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?

2 thoughts on “Field Report 2: The Broken Circle”

    1. All of the markings, for one, and I believe our guide told us about an extremely detailed burial manifest that the priest kept. While some of the graves are illegible they are able to be read on the church’s documentation.

      Though, come to think of it, that may have been a story I mixed up from Dr. Smith…

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