Evonne Turner-Byfield has a particularly intimate acquaintance with Black humanity. As an Ohio State University Ph.D. student pursuing a degree in biological anthropology, Turner-Byfield analyzes the health and trauma of the bones of enslaved human beings that worked with cotton, rum, or iron, in order to understand the people behind the forced labor.
Turner-Byfield is entering a disproportionately white field that is currently reckoning with a scandal involving two members of the Black liberation organization MOVE. Reporting in April detailed that the remains of at least one young girl — believed to possibly belong to Tree as well as Delisha Africa, victims of the police’s 1985 bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia — had been improperly kept for decades by archaeologists Alan Mann and Janet Monge. In 1985, the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office asked Mann, who enlisted the help of his then-doctoral student Monge, to investigate and identify a group of remains, as the Philly Inquirer reported. Rather than returning the remains upon completion of his investigation, Mann stored them at the Penn Museum, where he worked as an anthropologist. After Mann became a full-time professor there in 2001, he brought the remains with him. Monge also reexamined them in her eventual capacity as the Penn Museum’s physical anthropology curator, and she has incorporated them into an online course she taught at Princeton, titled “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.” The University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Museum and Princeton University have all released statements apologizing for the improper handling of the remains.
In May, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney announced that other remains, previously thought to have been improperly cremated, had been located at the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office. He promised to turn them over to the families of the dead upon the completion of an investigation.
Turner-Byfield is facing this controversy not only as a Black anthropology student studying Black bodies, but as someone who has interned at the Penn Museum, met Monge, and will be a member of the next generation of anthropologists.
Teen Vogue speaks with Turner-Byfield about her thoughts on the MOVE remains debacle, how she got involved in the field, and how the controversy has shaped her future career goals.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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.
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.
TV: Even though they couldn't identify them at the time?
TV: Do you still feel that same sense of belonging in anthropology that you did when you were 10 or 11?
ET-B: I do. The lab is still a happy place for me, and it's heartening to know that my colleagues, my friends in anthropology — not just Black anthropologists — are just as outraged by this as I am. I still want to answer questions, but I fully believe that we can do that ethically and responsibly and morally. And when the moment comes that I can't, I know that's my time to leave.
TV: You're in a generation of anthropologists who are going to take on the mantle in the field from people like the folks involved in the MOVE scandal. I'm curious what the scandal does to your understanding of what leading the field in the future looks like.
ET-B: It's a huge wake-up call. There needs to be more responsibility and accountability in the way that museums and scientists and collections keep their stuff. God willing, people like me coming up in the field will do the right thing when we're in that position to make those decisions.
TV: In some ways it sounds like you have more resolve to enter the field and change it now. Is that fair?
ET-B: Oh, absolutely. My dad always said, “You're gonna change the world.” I was never sure how, but this could be good. The cause that I'm passionate about now, as a direct result of this, is repatriation and protection of Black remains in museums. I didn't know the problem was that bad. Now that I know, [I] can't just ignore it. I can't just leave the field and say, “Well this is a horrible place for me to be. I'm out.” I can fix it. I can do better.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue