Brief for 10/17

Black Deaths Matter and Reclaiming History, One Grave at a Time Brief

The authors of the two articles, Black Deaths Matter and Reclaiming History, One Grave at Time expose the issue of black cemeteries that have been left uncared for across America. They both mention how white cemeteries have been protected and maintained whereas black cemeteries have been breeding grounds for the accumulation of trash, junk, and overgrown forage. Providing a local connection, the authors use two cemeteries in Richmond, East End and Evergreen, to help exemplify the problem. I previously had not heard much about this issue which not only made these articles very interesting, but also made me realize how much racial inequality still exists although people are not as overtly racist as they were previously. It makes me wonder if these types of issues would be more difficult to solve since they exist in society in more complex ways than before.

Building off the idea above, one aspect that delves into the complexity of the issue in the cemeteries is the idea of hegemony. Hegemony refers to the influence of a dominant group and is constantly changing. It helps explain the social structures that exist within society and justifies the ways in which resources are distributed. The author of Black Deaths Matter, Seth Wessler, talks about the distribution of resources between the white and black cemeteries noting, “the underlying problem is that black cemeteries have been left without the resources to operate” whereas “memorials to white lives are left in trust, padded with private and public wealth” (Wessler 11). White cemeteries are obtaining resources to be maintained whereas the black cemeteries, without funding, are becoming overgrown forests. This makes me question who in these structures gets to decide who receives resources and why can’t the distribution of resources be easily changed? I guess this is where the idea of power collides with hegemony. Since whites have primarily remained in the dominant group throughout history, they have gotten to decide where the resources go. I wonder then, since blacks have a history of being enslaved, could they ever have enough power to change the system? Or would a new system need to be created entirely? Hegemony might change all the time, but I think only for those who have the power to do it.

Another component that ties into the complexity of this issue is the idea of racisms ghosts. One issue that has exacerbated the problem in black cemeteries is the consistent neglect in identifying these cemeteries as a problem. Wessler notes,“In death, black victims of American violence, even in one of America’s most segregated places, can rest beside white bodies. Their grandparents, however, lie buried on weeds and trash” (Wessler 7). Although black people have begun to bury their family members in white cemeteries that are well cared for, their grandparents are still not receiving the respect that they deserve. Cemeteries haunt black families as black families are the only ones who recognize the problem with the way their ancestors are treated. Everyone else is blind to these issues as they have never personally experienced them themselves. I think since racism is not the same or as obvious as it was before, people tend to think that all of societies issues have been fixed which causes them to ignore the racism that currently exists.

In addition to racisms ghosts, neoliberalism also ties into the complexity of the problem between black and white cemeteries. For example, neoliberalism is the ideology that everything has a monetary value and if you can’t afford it, you are out of luck. In Black Deaths Matter Wessler writes that there can only be two solutions to the cemetery problem “1) families step up to the plate and ensure that their ancestors grave sites are well cared for or 2) an enormous amount of money…becomes available to clear, clean, and restore the cemetery” (Wessler 17). It is either the family’s responsibility or someone has to raise a large sum of money. The possibility of the government funding some of this – like they provide for white cemeteries – never comes up as an option. The main problem with this solution is that black cemeteries often lack an endowment and without one, they easily fall to ruin. White cemeteries on the other hand obtain money either from the government or from private wealth. Therefore, it seems society has placed a monetary value on black and white lives which explains why whites cemeteries have the funds to be maintained. Given this information, I question what this implies about the cost of black deaths? According to society, do they cost anything?

Overall, the problem with cemeteries in America is large. The complexity of this issue is important to discuss as the cemeteries provide a rich history that can alter the way we perceive things today. Notably, in his article Wessler mentions, “the issue here is that so much stuff gets covered up” (Wessler 8). There is a rich history beneath these graves that could potentially serve as a counternarrative to what society already knows. One significant piece of history that was uncovered during the restoration of Greenwood Cemetery for example was Dred Scott’s grave. Who knows, maybe uncovering graves could teach us something and change the system for the better.