Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 10, 2018
Andrea E. Frohne The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space New York State Series. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. 435 pp.; 12 color ills.; 55 b/w ills. Paperback $49.95 (9780815634300)

The mutual imbrications of race, space, and visuality that are a shared preoccupation of art history, cultural studies, critical theory, media studies, and anthropology come into disturbingly vivid relief in the story of the colonial-era cemetery whose long-buried past and recent transformation into the first national monument to memorialize US slavery form the subjects of Andrea Frohne’s fascinating book, The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space. Over the course of the eighteenth century, over 15,000 deceased African Americans, slave and free—perhaps as many as 20,000, according to some estimates—were interred throughout roughly 6.7 acres of what is today lower Manhattan. Historians knew of the cemetery’s existence but most assumed that the graves themselves had been destroyed by two centuries of urban and residential development. For the general public, that the city’s earliest black residents were buried beneath its streets and buildings was unknown until the announcement, on October 8, 1991, that thirteen graves had been exhumed at the site of a federal building project.

Over the next three years of the new federal office building’s construction, the skeletal remains of 406 more men, women, and children were disinterred, some irretrievably damaged by careless construction and recovery efforts. In 2003, the remains were reburied in a portion of the site that activists and elected officials had successfully blocked from further development. This reconsecrated portion of the disinterred cemetery officially opened in 2007 as the African Burial Ground National Monument (ABG), featuring a memorial and commemorative artwork that explicitly link the ongoing task of historical memory to a spiritual practice and poetics of identity that synthesize several indigenous African traditions that emphasize religious cosmologies in which veneration of ancestors is an important spiritual practice mnemonic. The literal and metaphysical “ancestral” presence at this monument is a key premise for Frohne’s thesis: that the remembering and reconsecration of the burial ground has produced a spatial and visual locus for African diasporic identity formation through the invention of collective memory.

As Frohne tells it, the origins of the burial ground, located beyond the city’s northern wall, date at least as far back as 1697 when the newly established Trinity Church, built by slave labor, banned black burials in its churchyard, the city’s main cemetery. Having been desecrated by industrial pollution, construction damage from the neighboring city prison, and grave-robbing Columbia medical students, the cemetery came to an end when, after a century of use, it was covered over with fill dirt and the land rezoned into private lots and city blocks. References to a “Negro Burial Ground” disappeared from city maps. As new civic cartographies “forgot” the burial ground, slavery’s key role in the history of the city was itself erased from public memory.

Frohne renders the various material and figurative layers of this complex history, as well as what she describes as its irreducible spiritual dimension, in fulsomely illustrated, meticulously documented detail. The book teems with firsthand accounts of press conferences, public hearings, community meetings, civil protests, official ceremonies, and the physical transformation of the site. Focusing on the “visuality of the African Burial Ground” (6), Frohne, a specialist in African art history, explores linkages between the three terms in her subtitle while recounting the histories of the original burial ground, the racialized “civic cartographies” behind its erasure from public memory, and the contemporary events that lead to the creation of the monument. Following this chronology, her six chapters bring colonial and early American representations of the site and of the community it served into conversation with contemporary visual productions commemorating the burial ground and its historical and spiritual significance. These latter include the 250-foot-long black granite monument itself, which invokes indigenous African and syncretistic diasporic religious symbols and the geographies of global African diasporas, as well as several public art projects, including commissioned works installed, along with a visitor center, in the first floor of the federal building. A middle chapter examines visual evidence provided by the dead themselves, whose skeletal and dental remains were subjected to extensive bio-archaeological analysis, before their reinterment. Along with remnants of clothing, jewelry, shrouds, coffins, and funerary objects, the remains of the anonymous dead uncovered by the federal building project serve to partially fill in historical lacunae about the lives of early African Americans. Bones and teeth index violence, illness, overwork, and malnutrition; material artifacts recovered from the graves give new evidence for how early African Americans honored and grieved for their dead, providing hints of the value they placed on their own and each other’s lives.

Inestimably valuable as a guide to the memorial site’s tangled historical web, Frohne’s study is somewhat hampered by a less-than-critical engagement with pan-Africanism as an identity paradigm. In light of the scant archaeological and historical evidence for significant African spiritual retentions in the original burial ground, any argument regarding material and visual cultural linkages between the original cemetery and traditional African spirit-world beliefs is, as Frohne admits, largely speculative. Nonetheless, her analysis tends to privilege such speculations and the essentialized identity forms in which they traffic. Most notably, Frohne promotes the idea that one of the coffin lids unearthed in the archaeological study bears a tin-tack pattern in the partial outline of a heart-shaped “sankofa,” an ideographic symbol—or adinkra—of the Akan peoples. The sankofa is now closely identified with the ABG and even inscribes the granite memorial itself. However, historian Erik Seeman, an expert in early American “deathways,” persuasively argues that the coffin lid reflects a spirituality informed by Anglo-European beliefs and practices, as he reinterprets the sankofa pattern through the common eighteenth-century English tradition of marking coffins with a tin-tack heart containing the deceased’s initials and dates of death. Seeman further notes that there is little evidence of adinkra used in Akan mortuary practices before the eighteenth century, nor of the sankofa’s existence until early in the twentieth. Were this burial a slave’s, it is the white master who would have paid for the decorated coffin. Frohne briefly acknowledges Seeman’s work but merely as an “alternative suggestion,” without any reference to his research. Given the possibility of this “direct link to Africa,” the identity of the motif, she argues, “is less significant than the power that lies in the representation of the motif itself” (143).

