Medical Issues at African Burial Ground National Monument

To wrap up my experience at the African Burial Ground National Monument, I want to end on how despite all my anticipation of seeing parallels to Zone One, that I was able to see some examples of abuses during my trip that seemed to have been directly taken out of a page from Medical Apartheid.

The museum portion of the monument does an exceptional job in showing the hardship slaves faced on a daily basis and how these hardships eventually took a physical toll. The museum begins to describe the health effects of slavery by showing how being overworked resulted in the early onset of many medical issues such as “osteoarthritis, osteophytosis and schmorl’s nodes.” These issues were shown to have placated slaves at a much earlier age than they would have normally been expected to exhibit them due to the work they did. In addition to these issues, many of the remains buried at the site showed general signs of muscles tearing from the bones they were attached to. When a muscle tears from a bone it leaves signs of trauma on a skeleton and this is usually caused by long and hard “strenuous work (that) causes muscles to grow larger” and for “their boney attachments (to) also enlarge.” Researchers were able to make these claims after they found evidence of these issues in both male and female workers buried at the site. Without proper treatment, these ailments could cumulate and lead to other issues which as we know could become debilitating, result in death or force one to risk visiting a doctor.

The problem of these physical strains in addition to a lack of proper health services was clearly shown by a particular diagram of one formerly enslaved man’s remains. The skeleton was painted on the wall and had lines drawn from his bones to explanations of what he ailments he suffered from. The remains had bone scars that “formed deep ridges on the outside of his” femur which was “the result of periostitis, a condition suffered by over half of those buried” at the site. Periostitis is an infection that “can be worsened by malnutrition” and was common amongst slaves due to the deplorable conditions they lived in. This person also had a thickened ridge on the back of their skull caused by extensive muscle strain, showing signs that the work the person did was physically tolling. With a high likelihood of developing these or other ailments from their work, slaves might be forced to either deal with their issues or seek medical attention. As we learned in Medical Apartheid, in many cases seeking treatment might involve “involuntary, painful, dangerous and either frankly nontherapeutic or obviously more harmful” (Washington P56.) medical procedures. We know this resulted in slaves avoiding doctors and although the museum didn’t specify any accounts of known medical abuses it did show a case of grave robbing for dissection.

A few feet away from where the skeleton was, my mother and I came across an image of a grave that had most likely been robbed by medical students. When researchers originally uncovered Burial 323 they found that “top of his (the slave’s) skull was in his arm,” and that “his skull had been sawed after death for an autopsy or medical training.” This was almost certainly an instance of grave robbers who “spirited (this body) by night from the graveyard” (Washington P.121) and then returned the body after their dissections were complete. Researches added that this is likely the case because the remains of this person were found with the head facing east, a practice that never happened as all people buried at the site had their heads facing west. This disturbing image brought forth a reality that the issues that we have learned about all semester were alive and well in a much closer proximity to my home than I had ever realized.

Going to the burial site and seeing these issues as they related to my cities past was something I’m thankful I was able to do. I had originally expected many of the connections I would make to be between Zone One and the site. Although I did find make many of those types of connections it was quite moving to see how the abuses we talked about in other instances books were shown at the museum. Seeing Burial 323 in particular was moving for this reason and put the horrors of what Washington described into in a real-life example. I explained this connection I had made to my mother who was disturbed enough by it to talk away. I asked her what bothered her and she said hearing what I had told her along with realizing that the skull we possess was cut in the same manner with the top of just bothered her too much to bare. Although I don’t ever like disturbing my mother to this extent, helping her to come to this final realization of how problematic the issues we talked about all semester are was a humbling experience.

In reflecting on this experience, I think that our trip to the African Burial Site highlights the importance of stepping outside of one’s comfort zones and expose ourselves to issues we know might be bothersome. I never thought that venturing to this site was going to have such a large impact on the two of us but we are both glad it did. Having never heard of this monument before and having lived in Manhattan all of my life I think more needs to be done to make this site known. This class has made me see things I never thought were issues before and I think it’s important that these types of realizations don’t solely occur in a classroom. As my mom showed, you don’t need to be in a class to become educated on these issues as a simple exposure can show you how moving they are. In all I’m glad that I went to the site and hope more of you can make it there too. It’s a great experience and being able to translate what we’ve learned into education for our family and friends is quite rewarding.

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