , among other abuses.
However, Flewellen becomes elegiac at memories of exploring the mysteries of the deep.
They were among the divers who explored the Clotilda, a slave ship whose largely intact hull rests at the bottom of Alabama’s Mobile River.
It was deliberately flooded by the crew in 1860 – long after the entry of Africans was made illegal – to destroy evidence of their crime. Descendants of prisoners smuggled onto that ship still live in a community built by their ancestors known as Africatown.
The ship’s hull survived the sinking, but because the river is so murky, the wreckage was practically invisible during the dive.
“Because it was ‘blackout’ diving,” says Flewellen, “I was so closely connected to my breath.
“The only thing you can hear underwater is your breathing – in, out. There is a kind of silence that creates respect for the space you are in.”
Swimming blindly through cramped compartments where African prisoners had been crammed during their torturous journey, grazing against the wooden planks of the ship, Flewellen was suddenly overcome with the feeling that a new chapter in black history was being written.
In that silence, they pondered “what it meant to be a black, non-binary person diving into that space.”
“The experience of that is something that’s not measurable,” says Flewellen. “I remember asking myself to just take a deeper breath. I remember asking myself to just be more present.
In a sense, this has become Flewellen’s calling: helping Americans of diverse backgrounds come closer to each other’s histories, even if those truths are suffocating and hard to grasp.
Enslaved Africans managed to build loving communities, maintain their dignity and find moments of joy under the most humiliating circumstances. Reflecting on those accomplishments, Flewellen says even the most disturbing chapters of America’s past can offer valuable lessons to those who crave acceptance about how to persevere in the inhumane rhetoric of the present.
“That to me is a source of great strength and pride,” Flewellen says of black people’s ability to rise above their oppression. “So if anyone wants to tell me that it would be disparaging to say that my ancestors were enslaved, all I have to do is remind them that the way they chose to live their lives (in an earlier era ) has allowed me to be where I am. Today.”
Flewellen signs all emails with a quote from James Baldwin’s 1963 book on the central role of race in American life, “The Fire Next Time.”
“Accepting your past – your history – is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” the late author wrote. “An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressure of life like clay in a season of drought.”
Flewellen can’t help but be inspired by the eloquence of that observation, and awestruck by his foresight.
“I feel like that’s what you see when you see book bans, the scrambling to get AP curricula out of classes,” says Flewellen. “It’s the literal scrambling to try and hold on to something that’s crumbling beneath you.”
What is crumbling in America, says Flewellen, is the idea that there is only one way to tell the nation’s story, and that there is only one kind of American who should be celebrated in it.
This thought puts a smile on their face. America is changing despite the political bickering over classroom education.
Flewellen was so frustrated with the scarcity of children’s books for young black Americans that they began collecting the few that were available, thinking the books would be a valuable resource if they ever started a family.
“I got out of that practice because these days I can go to a bookstore anywhere and find books aimed at black children; I can find books aimed at trans kids,” says Flewellen.
“That reminds me to be optimistic. There is a community of people doing this work.”
Flewellen says politicians who try to score points with their bases by censoring lessons and writings about the black experience and restricting teachings about gender identity are destined to be educated themselves. They and others who feel their lives have been ignored in the nation’s history lessons will no longer tolerate being treated as if their existence is too dangerous to teach.
“You can ban the book,” says Flewellen, “but it won’t stop the wave.”