During lunch at an American Anthropology Association conference in D.C., Cobb asked Mack what stories he thought spoke most profoundly to the human capacity for hate and redemption. When Mack cited Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Cobb and was impressed.
Blakey said the encountered taught him that while Mack “had a great scientific mind … he was a humanist.”
During an internship, Mack also impressed Smithsonian biological archaeologist Donald J. Ortner, who arranged for a Smithsonian Fellowship that allowed Mack to do graduate studies under another leader in the field, George Armagelos.
Armagelos saw in Mack both the sharp mind and the “appetite for detail” required in a person who examines bones for telltale signs of a life lived.
When the 17th and 18th century site that would become the African Burial Grounds was discovered in Lower Manhattan during construction of a federal building in 1991, Mack was one of the first people Blakey looked to in assembling a staff to handle and examine the remains of the 419 people buried there.
By then teaching anthropology at Howard, Mack had considerable technical skill in archaeological dentition, the art and science of interpreting the conditions of people’s lives by reading the wear patterns and presence of absence of teeth.
As important, Blakey said, “He was someone I could trust as a human being.”
Like Blakey, Mack had a sense of how the field of archaeology had historically been harmful to African Americans by adding a scientific stamp of approval to prevailing social attitudes of black inferiority.
That sense of trust was even more important because at the time of the project, the field of archaeology was in what Blakey describes as a “holy war.”
On one side, he said, were traditionalist archaeologist, whom he said saw themselves as “seeking righteous truth” when they were studying the bones of past peoples and whose allegiance was to that truth and not to the descendants of minority communities.
Blakey said he and Mack were part of another school of thought that saw descendant communities as the “rightful stewards” of discovered remains that should be handled in accordance with the sacred burial practices of the communities.
They also had a sense of the connection between the present day treatment of those communities and the treatment of the remains of their forbears. The issues were crucial to the two men who had entered archaeology in the belief it could be, in Blakey’s words, “retooled to expand our capacity for equality.”
Because of the project’s high profile as an African American site in Manhattan, Blakey said found Mack’s sense of people – his down-to-earth personality – helpful in two ways.
First, Mack “understood the human penchant for mischief better than I did, which made him a good adviser.”
“The snipers were everywhere,” Blakey recalled.
Second, Mack “understood the social and emotional (aspects) of what it meant to sit beside the remains of our ancestors and tell their story,” a capacity Blakey said made Mack a powerful voice in readily communicating the heart and soul behind the bare bones evidence of archaeology.
He was, after all, a humanist.
Just as the project included ceremonies to honor the dead during the reburial of their bones, Blakey and Mack sought to honor those in the burial ground by telling their stories, from an archaeologist’s view, and in doing so, helping to fill in gaps in the historical record of African Americans.
Mack’s impact led the Society of Historical Archaeology to honor him posthumously with its annual Mark E. Mack Community Engagement award given to researches “who exhibit outstanding best practices in their historical archaeology and heritage preservation work” as he did. The award emphasizes best ethical practices.
Mack’s widow, Cindy, was at the inaugural award ceremony to both praise the first award recipients and remind them that they are her late husband’s heirs in giving voice to the lives of largely forgotten people of the past and, in the process, changing lives of today and the future.
One of those lives is the Macks’ daughter, Amirah, who at age 5 proudly announced to her schoolmates her plans to become something none of them had ever heard of before, the very thing her father had been — a professor of biological anthropology.
And that means there may be another Mack in Michael Blakey’s future.
How to go
What: The Wittenberg Series William A. Kinnison Endowed Lecture
Speaker: Anthropologist Michael Blakey on "The Bioarcheology of the African Burial Ground in New York City"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 31
Where: Bayley Auditorium of Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center