Frohne’s conclusion is that, when it comes to the burial nicknamed “Sankofa Man,” what we want to believe about the past is more important than what the past might actually be trying to tell us. This point of view runs athwart this study’s broader (and, I’d contend, more perspicacious) understanding of its archive as pressuring and thereby making visible gaps between historical memory and the historical record. In her final chapters, which discuss the commemorative art installed around the ABG, tensions present in earlier chapters between an essentialized model of diasporic identity and one that, like Seeman’s argument, acknowledges discontinuities in what Stuart Hall called “the ‘play’ of history, culture, and power,” resolve in favor of a nostalgic pan-Africanism. For example, how does a 1994 glass mural by Roger Brown, which layers the gaunt faces of the multiracial dead and dying of New York’s AIDS epidemic over the skulls of the burial ground’s dead disrupt this discourse? This question should follow from Frohne’s observation that Brown’s work is placed in a physically marginal position in relation to the other commissioned artwork installed around the visitor’s center, where, on several visits, she noticed guides directing analysis of this artwork to “an African-based subjectivity focused on the African Burial Ground” (263). But instead of exploring how this artwork’s inclusion here potentially expands the ABG’s narrative of African American historical memory, Frohne echoes the anonymous interpretive guides’ attempts to ascribe to the artwork “African-based” representational meanings. This frames Brown’s imagery as allegorical rather than linking AIDS and slavery within a broader narrative about the social construction of suffering, disability, and premature death. The implication is that this artwork requires Afrocentric recuperation in order to understand its relevance to the task of collective memory at the ABG. Just prior to the mosaic’s installation, the CDC declared AIDS the leading cause of death for African American men between the ages of 25–44 and the second leading cause of death for black women in the same age group, with New York City the epicenter of this pandemic. The disparate impact of this disease on New York’s African American communities is surely a legacy of slavery and of the long history of a racially segregated built environment that Frohne’s own study traces to the Trinity Church ban on black burials. Brown’s artwork might be read as productively queering the ABG in contrast to more gender and sexuality normative invocations of the site’s “ancestors” discourse.

Frohne’s book is as meticulous, respectful, comprehensive—and accessible—a study as the burial ground’s descendant communities could hope for and invaluable for the scholarship to come. Yet, I wish that she’d asked how Brown’s piece, in inviting viewers to “see” AIDS in New York in relation to the city’s histories of racism and slavery, might be read as troubling the politics of historical memory at the site in some important and politically necessary ways. By not taking up the possibility that this work of art confronts the politics of memory and identity at the ABG as an intervention rather than an outlier, Frohne misses the opportunity to broaden the conceptual purview of her inquiry to engage more directly with salient studies of national memory and public mourning more attuned to the role that forgetting plays in the narrativization of memory that is Frohne’s central subject. Marita Sturken’s influential work on collective memory and public mourning is especially salient here as are more recent studies on the cultural politics of 9/11 memorials, commemorations, and the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

In a similar vein, I was struck by the scant mention given the to fact that a large steel and bronze gate by renowned sculptor Melvin Edwards, to be prominently located in the ABG interpretive center, was funded by the federal General Services Agency but never installed or even built. Over more than five decades, Edwards has produced a singular body of work in which the aesthetic innovations of Black Arts, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism combine, engaging black history and social activism and African and diasporic visual cultures through formalist abstraction. Although Frohne does not provide an image or detailed description of the proposed gate, merely noting that the project was funded but not completed, I cannot help but imagine that Edwards’s installation would have been a somewhat disruptive presence, given the ABG memorial’s prevailing representational aesthetics, and, like Brown’s Untitled mosaic, an intervention into the identitarian form of blackness that frames the production of historical memory here.

Toward the end of this study, Frohne quotes Hall on the ways in which past anticolonial and antiracist resistance movements have used “essentialized” pan-African articulations, such as she finds at the ABG, to impose “an imaginary coherence on the experience of dispersal and fragmentation, which is the history of all enforced diasporas.” Yet, in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” (1990), the essay from which Frohne quotes, Hall also notes that “far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past . . . [f]ar from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past . . . identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”  

Even though Frohne herself echoes Hall’s theorization when she notes that “collective memories are not fixed, but are representations or constructions of reality constantly under revision” (278). Her analysis of the larger representational project of the ABG’s commemorative artwork and memorial structures locates ways in which memory and identity have actually become ossified and less available in the public mind for the kinds of revision and reconstruction to which Frohne, pace Hall, refers. Ultimately, it is the historical narrative presented in this study that brings more fully into view the imaginary, provisional terms by which collective memories are produced and made to feel coherent at the memorial.

Eden Osucha
Associate Professor of English, Bates College