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  • Writer's pictureEllie Crew

Dr Peggy Brunache: Mentorship, racism, and navigating politics as a Black woman in Archaeology

Updated: Aug 13, 2021


Dr Peggy Brunache speaks on the struggles of searching for mentorship, the politics of academia, and the wonders unconventional career path.


Dr Brunache is a Haitian American archaeologist, lecturer, culinary consultant and foodways specialist. From a young age, Peggy wanted to write and tell stories, and has dedicated her career to connecting people of all classes and backgrounds to archaeology. Born to Caribbean immigrant parents from Haiti, Peggy was raised in Miami, Florida and stumbled upon Anthropology at University. She then went on to do a Masters degree in Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia after working in cultural resource management for almost a decade. Peggy is an accomplished academic; her PhD from the University of Texas conducting ground-breaking research to uncover the stories of enslaved women within Habitation La Mahaudière, Guadeloupe, Caribbean. Through using innovative methods and research, Peggy showed how these women used to food not only to provide sustenance for their families, but express identity, resilience, and resistance - even demonstrating their direct influence on modern-day Soul and Caribbean Creole cuisines. Dr Brunache now lives in Scotland and lectures on the History of Atlantic Slavery at the University of Glasgow.


As well as being a prominent archaeologist, Peggy is an accomplished consultant, her great passion for cooking leading her to work as a culinary consultant for BBC Radio Scotland as well a consulting African Diaspora scholar for BBC TV. She also consults for the the Southern Fried Food festival which runs annually in Perth, Scotland, and celebrates modern day Soul food. Dr Brunache has worked with a number of organisations including TrowelBlazers (where I was lucky enough to first interview her), and is a prevalent member of the SBA (Society for Black Archaeologists).


Dr Brunache has always focused on being accessible, and her work is a testament to her values of inclusivity, passion for education, and integrity; being some of the most engaging and incredibly profound literature that I have ever read. My interview with her was the inspiration behind 'pearls of wisdom', and here is what she had to say.


*TRIGGER WARNING ADVISED - this interview covers matters of racism and mentions sexual assault allegations, please take care of yourselves*

Your career has been incredibly multi-vocational, looking back now, what part of your work do you think of as the most rewarding?

“I think that the part that is most rewarding is the part that has also troubled me the most, which is the fact that I’ve never done the, undergrad, postgrad, full-term job or tenure position, that’s not me. My career has weaved in and out in all these different ways, which has been frustrating because it’s a little scary that you see all your colleagues and friends do the traditional path from university to career, and you worry ‘am I doing something wrong?’. But what has been rewarding is that I have had the opportunity to work with so many different people and therefore access a completely different set of resources, information and perspective that only helps to make my work with archaeology, anthropology and public intellectualism far more accessible to a wider audience …

It gave me a really good understanding on how different archaeology can be depending on the requirements, the restrictions, the necessities and the politics, and then going into postgrad and not feeling that I had to believe every single thing that my professors and lecturers were saying…

My experience of doing CRM (cultural resource management) and work outside of a University didn’t allow me to be dictated to in regards as to how my career should go.”

 

What do you wish you’d been told as a young woman starting out in your career?

“Be wary of politics. Academia does not exist in its own world, valued outside of the politics that govern it. Sadly, we are seeing more and more that universities are businesses and unfortunately we don’t live in a time where, if you are lucky enough to get university position as a lecturer, they’re going to support you throughout all of your time there. You are only as necessary as they deem you…

As someone who knew early on that they were going to go into African Diaspora studies, I wish I was told that just because your colleagues that are white are studying and publishing on the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants, that doesn’t mean that they believe that Black lives matter. That was a hard lesson…

Also the position of where you are as a junior in your career, it’s very difficult to try to call out and established senior lecturer or colleague because they’re not going to listen to you…

And that’s not just in the case of race relations, that’s in the case of sexual assault allegations…

and that scared me, and I said, ‘I can’t be in this world for a while’, and that’s why I went and did cultural resource management…

So I would say be aware of the politics, especially if you’re starting out, and as women, if you identify a woman, and if you are a person of colour or Indigenous, those politics may play against you even with colleagues who are supposed to be working on the same side as you for knowledge production. So that was probably one of the hardest things. You don’t have to say the N word to be a racist.”

 

The ethical study of African Diaspora materials has been fundamental to your work, what do you think has been one of the most exciting discoveries to come out of your work in the Caribbean?

“I guess it's what you mean by exciting. I would say being able to have a peek into the private lives of enslaved Africans, and their descendants, who were never allowed to write their own stories, and [relaying] what this horrific institution of chattel slavery was like. The most exciting thing I suppose is when I get to actually touch elements, material cultures, associated with forms of resistance. The resistance, a desire to retain cultural aspects of their African past lives in terms of religion, practice of food, that has all been extraordinarily exciting. There’s what the planter the slaveholder thinks is going on, and then what’s really going on in their private lives. That has been exciting.

