Parallels in the Discard of Bodies in Zone One and NYC’s Past

Gary’s lasso was sadly not the only parallel in the mishandling of bodies that I noticed between the treatment of slaves and stragglers while at the African Burial Ground National Monument. Another bothersome similarity that I noticed while on my trip was the methodology of disposing bodies in Zone One and how it resembled practices enslaved people had to similarly endure in NYC’s past. These abusive methods were a bit more noticeably wrong originally but really came to light when you realized their historic context. Going to the museum and understanding the these abuses has definitely helped me to better understand the scope of them in Zone One and in my cities past.

In Zone One, the bodies of the neutralized stragglers are deposited at the wall at Canal Street which, effectively separates humanity and the un-swept portions of Manhattan. In a similar fashion, Africans were forced to bury their dead beyond the wall at Wall Street which separated civilization from the unsettled and dangerous parts of Manhattan. (This area was dangerous due to the threat of hostile natives who might attack colonials or slaves.) Enslaved and formally enslaved people had to bury their dead past the wall after 1697, when it was ruled that only whites were to be buried in the cities cemetery. Blacks were thus forced to bury their dead outside of the city walls in what would become the African Burial Ground.

At its largest, the African Burial Ground spanned a mere 6.6 acres. This may seem like a lot of land but when you take into account that a total of 15,000 people were buried at this site then you start to realize that this space was very limited. Because of this, slaves were forced to bury their relatives on top of one another, in many cases resulting in a similar piling of bodies metaphorically by the wall. This piling was not something I was aware of until I visited the museum and was astonishing to learn about. Although there was never an instance of mass or unmarked graves at the burial site, the little respect slaves were shown by white colonials mimicked the same type of treatment of sweepers in Zone One.

This practice of grave stacking at the burial site invoked an image I had created while reading Zone One of the body bags symbolizing a mound of trash. I think Whitehead purposefully created this imagery to represent the lack of respect white colonists had for the bodies of slaves. This representation was further confirmed when I saw that eventually the grave site was converted to a landfill as Dr. McCoy mentioned in class. This got me angry because it confirmed that even decades after the burial site was established that racists white politicians still attempted to marginalize the black community and treat their dead as garbage. Whitehead’s ability to caricature these historic issues in his novel was skillfully done and important for what I think he wanted readers to take away from his book.

I believe that Whitehead invokes these images of bodies being treated like trash to showcase how tolerance for such practices is not acceptable in any given situation. Once again, as we saw in the case of the lasso, some of the practices used by the sweeper team in Zone One might seem justified given the context of their situation. However, as I touched upon in my last post, this same type of justification for the mistreatment of bodies opens the door for others to justify the abuse of people in real life situations such as the cases in NYC’s past.

Reflecting on these two issues, I think that Whitehead wanted us to question these practices through the lenses of a sympathizer of the abusers because of how challenging it can be to question ourselves or the people we identify with. It’s easier to call out an antagonist for their wrong doings as we already have a reason not to like them. However, calling out our own practices, the practices of people we like or a group of people we identify with is not as easy but of utmost importance. We have to call out all types of abuse be it obvert or subtle. I think this is an issue Whitehead intended to exemplify through his book so that we could see its importance in our daily lives today and start sticking up for those who need it.

Noticing abuse and sticking up for a minority that is marginalized is not always easy especially if your group is committing the marginalization but it needs to be done. Coming to the understand of this importance of self-reflection was something I didn’t pick up on initially while reading Zone One but is something I’m glad I realized. I hope I was able to convey this well over these past two posts and that others can possibly come to this take away too.

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