Unmarked and Unburied: the Unsettling of Black Death

Black Lives Matter protest at the Democratic National Convention on July 26th, 2016 in Philadelphia, PA (Courtesy of Shutterstock)

The contemporary “discovery” of unmarked graves and unburied bodies of African Americans remains a disturbing reality of the Black experience. Most recently, two remains of Black children—murdered in the 1985 assault and bombing of the Philadelphia neighborhood of the MOVE organization by the police—were found to have been housed at the University of Pennsylvania Penn Museum and Princeton University and are now missing. And, an eight-year study in Frederick County Maryland went as far as to use technology and genetics to recreate the faces of excavated remains of twenty-nine people who were enslaved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century at Cactocin Furnace. Researchers, including archeologist Sharon Burnston, described them as “the invisible people.” The project was led by the Smithsonian and Harvard and described as a significant advancement in science and technology.

And these incidents are not isolated to the United States. Recently, the remains of 215 indigenous children have been detected using ground-penetrating radar at Kamploops residential school in British Columbia, a staggering 751 children at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, and 182 children at St. Eugene’s Mission School. These events have elicited calls for a reckoning in Canada and the U.S. with indigenous genocide and the history of residential schooling. 

Entire communities have mourned those who were killed and buried in unmarked graves as part of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy. Community-led initiatives to recover remains may not bring justice but can offer solace to families who lost loved ones. However, projects that are led by the state and by universities that seek to understand and to confirm what has been known by Black and indigenous communities for generations reproduce western, colonial violence. The intrusive inspections of bodies and efforts to excavate land reveal a privileging of medicine, technology, and land conquering as superior forms of knowledge and power. The unmarking of graves was a deliberate effort to deny Black humanity and citizenship—contested in life and in death. Yet the “discovery” and confirmation of these deaths is not accompanied by efforts to extend full citizenship rights towards BIPOC people. 

The existence of unmarked, unreturned, and unsettled Black and indigenous graves is a function of U.S. and colonial history in the New World, and a product and strategy of white supremacy. Ritual and mourning are essential elements of Black diasporic life and culture, and this was disrupted by slavery and colonialism. Using the history of radical forms of Black mourning, and sites of commemoration including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, this essay argues for a reimagining of forms of memorialization beyond western, settler-colonialist impulses of discovery, technology, and disruption. This reimagining offers a pathway towards envisioning Black citizenship-making in life and death beyond what can be given or offered by the state.

The Atlantic Ocean remains one of the most elusive sites of unmarked Black death. Black bodies were left unburied at sea during the Middle Passage. The ocean holds the unmarked graves of countless people of African descent who were murdered by slave ship merchants as they threw them overboard to their deaths, such as the more than 130 who were murdered when they were thrown overboard on the slave ship Zong. As Saidiya Hartman has remarked, “death was simply a part of the workings of the trade.” But captives also knowingly jumped overboard as a means of escape. In her stunning analysis of the Middle Passage, historian Sowande Mustakeem challenges us to consider the ocean not only as a “repository of bodies, death, pain, and suffering,” but also as a space in which “desires, hopes, and dreams were enacted as bodies were set into motion moving across, within, and through.” It is impossible to mark graves of captive people of African descent in the ocean. However, they do not need to be marked in order for us to remember and know the vastness of their suffering and bondage. Their bodies cannot be claimed and to do so would be to disrupt their flight to freedom through the sea. Unmarking need not mean unknowing.

Black mourning practices and the disruption of burial during enslavement tell us much about unsettled death. The processes of the commodification of people of African descent impeded upon ritual practices for the dead. Enslavers often denied people of African descent rights towards proper funeral and burial of loved ones. And as Daina Ramey Berry has shown, the enslaved were commodified even at death as part of the production of western knowledge and advancements in medicine. Enslavers sold the dead into the cadaver trade, robbing their families of the ability to mark their graves. Body parts and unmarked graves are continuously “discovered” such as the skull purported to belong to Nat Turner

Enslaved people practiced radical acts of mourning for loved ones who died, countering their commodification of life and death. Berry refers to this as their internal “soul value.” Even when they were denied access to their bodies, or even as their loved ones were still alive but sold away, people of African descent mourned. For example, Sojourner Truth’s parents mourned their children who were sold away, their “dear departed ones, of whom they had been robbed, and of whom their hearts still bled,” even though they were still alive. Even without their bodies, their lives were not left unmarked. Ritual and spiritual practices of mourning offered a way for unmarked Black death to be settled. 

Nevertheless, unmarked graves remain. Archaeologists and other scholars have since come across burial grounds and unmarked graves in lower Manhattan, Dover, Sint Eustatius, and on a golf course in Florida to name a few, with increasing calls to use technology to locate the remains of enslaved across the American plantation South. During the construction of a school in 2018, approximately 72 remains of African American men and boys were unearthed in Sugarland, TX formerly a prison labor camp as part of the convict-leasing system of the Jim Crow era. Here, prison officials worked incarcerated African American prisoners to death and buried them in unmarked graves. 

Modern projects which advocate for a “reckoning” with this history include calls towards the identification, retrieval, and return of the remains of Black bodies. These graves—marked and unmarked— shape the land and are often “discovered” incidentally in these moments of disruption to the environment as part of capitalist projects of development and are very rarely accompanied by any forms of restorative justice. Can a reckoning with unmarked Black death occur without such disturbance? Does the return of Black remains settle the violence of Black death and the denial of Black citizenship?

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors and commemorates thousands of African Americans who were terrorized, murdered, and lynched. The memorial’s 800 steel monuments represent each of the counties in the United States where racial violence occurred. The names of each victim are documented on the markers, and the visitors to the memorial experience them both as they hang around and overhead, and on the ground laid to rest. The museum encourages those with loved ones to bring dirt from the site of the lynching and display it at the museum which combines the individual sites into one container of earth. The result is a radical reimagining of mourning and restoration without disruption of land and physical bodies, and one that challenges the observer sit in a state of unsettledness as they gaze at the hanging monuments above, or those laid on the ground in the appearance of empty caskets. 

In the face of historical treatment of Black death, Claudia Rankine has argued for “a sustained state of national mourning for black lives…in order to point to the undeniability of their devaluation.” This mourning is necessary for both Black and indigenous life, but it need not replicate the very settler-colonialist forces which produced such anti-Black violence and death. And indeed, calls by the state to unearth bodies as a form of justice are often empty, do not affirm citizenship rights, and in fact violate rights of respectful treatment of death. 

People of African descent have historically enacted radical forms of grief and mourning—with or without marking, knowing, and/or burying bodies. Such mourning can exist as an alternative form of citizenship-making beyond rights and privileges that are given by the state. Mourning without disruption allows us to consider what it means to move towards peace and justice, while remaining undisturbed and unsettled. 

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Crystal Webster

Crystal Webster is a historian of race, gender, and childhood in early America. She is Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. Webster received her PhD from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She tweets from @Crystallynnweb.