Meet Dr. Rachel Watkins: Bioanthropologist & Jazz Enthusiast
BY: CRAIG STEVENS
When you hear the term "anthropology," what comes to mind? Archaeologists on their hands and knees sifting through rocks? Or the search for the next premodern human such as Lucy, the renowned Australopithecus afarensis? Maybe you think of old white men studying “exotic” societies to fulfill their employer’s colonial exploits. In a way, all of these associations are correct.
To put it simply, anthropology is the study of humans and cultures. But, it can also be so much more.
“Anthropology allows you to understand how [cultural backgrounds] and what we’re bringing to the table as researchers and students has an impact on how we see and process the world,” said American University professor and bioanthropologist Dr. Rachel Watkins. “Anthropologists are uniquely equipped to talk about connections between who we are biologically and who we are socially in these really synthetic and accessible ways."
Watkins helps students to make these connections by bridging the gap between the past and the present. “Oftentimes we see the world in a way that is fixated on humanity over the past few hundred years, but there are ways in which it's really helpful to think of our human history across hundreds of thousands or millions of years,” said Watkins.
In her early career, Dr. Watkins worked on the historic New York African Burial Ground — a 6.6 acre mass grave in Lower Manhattan, used from the 1690s until 1794 to bury free and enslaved Africans. The New York City that we know today was built by the men and women buried at the site.
An Ohio native and Howard University grad, Dr. Watkins became fascinated with anthropology after reading Stephen J. Gould’s, "The Mismeasure of Man" in high school. The book focuses on the use of science in constructing race and biological anthropology — the subfield that Watkins ended up making a career out of.
CS: Once you discovered your interest in anthropology, did you expect to use the degree for a career in academia?
RW: For a long time I thought I’d work outside of the academy. I come from a family of health activists. My grandmother is a nurse. She worked at a hospital for a very long time, and was one of the first black nurses at the hospital. There is actually a health center named after her in my hometown. Part of hanging out with grandma meant being at the health center while she was doing her work. She, along with her cohort of people, started this health center in the inner city offering free and low cost health services for people, and helping people to acquire insurance. So I did lean strongly towards [the medical field] for a while, and my grandmother was very essential in the growth of that.
CS: Sounds like you inherited that theme of social justice and interest in the human body from your grandmother. But it’s interesting how anthropology can be inspired by so many diverse fields of study.
RW: Exactly, and for the longest time I don't think I truly kept that in mind. And I don't think I would've ended up being an anthropologist had I not been at Howard [University]. Because the discipline of anthropology at Howard University was very much so connected to this larger tradition of African American scholar activism— which is by its very nature interdisciplinary. So it absolutely makes sense that somebody like me, growing up around someone like my grandmother, Daisy, would end up doing the work that I do.
CS: Could you describe one of the most fulfilling moments of your professional career?
RW: One of the most transformative and significant professional moments in my career was being able to work on the New York African Burial Ground projectwhen I was an undergrad. I was hired as an Osteological Technician Assistant (OTA). We removed the remains from the site, encased in the soil around them. In the lab, we completed a second round of excavation, using the tools of the trade. After the remains were exposed, soil remaining on the bone's surface was gently cleaned off. We then conducted inventory, pathology, age and sex assessment when possible. After photo-documentation, the remains were returned to the lab. Special cabinets were purchased in which to keep the remains. Each individual was placed in her or his own drawer, with the appropriate support and padding. This all started around January of 1992, and went on until roughly 2002. The remains were reinterred by way of a ceremony, in which they were transferred from Howard to Baltimore, to Philly, to Delaware and to New York.
CS: That’s an amazing experience, especially for an undergraduate student. But with HBCUs, like Howard, eliminating anthropology Bachelor’s degree programs, I’m worried that this is an additional obstacle preventing black students from studying anthropology. Do you have any suggestions for what anthropologists can do to engage more minority students?
RW: Well I have my positions, and other colleagues have different ways of going about this issue. I’m a strong believer in us getting out of the academy and going into schools [to teach]. It's not necessarily glamorous, but I’m really into engaging students and going into schools that have a largely minority, first-generation population. As part of the American Anthropological Association, I co-chair a program with another black female cultural anthropologist, where we go into high schools and middle schools with college readiness programs. We talk to them about not just anthropology, but how the study of anthropology connects with whatever they're dealing with or studying now. So we try as hard as we can when we present anthropology to [connect it to] something they're learning in class.
I also do public speaking engagements at churches and other events. One of the things that I’m really focused on right now is drawing on the resources that brought me to the field, instead of capitulating to the idea of these academic disciplinary barriers. That's not how I was taught anthropology. So I'm looking at how I can bring African American studies or black feminist scholarship into bioanthropology. I think a huge part of the reason why you see people of color heading for the hills in anthropology, and going to medical sociology or public health, is because they're like — ‘There's no people of color here. You're not drawing on any black literature, unless it's the usual suspects, and I don't see myself or any tools there for me to really do anything.’ So I think it's incumbent upon those of us who have job security that we use whatever privilege we have to initiate those discussions. But I don't think that as a discipline, anthropologists really get how the whiteness of the field sends off an unwelcoming signal.
CS: When you want to step away from professional work or teaching, is there a place in D.C. where you like to go to decompress or get away from your day-to-day work?
RW: Yeah, so I'm a big lover of music. Jazz in particular, but also funk because I'm from Ohio, you know the Ohio Players, Parliament, Funkadelic — all those people are from Ohio. So I go listen to music and dance. But also I'm a sci-fi fanatic. So I read a lot of science fiction and I go to see whatever fun sci-fi movies are out.
CS: Where’s the jazz spot in D.C. that I don't know about?
RW: Yeah, there are multiple! What I like as of late is the AMP by Strathmore, which books bands and musicians from every genre. But what I like about it is that it’s more accessible. It’s like a larger version of Blues Alley, but the ticket prices are more accessible. Blues Alley is more expensive. In college, I was all about listening to WPFW [radio station] and getting free tickets to Blues Alley. I couldn't afford Blues Alley. Also the Bethesda Blues and Jazz club has good stuff. But also there's lots of good restaurants that have good live musicians.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
All photos provided by Dr. Rachel Watkins