Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” and Commemorating the Dead

In Friday’s class, we took some time to read a few blog posts. I’d wanted to write a blog post about remembering and forgetting the dead, and both Spencer and Helen’s blog posts struck me as texts I wanted to put my own blog post into conversation with. In Spencer’s blog post, he writes that “[h]istory has shown that prolonged memory in death is a privilege granted to only those with the power to afford it” and Helen writes that “[w]ith the bodies in the street and the unnamed, almost invisible collectors disposing of them, it is clear the Whitehead is referencing the history of plagues and body disposal, particularly the Black Plague.” These two quotes together exemplify remembering and forgetting—we tend to commemorate those in power, and forget the “average” (and I use this word loosely) civilian. 

My friend Kalil remarked today, while we were watching Janelle Monae’s music video for “Make Me Feel,” that she was evoking Prince in one of the dance scenes (specifically, 3:18-3:28. Side note: if you haven’t seen the video, please do. It’s iconic and so important in representing queer identities.). My point in bringing this up, besides the fact that Janelle Monae makes my heart sing, is that we tend to commemorate and make allusions to those with power, money, (both) and/or political/social importance. What happens if someone doesn’t have any of those things? Do we still remember them?

Roach writes that “[a]s custom increasingly defined human remains as unhygienic, new practices of internment evolved, eventually leading to cremation, to ensure the perpetual separation of the dead and to reduce or more strictly circumscribe the spaces they occupied. As the place of burial was removed from local churchyard to distant park, the dead were more likely to be remembered (and forgotten) by monuments than by continued observances in which their spirits were invoked” (50). These “monuments” then mark the dead, replacing their bodies (or perhaps, becoming inorganic effigies) in memory and commemoration. This reminds me of Glasnevin cemetery, which I visited with Dr. Doggett, Dr. Woidat, and the rest of the class on the English 280 Yeats Summer School study abroad trip to Ireland. On the Glasnevin website, the cemetery calls itself “both the guardian and storyteller for over 1.5 million people.” The cemetery is close to Dublin, which only has ~1.2 million people, meaning that there are more people buried in Glasnevin than are alive in Dublin. How can all of those marked dead be remembered?

Roach goes on to say that “[t]he cemetery grows on the margins to define the social distinction of the fictive center: the dead will dwell in separate houses suitable to their status” (53). In Glasnevin cemetery, Daniel O’Connell, known in Ireland as “The Liberator,” has a massive tower, which is 55 meters tall, as his gravesite. This tower is much, much, bigger than any other gravesite in the cemetery, and we learned that people could pay a hefty price to be buried near it. This brings me back to Janelle Monae alluding to Prince in “Make Me Feel”—we tend to commemorate the powerful dead. They tend to be the fictive center.

What happens to those outside the fictive—or shall I say real, since it has become embodied through cultural practice—center? According to Unfathomable City, “[a] similar segregation took place after the demolition of the Girod Street Cemetery [in New Orleans], a particularly dense necropolis in which bodies were stacked vertically, as many as eight corpses high, in tombs that resembled modernist apartment blocks. In 1957, when the cemetery was deconsecrated, the bones of the white dead were moved to Hope Mausoleum, near City Park. The bones of African Americans, many of whom had been slaves in their lifetime, were banished outside New Orleans city limits, to Providence Memorial Park in Metairie” (Solnit and Snedeker 35). Tellingly, the “natural levee along the Mississippi River is a mass grave, filled with the bodies of the city’s earliest workers and slaves” (35). These bodies, since buried in mass graves or banished from their original place, have been forgotten, while others have been remembered. This can be seen in Zone One, as Helen mentioned in her blog post, with the dead being carted off and incinerated. Buffalo, the head of the provisional government, “hadn’t maintained records of the dead… [because it was] easier to keep records of the living” (Whitehead 62). If there are no records of the dead, how do we remember them, especially if years have passed? If there is no physical marker of a once alive human body, how can we remember the individual?

This brings me to the African Burial Ground in Manhattan. According to the official National Park Service website, the African Burial Ground “is the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground in North America for both free and enslaved Africans. It protects the historic role slavery played in building New York City.  The site honors both the spirit of those buried here and those who fought for the respectful protection of this site for this and future generations.” The burial ground houses “upwards of 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans who lived and worked in colonial New York” and it is the “nation’s earliest and largest African burial ground rediscovered in the United States.” The website specifically says that the park was built to “honor their memory.” The enslaved and free Africans who are buried here date from 1630-1795, meaning that their memory had been lost for ~200 years. The monument also only holds 15,000 remains, and they are from a specific time period, meaning that millions of other enslaved and free Africans who died are not represented here. How can we remember them? Individuals do not fit into binaries—and binaries are dangerous. Individual human beings are the physical embodiment of both/and, so categorization and linguistics tend to fail us. There is hierarchy even in death.

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