Excavating Burials and the Racial Oppression of the Dead

Burial rituals are cultural practices that are used by the living to honor the dead. When someone is buried or given a funeral, a person’s life becomes recognized as having come to an end, and that the life had meaning. Everyone deserves to receive proper burial rites and burial. Funerals and the burials of the deceased are performed out of respect of the lives the deceased person impacted and to preserve the dignity of the deceased. Everyone inevitably makes an impact on another’s life because people are social beings and the interconnectedness of the world prevents this from being otherwise. Proper burials are a right, but this can be ignored by those who perceive others to be inferior to themselves, to such an extent that this simple act of humanity is disregarded. In Toni Morrison’s book Home, the two main characters of the novel excavate the site where a black man’s body had been thrown into a shallow hole, so that he can be properly buried and remembered. This action of excavation was an important gesture in the effort to reclaim the African American past, while efforts to excavate African burials grounds in lower Manhattan, as explored in Alondra Nelson’s book The Social Life of DNA, was initially disparaging

Witnessing someone receive an improper burial makes one liable to act in accordance to their morals, and may cause the said person to take matters into their own hands to make right a wrong. In Toni Morrisons novel Home, Frank Money and his sister Cee undertake reparations of a murderous scene that lead to a black man being buried hastily like an animal. The novel opens with the burial of an unknown man, a man who is identified only as a black man. At the end of the story, Frank is able to learn more about the events surrounding the man’s death. The dead man was the father of a boy named Jerome, a boy who sought refuge at Fish Eye Anderson’s home. Frank is told that Jerome and his father were forced to fight each other until one of them died, and this led to the father instructing his son to kill him so that his son could live. The animalistic fight was forced by white men who sought to dehumanize the father and son by forcing the son to commit a heinous crime that would have never been done if it had not been for the threat on their lives. Frank and Cee witnessed the quick burial of the father by the guilty white men. Frank and Cee in their adulthood with their newfound insight make the trek to the man’s disgraceful resting place, which was really just a hole that his body was thrown and kicked into (Morrison 4). Once the two get to the site, they recover the father’s remains and gather it in Cee first knit blanket. This special blanket signifies the preservation of generations past, for the blanket was knit as in the fashion “they had been taught by their mothers” (Morrison 122). This knitting style had a deep symbolic meaning to Cee and to the theme of the story. One theme threaded through the story is the concept of reclaiming and remembering the past lives and the suffering of African American ancestors. Cee and Frank still feel the repercussions of a racist society that is, and will truly never separate itself from the historical treatment imposed by American society on their loved ones and the black community. When the two bury the father of Jerome under a tree, Frank nails a plaque above his resting place with the words, “Here Stands a Man” (Morrison 145). Instead of saying here rests a man, Frank choose to do a more dignified and accurate memorial engraving. It was not until they gave him a proper burial and memorialization that the deceased father’s spirit could truly be at rest. Additionally, the father in his lifetime and after he died was never treated as a man, so to give him this memorial that asserts his humanity was an act that Cee and Frank can both agree is solacing and comforting to them, and for the man’s spirit. African Americans, or more accurately all Americans, must face the “slaughter that went on in the world, however ungodly”, as Cee states, for the progress of a society depends upon realizing and recognizing the misdoings of an imbued racist past (Morrison 143).

Outspoken activist of the African American community acted accordingly to their own moral compass as Cee and Frank had by being in opposition to excavations of an African American burial ground in Manhattan, New York. In chapter two of Alondra Nelson’s book The Social Life of DNA: Race Reproaches and Reconciliation after the Genome, she brings into conversation the insensitive and immoral mistreatment of dead African Americans in a colonial era African American cemetery in lower Manhattan. The site was discovered during a land survey in preparation for construction of a government building to be undergone in 1991. Excavation of the burials were ensued by the Historical Conservation using the inadequate coroner’s method (Nelson 45). This method of excavation is quite disheartening and bothersome to hear of because it is blatantly obvious how poor of a method it was. This method used machinery equipment that compromised and disturbed the integrity of individual burials, while also ignoring cultural archeological discoveries through this compromise. Despite changes in excavation methods, report has it that construction workers were not conscientious to the nature of their work when an accident lead to concrete spillage atop grave sites (Nelson 46). Eventually, activist were able to bring the excavations to an end, which would allow for this plot of land to become the African Burial Ground National Monument. The plot being turned into a national monument for people to come and pay their respect to the dead and honor their lives is a feat similar to Frank and Cee reburying Jerome’s father below a tree with a memorializing plaque.

It should go unsaid that one must treat others how they would want to be treated, but some people believe that they are entitled and do not need to succumb to such lowly thoughts as they deem them to be. Dead bodies and the souls that belonged to them are intimately tied together, and for one to treat a corpse inhumanely is considered by some cultured people, religious affiliates, or by people with intuitive morals to be detrimental to the soul’s afterlife. The treatment of deceased individuals can be striking similar to how those same people were treated when they had breath within them, except they are more vulnerable with no voice to object to their oppression.

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