But more than that I am profoundly affected by what happens when I’m actually standing in what was a slave village, and understanding the proximity of one slave home to another how close everything is, and therefore you can hear so clearly what would have happened in the past. So if someone, say a slave driver or white overseer who yielded power over you came into your domestic space; into your home, others in nearby slave homes would have heard it. The domestic spaces were that close. That was hard.…

Maybe not all but definitely most Black people working in archaeology on projects like this find some way to negotiate that trauma, because we are still experiencing that trauma…

Like when I picked up a branding iron that had the initials of the planter on it, knowing this was pressed against people’s bodies, the way you brand cattle. It brings these waves of trauma again. But there is a way that a lot of us tend to negotiate this - it’s this weird play of trying to laugh through the trauma to keep from crying. And I’ve seen others that are not Black maybe hear it in passing and I think it makes them uncomfortable, which rightly so, and it makes us uncomfortable too, but it is just one way to try to negotiate through the pain of what we’re doing but we know it’s necessary and we have to do it…

I don’t necessarily need non Black colleagues to connect [with the materials] emotionally, just respectfully. I just need the respect.”

 

Did you always think that you would go into archaeology? If you weren’t an archaeologist, what do you think you would have become?

“God no! I wanted to be a screenwriter. I wanted to tell stories. But coming from the family that I came from that just wasn’t going to be possible because, you know, Haitian Americans, you’re supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and anyone who comes from immigrant families like that know; there’s medicine, science, lawyer, engineering and that’s just what you do. You don’t go into something like screenwriting. But funnily enough I suppose when I found my path into archaeology, I still wanted to tell stories of those who came before me…

Then I started thinking about studying mountain gorillas, and I deterred from that path when I thought about, I’m a woman, I have monthly issues, how do you deal with that when you’re in the middle of a Ugandan mountain forest, do you have to ship things in? Where do you dispose of them when you’re in the field? *Laughter*…

But I always knew it’s going to be something ‘science’, so when I found anthropology it was instant. The idea of being outside all the time, you’re not in the office you’re digging it’s just a completely different lifestyle, it sounded too exciting…

But then when I got to work with some museum curators for a project about Fort Mose, the first free Black permanent settlement in North America in the 1700s, and I was handed this iron bar, and I didn’t know what this rectangular iron bar was, and I asked my supervisor Darcy [MacMahon] “What is this?” and she said “That’s payment.”, “An iron bar?”, And she said “Yeah, that’s how you bought enslaved Africans.” …

And that, that shifted my entire world. That I was holding something that was going to be used as money, to buy people, to buy my people. It shifted my whole perspective and I thought – yeah, I’m doing that, I’m doing that…

I have always wanted my work to be accessible, to encompass and to pull in the widest audience possible because of where I came from. I didn’t come from academics I came from poor immigrants that just lucked out and had a way to make it to the United States, so my mother couldn’t even say archaeology properly, her accent was too thick, she couldn’t wrap her tongue around it. So I never wanted to write stories that my parents couldn’t read and understand. Much of my work is for people like that, for the community I came from – very poor working class.“

 

As a very successful and influential black woman in academia, would there be any advice that you would give to young black women and girls looking to enter the field of archaeology?

“We all want help and support, we all want for a better word, mentorship. Be prepared to not find it. Be prepared to have your life influenced by what you see as a positive happening for others, if not necessarily for yourself, and also the negatives, and what to avoid. I would say I didn’t have an actual mentor, which is probably why my career weaves and ebbs in all these interesting ways, however I was smart enough to watch [lecturers and academics]…

I would say you absolutely need to have a core of steel, you have to know what you want and be willing to do what you have to do to get at it. But the same time you can find your tribe. A lot of what has influenced me is not mentorship but definitely support from really influential Black women who are in the field in various ways, so I take from them these little bits of advice - and watch everything...

Also be willing to stand your ground on something. So if you’re a woman of colour, if you’re a Black women wanting to go into archaeology but you don’t want to go into the studies of the African diaspora, don’t feel bullied that you have to do it, that as a Black woman, you should be studying the past lifeways of Africans and their descendants. You shouldn’t have to feel bullied to do that…

If you want to study Chinese archaeology that’s fine but be aware of what you’re up against as a person of colour and as a woman going into that field - be aware, but find your people, and they will get you through it. Find your people that will support you. There is no point in spending time with successful or influential people when all they do is make sure that you stay below them, what’s the point? You could do that anywhere, you could go to work as a waiter and have that same experience, why do it with something you love, and something you want to achieve greatness at? Always be aware of who is trying to push you down or keep you down…

The work that we do and the studies that we do are so flexible, we don’t only fit in academia, so if that means that you carve out your own career in public intellectualism, in the public sector, doing other things in some sort of interactive learning, then that’s what you do, you kill it, and everyone comes to you.”

