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Why I Study the Bones of Enslaved Human Beings

Teen Vogue: Do you remember realizing you wanted to be an anthropologist?

Evonne Turner-Byfield: My dad and I would stay up late and watch the History Channel, and they did the forensic investigation of King Tut’s death. That’s when I realized it could be a job to just look at mummies and learn about history and answer questions, and I was like, “I can do that job. That sounds awesome.” I remember turning to my dad and saying, “I’m gonna do that someday.”

TV: That sounds like Law & Order, but 3,000 years ago.

ET-B: That’s really what it was. And I had already kind of been drawn to science. I used to do experiments in my mother’s kitchen. My dad and I used to look at the stars all the time, even though that telescope was not good quality. You really couldn’t see anything, but I thought it was awesome.

TV: What did it feel like in those moments when you were doing experiments?

ET-B: It felt like, This is what I am supposed to be doing, this is what I’m enjoying, and this is where I belong. I still feel that today when I’m in the lab. That’s a calming place for me.

TV: How do you remember hearing about the controversy with the MOVE bombings?

ET-B: My first reaction was disbelief. I used to intern [at the Penn Museum]. The museum was my favorite place in the world. I’d go there at least once a week [in college]. When I was feeling overwhelmed, when I was feeling stressed out, that was my place. It feels marred now. It feels dirty.

TV: Why?

ET-B: The unethical nature of how they treated the remains of these children. And these are professionals in the field that I looked up to. Alan Mann and Janet Monge are names. I remember meeting [Janet] and thinking, Oh, my God, I want to do what she does someday. I want to store the skeletal collection at a museum.

TV: You mentioned that you interned at the museum. What was it like to work there?

ET-B: It was 10 years ago. I was still an undergrad. I think it was one of my first encounters studying human remains. I didn’t know anything about scientific consent or anything like that. I was just really excited to finally be hands-on with what I’d learned. I honestly didn’t question any of it. I loved it. It was, like I said, my favorite place in the whole world.

TV: What was it like to look up to Mann and Monge and then find out that they were involved in this?

ET-B: It’s disappointing, it’s disheartening, but not all that surprising. Anthropology as a discipline is built on a lot of racist, colonial foundations of, “There are savages over here; I’m a little bit curious what the savages are doing. Let me insinuate myself in their life and inconvenience them as much as possible to fulfill my own curiosity.” [The treatment of the remains] does not make me question the work that I want to do; it does make me question how I’m going to go about it.

(Monge did not reply to Teen Vogue’s request for comment. Mann declined to provide comment, citing the ongoing inquiries at Princeton and Penn.)

TV: What does it make you feel as a Black woman?

ET-B: There’s just this absolute sadness and despair that these remains were treated with such disregard and disrespect. These babies should have been buried. Period. They should have been buried right after it happened. And to me there’s no logical or reasonable explanation for why it didn’t happen.

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