Reflection on Trip to African Burial National Monument

In three different blog posts I will try to breakdown the similarities between Zone One in the treatment of capturing slaves, the medical issues slaves faced due to hard laborious work and how even in death, slaves were not able to find closure.

Over Thanksgiving break I ventured down to the African Burial Ground National Monument with my mother to get a glimpse of this historic site. Unfortunately, the outdoor portion of monument itself we discussed in class was closed off for the winter season and additionally had scaffolding around it, making it almost impossible to see any anything. However, we were able to venture inside to the museum portion of the park which allowed for us to get an amazing and very thorough understanding of what life was like for enslaved Africans in early New York City. After having continually learned this semester about the role race has played in our countries past and after having read Zone One, I felt that this opportunity to visit the monument was one I had to experience as a New Yorker and as a student of our class.

One thing that the museum conveys immediately is the rich history of slavery in NYC and how critical of a role it played in helping to build the city. My mom worked down on Wall Street for close to two decades and I have spent an extensive amount of time down in the area so we thought we knew the area but surprisingly, we had never heard of the monument until Dr. McCoy brought it up in class and I relayed this to my Mom. Upon our visit, what we came to realize was that neither of us truly understood how instrumental slave labor was in creating the area and iconic parts of such as Wall Street and Broadway. To build the city, slaves were forced into working conditions that involved hard laborious work that “started when the sun rose and didn’t end until the sun would set.” This extensive and hard work was shown by researchers who examined excavated remains during the 1992 excavation. Researchers were able to assert how physically demanding this work was after examining remains that showed “evidence of extreme effort in both male and female remains.” The side effect of this type of work resulted in the early onset of multiple medical issues that pained, disfigured and or debilitated slaves. As we learned in Medical Apartheid and as described in the museum, issues such as these would rarely be properly treated and unfortunately lead to many dying early from these issues after suffering a life of torture.

Sadly, sometimes only in death did slaves find proper peace and rest from their torturous circumstances. In many respects, this struggle is shared in the case of the stragglers in Zone One but unfortunately slaves in NYC had to go through a much more to come to this final rest. As stated very well by Kyra in her post Fortune Telling, death is supposed to mark “the ending of major events or periods of life so that something new can begin. Closing one door so that you are able to open another.” This view on death as an ending of suffering is expressed in similarly ways by both the museum and in Zone One by Whitehead. We see this in Zone One when Mark Spitz is talking about stragglers and states that they are “relieved of care and worry, (that) the stragglers lived eternally and undying in their personal heavens,” where the “assaults (on them) were banished and there was nothing but possibility.” (P.197) In a very similar way, the museum depicts in a brief video how slaves of NYC shared this view of death as the ultimate attainment of freedom from their life of suffrage. However, unlike the stragglers, in order to fully obtain this peaceful rest, deceased slaves families had to go through an arduous process to laying their dead to rest. These laws were effectively aimed to inhibit slaves from even seeking this freedom in death.

Starting in 1697 a law was passed that inhibited enslaved people from burying their dead relatives at the public grave site at Trinity Church. This forced slaves to bury their dead in what eventually became the African Burial National Monument today. In total 15,000 people were buried at this site which was inconvenient to get too due to the fact that in order to get to it, slaves had to venture out past the protection of the wall that stood at Wall Street. In order to conduct a legal funeral, services by law needed to be held during the day which was a problem due the fact that all slaves worked from sunrise to sunset. Without permission to attend a funeral during the day, slaves would have to risk punishment for sneaking away in the night and punishment for violating the law of conducting a funeral at night. In addition to this, slaves were not allowed to congregate in groups larger than 12 people after previously rebellion attempts resulted in slave masters fearing their slaves congregating and planning more rebellions. In all, these laws made the burial of loved ones an arduous process and really meant that even in death, slaves were still being persecuted and not able to even obtain find closure, much like the stragglers in Zone One.

Going to the National African Burial Monument is something for our classes sake, I wish we could have all experienced. I’d highly recommend anyone who can visit the site to do so as this experience was truly moving for me and I think it can be for all of us given our background from this class. Zone One and this monument are so intertwined that the multitude of connections you are able to make is something you can really appreciate and something I was able to do with my mom when I relayed to her what I knew. This experience was a great way to apply what we have learned in class to a modern and relative context for me and so it is my hope in my next few posts on the matter that I can relate this. However,  nothing can replicate one’s own experience so if any of you can get to the monument over the next break I’d highly suggest it.

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