Unpacking the symbolically central importance of skels

Growing up, I’ve been fortunate enough to have an aunt who values and prioritizes listening to female artists in the music industry. These artists that she inevitably shares with me have some consistent qualities: they are brash, they are political, they are powerful. One artist that has left an imprint in my heart and mind is Ani DiFranco, an American poet, singer, songwriter, activist and owner and founder of Righteous Babe Records among other things. DiFranco has always had a way of instilling me with a sense of empowerment and insight, even when I was a young kid and didn’t exactly know what she was singing about.

As a kid I would unknowingly sing along with songs that carry huge political statements like “Fuel” or “God’s Country,” and I would feel so cool doing so. What’s been even cooler is growing up to understand and connect with her politics. But, the coolest thing has been watching relationships grow between her music and some core concepts we cover in Metropolis. For example, the only reason I knew about the African Burial Grounds prior to class is because of DiFranco’s song “Fuel,” which opens with the lyrics “They were digging a new foundation in Manhattan / and they discovered a slave cemetery there / May their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon / and they’ve moved on to the electric chair.” This song was released in 1998 so death-penalty laws might be different now, but the ironic sentiment remains the same– as one brutal form of institutionalize punishment exits, another will inevitably enter to fill its place, becoming a ghost of the former punishment.

I think Whitehead treads similar waters in Zone One as DiFranco does with “Fuel” by setting the narrative on the block where the African Burial Ground National Monument is set. Similar to DiFranco, he draws parallels between the decimation of skels to and the seemingly ancient yet ongoing violence done to African Americans in the United States. Just as skels are viewed as an objective threat to the social order of the state (despite the decidedly harmless majority of Stragglers that remain), enslaved African Americans were seen as an objective threat to the white American dream. As my roommate pointed out to me in a conversation about this very blog post, even though the very establishment of slavery was economically disenfranchising to poor white men, its abolition was even more threatening because their whiteness was ultimately the only thing that separated them from enslaved black people. Ultimately it was “better to be poor and white than for slavery to not exist… they could be the lowest class citizen of their race (white) but at least they weren’t black” (Lily Goldman, my roommate, communication major and American history minor).

Both accounts (of skels and black violence) dance on the line of what is “socially peripheral [but] symbolically central” (Hegel). The skels become literal burning effigies of the former population of the world and metaphoric effigies for pervasive and violent anti-black sentiments that persist now. If it isn’t lynching, it’s the death penalty. If it isn’t Jim Crow laws it’s the constant demonetization and censoring of traditional black dancing. If it isn’t the enslavement of African peoples for fear of the imagined “threat” they posed to the state, it’s the disproportionate amount of incarcerated black males for marijuana possession.

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