• Portrait photo of Ayana Flewellen
  • Ayana Flewellen looking through collections
  • Ayana Flewellen scuba diving

Ayana's Story (they/she)

Some of my earliest memories are of the days I spent with my mother in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. At the time we lived a short train ride away, in Takoma Park, Maryland. My mother, who was a young adult navigating the nonprofit world, had little disposable income to set aside for recreational adventures. However, the museums that lined the National Mall were free to the public and were always a thrilling adventure for me. To this day, hours still slip by like minutes as I meander through a good exhibit, reading every informational panel and taking in every object on display.

As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I wandered through my first two years as an "exploratory major,” finding myself in English, journalism, psychology, and African American studies classes until I took a summer course on cultural anthropology. I was hooked. I sought classes cross-listed between African American studies and anthropology, and I found a course titled "The Archaeology of African American Life and History.” With a semester left to finally determine a major, I signed up for the course and have been practicing archaeology ever since. This class, which allowed me to literally touch history, sparked the child in me who loved wandering museum halls and staring at artifacts behind glass display windows. It wasn’t until that course that I became aware that I could be a part of the history-making process that filled museums with narratives of our past.

Before that archaeology course, I had not so much as even thought about archaeology as a field I’d base my career in. Up until college, the image of an archaeologist was either Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones. Both representations were white. Moreover, both representations featured the extraction and decimation of often African and other non-white heritage sites. The course at the University of Florida guided my foray into archaeology to center on African diaspora history, and to discuss racial politics. As a result, I felt like I—a Black, queer, assigned female at birth, nonbinary person—saw myself in the work, saw myself in the past and the present.

Since then I’ve rooted myself in the field and made it a mission to create pathways for students like me to flourish in the field of archaeology. I’m the co-founder and current President-Elect of the Society of Black Archaeologists, and I sit on the board of Diving With a Purpose. SBA is a nonprofit organization whose mission centers the histories and material cultures of global Black and African communities in archaeological research by providing a strong network, mentorship, and archaeological educational access to Black and African scholars and communities. Diving With a Purpose is dedicated to the conservation and protection of submerged heritage resources by providing education, training, certification and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation.