Field Report 2: The Broken Circle

To compare the Burial Ground for Negroes and St. John’s Churchyard is to understand the nature of Richmond’s history.

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Behold! Just beyond this fantastic overpass lay the majestic and historic Burial Ground for Negroes, or as it has been recently dubbed, The African Burial Ground. The change of name is very telling about the site as a whole. It is a way for the African American community to take back what belongs to them. After all, the term “negro” was simply a description for the same people. There is no effort to clear the original name from history, either – it’s right there on the plaque.

What is perhaps more important to take from the name change is that it is not an “African American” burial ground, but simply “African.” There is a need to show that the peoples buried underneath the highway and former parking lot did not belong to American culture, or indeed, the nation they were living in.

People love making personal connections to the past. The need is eternal. The Romans worshiped their ancestors and modern America pays for ancestory.com.

Seeman makes a compelling argument in “Reassessing the ‘Sankofa’ symbol,” that the symbol so proudly worn by the New York African Burial Ground may not truly represent what the mourners actually thought it to be. He argues that they were already being integrated into American culture, that the symbol was not yet popular among the Ashante.

I understand the purpose of the symbol – it is something positive to hold onto in the sight of sheer horror. It is something to hold proudly in the face of the oppressors.

Part of me wishes to argue that it white washes the great differences in African nations which attempts to boil them into a single family. But since Pan-Africanism was popularized in the mid 20th century, it is difficult to argue against such a powerful cause. I can’t hate that no one wants to re-examine and re-educate the population on this symbol and its meaning to the slaves that saw it be put into the ground; that it was probably just a heart to them. But this lack in historicity is worrying. Revisionist history is one thing but to ignore the facts is another.

The fact is that no one wants to hear about depressing history. These issues have not been solved and people tend to like stories with happy endings, or at the very least, an ending. With other atrocities, such as the holocaust, there is a completeness to it. There are heroes and villains and the evil plot was foiled in the end.  At St. John’s, every grave tells a story because it was all documented. Graves are immortality and there are answers abound as to why certain things are the way they are.

But there are no true answers here in the African Burial Ground. This is why funding lacks in any sort of slave history organization, especially in the south. The wounds have yet to heal and depressing stories don’t interest the public.

It doesn’t bring money.

But you know what looks nice and brings money? Fancy plaques with an inspiring, vague quote. No one is a real victim here, no one the culprit. It is a sweeping of dust under the rug.

Jules Prown is right about there being something metaphysical about cultural artifacts. It must have something to do with one’s senses. Years of evolution making us learn through trial and error rather than theorizing in a vacuum. One gains an understanding that something has traveled and seen great things over time and we are somehow able to empathize and understand in such a peculiar way.

But perhaps our emotional interests get ahead of our rational, scholarly minds. We must be disciplined and tell the truth, no matter how much no one wants to hear of it. To teach the public that the slaves were being integrated into American society shouldn’t surprise anyone given their constant proximity to whites in cities. Even so, this shouldn’t condemn the slaves’ cultures being lost to oblivion – Tituba may have been loud and proud with her practices but who is to say that there was not an underground movement to keep old memories alive?

Field Report 1: Hair, Hair Everywhere

I am not a fan of museums. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what they do in preserving artifacts or educating the public, it’s just that they don’t meld well with my brain. Walking around for three hours and pressing your face up against a glass panel to read a paragraph about the importance of an object isn’t too appealing to me.

My love of history comes from a love of great stories and an unrelenting interest in how people live their lives.  Not generic plaques meant to convey basic facts about the past.

But viewing the special collections gave us a unique insight to the world of grief. My first thought was just how unAmerican the whole ordeal of taking the deceased’s hair and making finery of it was. It was totally alien to me. I don’t mean to look down upon it, in fact I quite like the tradition and think it’s a shame that it’s gone.

Most funerals I have been to were open casket. The bodies inside were “peaceful.” More importantly, they were meant to look undisturbed. To even touch them (besides a gentle kiss or a caress of the hand) would be seen as a heinous offense. They must seem like they are sleeping; though I believe this to have less to do with denial that Philippe Aries chalks it up to and more about the acceptance for the grievers. But I digress.

Aries goes into this fear of the corpse and of death in general and he makes it clear that this is a modern phenomenon. That’s why it seemed so unAmerican to me. 19th century America had more influence from the Europeans than post WWII America, which became its own beast at that point.

It was also brought up in discussion that it seemed strange for Protestants to do something so very Catholic, such as making jewelry from the dead’s hair. This statement is in dire need of a rebuttal.

This is not a Catholic tradition.

Being buried near a saint’s cathedral is Catholic, or so one would think. There is plenty of evidence that shows that Greeks in their Dark Ages (probably around the time the Illiad and the Odyssey were being passed around) were buried in much the same way near venerated people – close but never touching the building they rested in. Not only this, but being buried with material objects has been going on since prehistory. What their purpose is may be unclear but the pattern is nonetheless there.

Catholic traditions in general stem from their ancient roots due to the fact that they were all converted with the velvet glove – the indigenous peoples were allowed to keep many of their traditions but would have to change a few things around. Yuletide would become Christmas, for instance.

So too is this true with the use of hair as finery. My knowledge is too scarce to go into the details of hair and ancient Europeans, but I do know they found it had some sort of power – Clovis I and many other kings in preChristian Europe refused to cut their hair for just that reason.

What I mean to say is that this seems to be a European tradition. I have not done the research and I would like to look more into this lost art, but to conclude that this was Catholic simply because Europe was also doing it at the time seems inaccurate at best to me.

But what I find more fascinating is that it has become taboo. I can only assume that this was due to the rise of materialism, industrialization, and America’s growing sense of self.

Materialism because of the growth of photographs as true memories of who that person once was. The fall of the importance of one’s own body with heightened attention to the distractions from it. Industrialization because of the ease of transportation and growth of the nuclear family. Finally, America’s identity because rather than adopting ideals from its trade partners and immigrants, it created its own: namely capitalism. These last two examples may not seem to lend too much to my case, but it shows the drastic shift of values within a short span of time. Perhaps it shows the willingness to drop certain traditions in order to adapt to new ones.

But what do I know? I’m just theorizing in a small vacuum chamber over here.