Stanford University archaeologist Ayana Omilade Flewellen has dedicated their life to examining America’s most wrenching truths.
They have studied the remains of enslaved Africans at a Florida plantation.
They’ve descended into the murky Gulf of Mexico to explore a remarkably intact slave ship off the nation’s coast.
But of all the unsettling realities that Flewellen has encountered on land and at sea, few are as vexing as the antipathy some Americans show toward teaching U.S. history through the lens of race and identity.
That hostility weighs on Flewellen at a time when politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spoke Sunday at a book event at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, wage a campaign against what he’s branded “woke” education. The presumptive Republican presidential contender has targeted an Advanced Placement Black studies course as little more than anti-American propaganda.
Ayana Omilade Flewellen dives at the site of the Hannah M. Bell shipwreck off the coast of Florida. The archaeologist’s work at sea and on land is driven by a desire to see more Black Americans participate in historical research.
“It is strange to believe that you could somehow raise citizens in this country who don’t understand the fullness of its history,” says Flewellen, 32, a nonbinary American who goes by the gender pronouns “they” and “she.”
Instead of politicizing courses and books, Flewellen says, Americans should instead use them as starting points to reflect on “the ways that the past impacts this present moment.”
Flewellen has helped raise the profile of the relatively low-key field of historical archaeology at a time when Black history has come under attack.
Co-founder of the American Society of Black Archaeologists, they’re also a board member of the nonprofit Diving With a Purpose. The all-volunteer organization trains Black scuba divers to assist in mapping, surveying and preserving ship wrecks, including sunken vessels whose cargo was enslaved captives en route from Africa to the Americas and Caribbean. The divers’ work is supported by the Smithsonian’s Slave Wrecks Project. The group, which also includes UCLA archaeologist Justin Dunnavant, has been featured on PBS, CNN and in National Geographic.
There are thought to be as many as 1,000 unmapped, sunken ships with ties to the transatlantic slave trade, which brought an estimated 12 million Africans to the Americas and Caribbean over four centuries.
Because there is so much history yet to be documented, not just beneath our oceans but in the continental U.S., Flewellen believes “we don’t even know the darkest parts.”
Stanford archaeologist Ayana Omilade Flewellen takes measurements and documents fragments of the Hannah M. Bell, a 315-foot vessel that sank off the Florida Keys in 1911. The research is part of an international effort to locate and study ships lost at sea, many of them tied to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which ended in the 1800s.
“It is hard to ignore the realities of Indigenous boarding schools when you have to reckon with the countless unnamed burials attached to these schools,” Flewellen says. “It is impossible to ignore the travesty of the Tulsa race massacre when you are confronted with the actual mass burials of African Americans who sought to live there.”
Flewellen is especially troubled by the seeming lack of concern among some political figures for students who come from communities that have seen their histories either whitewashed or left out.
Political and educational leaders in places such as California, Texas and Florida, where the scholar grew up, have moved to ban the study of systemic injustice under the guise of eliminating critical race theory. Some school districts have imposed restrictions on teachings about gender on the grounds that affirming portrayals of LGBTQ people are harmful to children.
Days after Florida’s department of education, under the leadership of DeSantis, rejected a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies as politically divisive, the College Board removed controversial readings and lessons 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-described Black feminist who uses terms like “intersectionality” to describe being a member of multiple oppressed groups and who has worked to make the archaeology more inclusive, Flewellen says these moves feel personal.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a news conference in Miami in January. The Republican has waged a campaign against what he calls “wokeness” in public schools and elsewhere.
(Marta Lavandier / Associated Press)
Flewellen flashes back to middle school in South Miami, where a teacher made a point of stressing that Africans enslaved other Africans, as if that somehow absolved the U.S. from the buying, selling and forced labor of Black people.
They recall being “blown away” by college discussions that didn’t shy from connecting slavery and racism in past eras to the systemic discrimination and inequities at Black Americans face today — and feeling resentful that these teachings weren’t offered in grade school.
