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Black Cemeteries

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I’m a little behind in my grave posts because I have been trying to get a bunch of other things done. Unlike what people generally believe, I do not find cemeteries interesting at all for themselves. It’s not out of some interest in them that I go. What I am interested in is finding ways to commemorate the people of the past, good, bad, or mixed. We are surrounded by the collective actions of many people who have shaped the world in which we live, yet by and large we don’t commemorate that history very well. The U.S. actually does a better job with this than probably any other nation in the world, especially because historians here are pretty publicly engaged and are interested in questions of justice instead of exclusively dynastic or high-level political history such as in much of Europe. And yet there is much that we do not discuss at all. That’s the point of the project. But of course the cemeteries themselves tell stories and, moreover, reflect the power structure at the heart of American society. That means, as I have explored at times in the grave series, that black cemeteries are as neglected and impoverished as living black citizens, whereas old white cemeteries are the home of historic tours, Confederate flags (in the South anyway), and well-manicured landscaping. Thus, I appreciated this essay by the historian William Sturkey on a black cemetery in Durham, North Carolina:

In a region inundated with debates over Confederate monuments, Black History Month invites us to refocus our attention to a largely unrecognized section of Durham known as the Geer Cemetery. Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Duke Park neighborhood, the 142-year old cemetery is slowly succumbing to the encroaching forest. More than 1,500 black people are buried there. Those everyday black men and women lived and worked and died in this place long before we arrived. Their labor built much of the world in which we now move. Many of them had no choice. Some were enslaved. Others were poor black people who worked segregated jobs during Jim Crow. All of them deserve to be remembered, and their final resting place deserves better than its current state of neglect.

Our landscape is filled with the names of elite white families. Members of these elite white families fought, even killed, to ensure that white and black remain separated and stratified. As we remember their contributions, let us also acknowledge that they perpetuated slavery and Jim Crow. They used the lives of human beings, both black and white, to build their wealth. And when that fortune was earned, a lot of people in those families simply packed up and moved away. Yet, we unflinchingly celebrate the landscape of statues and named-buildings they left in their wake. Today, some people argue that we must maintain those monuments; and that we must forgive the now-unthinkable historical white supremacy of our region’s forebears because of everything else they gave us. To do otherwise, we hear, would be to erase history, or to make elite white families disappear.

These arguments that you “can’t erase history” mistakenly conflate history with the past. The past includes all the events and people that came before us. The past is inextricable. History, on the other hand, is the study of how we portray the past. As those of us who write and teach it know, the study of history also includes who we choose to forget.

As it turns out, you actually can erase history. You can do so by deeming some people less important; by restricting what is written about them; by segregating schools and professions and archives; and by allowing an urban forest to consume the graves of people who society does not value. As we spend hundreds and thousands of hours and dollars worrying about abstract Confederate monuments and the legacies of wealthy white elites, nary a nickel goes toward maintaining the graves of actual people who built our society. As important as those white families were, it was other people who did the digging, laid the bricks, raised the crops, and cared for their children. It was black people. And today, we allow a forest to silently swallow the bones and headstones of those who have truly been erased from history.

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