Thinking about Michael Brown and the African Burial Ground

Michael Brown was only 18 years old; he was unarmed and shot multiple times. I am exhausted by this news.

I cannot find words to express how such blatant racism makes a parent feel. It does not matter what we do for our children, it does not matter how educated we are, or what our politics are or really anything. What matters is the color of our skin. My heart goes out to Michael Brown’s parents and to parents world-wide who have the misfortune of having to contend with a child who has been shot for no reason other than for being different. In this case, it is not just about being different – it is about contending with a heritage of enslavement, the resultant race politics, and issues around police brutality in the United States. And this is not just about people of color: there is something unique, systemic, and targeted about the treatment of young African-American men in this country. And there is something awful about the violence of having to watch it happen over and over again on the television, on YouTube, in your Facebook feed, or on the blogs you read.

I remember watching Rodney King being repeatedly beaten by the LAPD in 1992. I was an undergraduate at the time, and I recall one of my professors likening the publicness of police brutality to the necessary publicness of lynching. Neither the image nor that statement have left my mind.

At the beginning of each semester I inevitably have some undergraduate students in my Introduction to Anthropology class try to convince me that their generation is post-race. This places my students of color in very awkward positions. As a result of this (privileged) pattern, I have started to build my course around the African Burial Ground (ABG). It is the perfect four-field case study to build an introductory class around allowing me to integrate Critical Race Theory including issues related to recognizing privilege and intersectionality, as well as providing students with the tools to read, understand, and analyze archaeological and physical anthropological reports from the excavations, African-American heritage and ethnography, and what a successful community based and public project can achieve in a contemporary world. Most importantly, it highlights the role that anthropology can play in making sense of, critically engaging with, and providing space for an empathetic encounter with difference and for my purposes, talk directly to issues related to race in NYC which a vast number of my students believed to be a post-race, progressive, liberal city.

Teaching about the ABG has had a remarkable impact on my students as they feel connected to a history of resistance in the city. For example, in 2011, one of my students sent me an email letting me know that before joining other students at the Occupy marches at Foley Square, a group of them from my Anthropology class paid their respects by having a moment of silence at the monument.

Having utilized the ABG as the perfect teaching module that it became in my mind, I began taking my friends and colleagues when they would come visit. I knew all the park rangers, I knew the security personnel and I knew the commuters. After 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot in early 2012, I found myself gravitating to the ABG for a different reason. By this point I was a parent and the idea of someones child being shot weighed heavy on me. I began to sit by the monument looking at the map of the 6.6 acres etched into granite. I like how the monument claims the space upon which Lower Manhattan is built in the map of the burial ground.

I like to sit by this monument and recognize its sacredness: a peace, a tranquility that is like no other in my city. It feels different because it is different. It is a space that provides solace, that provides some sense that resistance is possible, and that even when things are completely against you, there is some hope for the future. I am not African nor am I African-American. I have gained strength from the ABG as an American. The culture of being American is deeply linked to ideals of resistance.

The reality of this resistance is that the monument, museum, and art works, claim a space in the Ted Weiss Federal Building. The listed major tenants of this building are the EPA, FBI and IRS. The non listed tenants include Homeland Security and the CIA. It is like these latter agencies are squatters that everyone in the neighborhood knows about but does not report. Across the street, there is a children’s playground at which there are never any children. It covers the underground high security prison for ‘enemies of the state,’ and the many picked up in the city’s post 9-11 frenzy. They are stationed there, I was told by a guard, because the underground tunnels link the prison to the court-house and so these ‘criminals’ are never exposed to the public for fear of riots.

Prior to the Fall of 2001, in April, I  remember 19-year-old Timothy Thomas being shot by the police in Cincinnati, and the subsequent riots that took over the city.

How much of our history are we going to forget? The archaeology conducted at the African Burial Ground gives me hope that even if buried under, there are ways for us to always remember; it is just a matter of time.

Ferguson, MO, my heart is with you.

Photo taken by Uzma Z. Rizvi, April 5th, 2014.
Photo taken by Uzma Z. Rizvi, April 5th, 2014.

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Uzma Z. Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the Gulf Studies Center, American University of Sharjah.

3 thoughts on “Thinking about Michael Brown and the African Burial Ground

  1. I think you raise some interesting points about this generation being “Post- race”, I do in fact believe that there are still racist people out in this world. And I don’t think that will ever change. However, I disagree with what you say about Michael Brown being shot for no reason. I do not think he was shot because of his race in fact I believe that he did something wrong and that is why the police went after him.

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