There are so many cases of the abuse, misuse, and cynical manipulation of traces from the past, that I have to stress something that offers at least a glimmer of hope.
Yes, there were abuses, bureaucratic boondoggles, and scientific wrangles over the excavation and commemoration of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.
But as I look at the conflicts between heritage administrations and local communities all over the world about the proper regard for human dignity and historical reflection, I cannot think of a better example of a project that, at the end of the day, benefitted everyone.
Cemeteries are at least as much for the living as the dead. They are the locus of tribute and memory; they affirm connections to a place and its past.
So in 1991, when during construction of a General Services Administration office building in Lower Manhattan, graves were discovered 24 feet below ground, and when those remains led to the discovery of hundreds of other bodies in the same area, and when it was determined that these were black New Yorkers interred in what a 1755 map calls the “Negros Burial Ground,” the earth seemed to shake from more than just machinery. The evidence created a conceptual quake, transforming how New York history is understood and how black New Yorkers connect to their past.
That is a reason why Saturday’s opening of the African Burial Ground Visitor Center, near where these remains were reinterred, is so important. Among the scars left by the heritage of slavery, one of the greatest is an absence: where are the memorials, cemeteries, architectural structures or sturdy sanctuaries that typically provide the ground for a people’s memory?…
… The new visitor center, inside the federal building that was ultimately constructed over a portion of the excavation (the other part became a burial site and memorial), is meant to explain the site’s significance — not a simple task, because the passions stirred by the discovery were not just historical, but also personal. There was a felt connection to the people, unearthed in their disintegrating coffins, who in the early decades of the city’s settlement were often forced into its construction. A sacral regard for the dead was joined with a sense of identification and continuity…
…So there is still much more to be understood about the history of slavery and black Americans in New York. But in the meantime the burial ground gives back to both the “descendant community” and to everybody else a sense that we are all arising out of a more complex and painful past than we have often imagined.
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Note the contrast with the last post about the “Tomb Economy” in rural China…