Magazine article The Spectator

Mourning in America

Magazine article The Spectator

Mourning in America

Article excerpt

New York is in the grip of memorial mania, writes Tiffany Jenkins

In early 1991, the construction of a federal office building in lower Manhattan was halted after an unexpected discovery. Underneath the ground, covered by a patina of concrete and steel, was the coffin of a colonialera African. It was not alone. Construction work was halted, archaeologists called in, and it was soon established that the site was a major burial ground from the 17th and 18th centuries. As many as 15,000 to 20,000 black men, women and children were buried there, by the historians' count, making this one of the most important archaeological finds in all America.

The significance was not lost on New York's people or its authorities. Here was something that challenged the prevailing idea that there was no slavery in colonial New York, and it immediately took on symbolic importance for the city's AfricanAmerican community. In 1993, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark, the most important designation for a national monument, and a status it shares with the Statue of Liberty. And, in February, a visitor centre was opened there. Among the poignant displays is one depicting the dual funeral of an adult and child.

The African Burial Ground National Monument is both moving and fascinating because of what it reveals about forgotten lives. But it also says something about broader trends in memorialisation. We've stopped putting great men on pedestals and started commemorating their victims.

In the process we are are losing a sense that human history involved leadership and struggle and, yes, sacrifice. In focusing purely on victimhood we are in danger of turning history into a random series of tragic events, instead of something that was purposeful and directed. Something made rather than just experienced.

Of course, every historical period has marked loss and achievement. The French saw a memorial mania in the late-19th century, fuelled by a crisis in national identity after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. And there was a major period of memorialisation in Britain after the first world war. Partly because so many died, repatriation of the dead was not possible or permitted, and the proliferating stones and statues served as a focus for grief. Many were erected in small villages recognising the contribution of local men, organised and funded by ordinary people The picture changed after 1945. Older traditions of memorialisation started to break down and, crucially, attitudes towards war and nationhood fragmented. The significant shift began around the end of the Vietnam war and was marked by the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. , in 1982. Because of the controversial nature of that war, and its uncertain conclusion, it was difficult to represent its fallen soldiers as participants in a just, honourable cause. So the Vietnam Veterans Memorial took a new approach:

it moved its focus away from the conflict and towards the contribution of individuals. It separated the soldier from the war.

The monument was more about the casualties, and it named them in stone - quite unlike, say, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington. This has the anonymous human remains of soldiers from the first and second world wars, and Korea. The idea was to pay tribute to those whose names we do not know who gave their lives to an important, shared, cause. …

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