“Everyone’s talking about the disparaging ways in which this history will be taught, and I am constantly reminded of the disparaging ways in which it is already being taught,” Flewellen says. “I remember as a student feeling discouraged and feeling divided and feeling helpless.”
During a conversation over Zoom, their voice grows strident when the conversation turns to California. As an educator in their own right, Flewellen wants students even in this progressive state to reflect more intently on the removal of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, the exploitation of Chinese immigrants and the use of Black indentured workers to mine for gold in the Sierra, among other wrongs.
Ayana Omilade Flewellen, left, works alongside a participant in a youth archaeology program at the Estate Little Princess Plantation in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Their work was part of the land-based research being conducted under the Smithsonian’s Slave Wrecks Project.
(Ayana Omilade Flewellen)
Flewellen waxes elegiac, though, in recollections about investigating the mysteries of the deep.
They were among the divers who’ve explored the Clotilda, a slave ship whose mostly intact hull rests on the bottom of the Mobile River in Alabama.
It was deliberately submerged by its crew in 1860 — long after the importation of Africans was made illegal — to destroy evidence of their crime. Descendants of captives who were smuggled on that ship still live in a community built by their ancestors known as Africatown.
The hull of the ship survived the sinking, but because the river is so murky, the wreckage was practically invisible during the dive.
“Because it was ‘blackout’ diving,” Flewellen says, “I was so intimately connected with my breath.
“All you can hear underwater is you breathing — in, out. There’s a kind of stillness in that that allows for the reverence of the space that you’re in.”
Swimming blindly through cramped compartments where African captives had been packed together during their torturous voyage, grazing against the ship’s wooden planks, Flewellen was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense that a new chapter in Black history was being written.
In that silence, they reflected on “what it meant to be a Black, gender nonbinary person diving in that space.”
“The experience of that is something that’s not quantifiable,” Flewellen says. “I remember asking myself to just breathe deeper. I remember asking myself to just be more present.”
In a sense, this has become Flewellen’s calling — helping Americans from different backgrounds come into closer contact with one another’s history, even when those truths feel suffocating and difficult to grasp.
Enslaved Africans managed to build loving communities, maintain their dignity and find moments of joy under the most degrading of circumstances. Thinking about those achievements, Flewellen says that even the most unsettling chapters of America’s past can offer valuable lessons to those who yearn for acceptance about how to persevere over the dehumanizing rhetoric of the present.
“That is a source for me of great strength and pride,” Flewellen says of Black people’s ability to rise above their oppression. “So if someone wants to say to me that it would be disparaging to say that my ancestors were enslaved, I need only remind them that how they chose to live their lives [in an earlier era] has allowed me to be where I am today.”
Flewellen signs off all emails with a quote from James Baldwin’s 1963 book about the central role of race in American life, “The Fire Next Time.”
“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing 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 pressures 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 its prescience.
“I feel like that’s what you see when you see the banning of books, the scrambling to get AP curricula thrown out of classes,” Flewellen says. “It’s the literal scrambling to try and preserve something that is crumbling beneath you.”
What’s crumbling in America, Flewellen says, is the idea that there is only one way to tell the nation’s story, and only one kind of American who should be celebrated in it.
This thought brings a smile to their face. America is changing despite the political wrangling over classroom instruction.
Flewellen used to be so frustrated by the scarcity of children’s books for young Black Americans that they started collecting the few that were available, figuring the books would be a precious resource if they ever started a family.
“I got out of that practice because I can go into a bookstore anywhere today and I can find books catered toward to Black children; I can find books catered toward trans children,” Flewellen says.
“That reminds me to be optimistic. There’s a community of people that are doing this work.”
Flewellen says politicians who seek to score points with their base by censoring lessons and writings on the Black experience, and restricting teachings about gender identity, are destined to be schooled 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,” Flewellen says, “but it’s not going to stop the wave.”