 

What do you love most about the work that you do in archaeology?

That I get to show my people, that we were more than just slaves. That we were resilient, and creative and amazing. And off the back of that, with people who may have always felt uncomfortable with the topic of slavery, that I have found a way to engage them with it, and challenge themselves to understand how structural racism still exists. I can get them to see a lot of similarities in perhaps their ancestry of Scottish peasantry, which in many ways can mirror aspects of enslaved Africans and allow them to feel a little bit closer and less distant from others that they know nothing about.”

 

What’s the most important thing that you’d want people to take away from your story?

“There’s always a way. If you want it. It may be a really difficult journey to get to what you want and maybe your final destination isn’t quite what you thought it was going to be, but the work and perseverance in earnest in what you believe in is always rewarded on some level. I don’t have a tenure track position in an American university, but I know that the work that I do is still important, I know that in many ways I am touching, engaging with, and maybe even influencing a wider audience outside of academia, as much as I am inside academia. I would say that’s what I want people to take away from it. That just because I didn’t do the traditional path doesn’t mean I failed, I’m still an educator and not just of university students...

It doesn’t have to be a straight line from point A to point B of undergrad, to point C of a full-time permanent position as a university lecturer…

You should feel allowed to carve your own path, to whatever point you see is for you.”

 

Were there any other women within archaeology who have particularly influenced you or your work?

“God yes. The first for myself, and I would say for many of us was Theresa Singleton. She was the first Black American woman to get a PhD in this field and of course before I found myself really immersed in postgrad studies and I was doing CRM (cultural resource management) I was still going to professional conferences and meeting the likes of Cheryl White, who I consider just a maverick, she’s another woman who’s carved her way. Cheryl LaRoache, she is another who also carved this very interesting path where it wasn’t point A to point C in academia and that’s the end of story.

...

Of course there’s the woman who brought me into my PhD programme Maria Franklin who studied under what we consider the father of historical archaeology in the United States, she was very much a supportive no-nonsense person, always making sure that we were focused.

...

Within my own cohort I was also lucky enough to have Jodie Skipper who again, she is an academic but she is so much more, involved in activism within the local community.

...

My girl, she was my flatmate for several years, Whitney, Dr Whitney Battle-Baptiste, who is known for her seminal work in Black feminist archaeology. When I say you need to find your tribe, Whitney is the perfect example of that, she is a brilliant strong-willed, intelligent woman who knows what she wants, but she has never once felt the need to make sure that others can’t rise to where she is - she is the best part of humanity.

...

The idea of other routes is also indicative of Alexandra Jones, she started her own business called archaeology in the community.

...

Ayana [Flewellen] I mean what doesn’t she do! She’s doing underwater archaeology, she’s doing terrestrial archaeology, she helped create the Society for Black Archaeologists with Justin [Dunnevant]. Ayana Flewllen is just amazing. It’s hard, being a woman in this world, and then a person of colour on top of that, just watching them navigate all of this and, again [Ayana is] someone who is always looking to influence and support and bring up rather than knockdown.

Alicia Odewale who has just helped to bring about this new syllabus on the Tulsa riots, and she helped to launch this amazing syllabus anyone can access about what happened in Tulsa back in the 30s I believe when it was basically a state sanctioned racial violence – knocked out blocks of businesses and housing of the Black side of Tulsa because even though they were respecting segregation, they were too financially independent… and [that’s another example of how] even when you play by the rules, you’ll still be punished for finding a way to be successful, and it helps people to understand that the idea of racialised violence in America was never a situation of bigotry - it has always been part of the system.

...

Too many people want to hold onto the idea that racism is this individualistic construction performed only by backwards ignorant people, that’s not how it was, and that’s still not how is. That kind of power requires everyone to participate, and it’s engendered by the government. So all of these people are working towards unearthing these histories and knowledge that have been lost. Some of us are digging, others are in the field of archaeology but teaching, others are working with communities – there is a type of activism happening in so many different ways. I suppose that those are the women that I’m most influenced by, other women who are doing all this work, whether it’s the way that Teresa Singleton did it, or Anna Agbes-Davies - You don’t have to have an actual mentor, just a collection of people that are there for you. We don’t always know the right path to take all the right choices to make, but with those people in your cohort those choices aren’t so hard.”

 

Information taken from the previous interviews given from the SBA Oral History Project, and information from Dr Brunache herself. A special thank you to Peggy for her time, patience, and inspiration.


Written by Ellie Crew, creator of @women_of_archaeology


*Also posted in an edited version as part of the 2020 TrowelBlazers DigitalFieldwork project at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL*











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