Tag Archives: African-American

Abra, Cadaver, Alakazam!

an empty grave

Source: https://c1.staticflickr.com/4/3376/3652860950_1f5fc7e2bd_b.jpg

On April 17, Dr. Daina Barry of the University of Texas-Austin delivered the 2017 Grace Towns Hamilton lecture at Emory University in which she explored the history of domestic trade in cadavers in the United States. This history, which is chronicled in her book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, reaches back into the antebellum period, when corpses of enslaved Black people were sold for the purposes of medical research. Using data including, but not limited to, autopsies, medical college anatomy course notes, and grave-robbery notices, Dr. Barry pieced together narratives of how these bodies were obtained and what happened once they were. She reported a statistic asserting that anywhere between 4200 – 8000 human dissections were performed by medical college students between 1760 and 1876. Many Black bodies were mutilated during this course of affairs because they were legally considered chattel, or property, before 1865 and after the creation of state anatomy laws in the 1880s such as The Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1883, they were less protected under the law than whites. Dr. Barry utilized Grandison Harris, a Black man purchased by 7 faculty at the Medical College of Georgia in 1852, to illustrate this point. Mr. Harris was hired solely to disinter bodies to be dissected in anatomy classes at the college and robbed many bodies from Cedar Grove Cemetery, a historically Black burial ground, because it was received less protection from thieves than white cemeteries. One particularly interesting element of her historical interpretation is the metaphor of “cultivating the corpse,” much like a crop that must be first planted (buried) then later harvested (exhumed).

This work on the cadaver trade expands the scholarship that explores death as a historical and cultural phenomenon. By digging into evolution of the relationship between institutions such as the law and education, we can understand that death in the United States is culturally constructed. Furthermore, it has serious implications at the intersection of race specifically. For example, if Black bodies were more likely to be disinterred, or disturbed from their final resting place, we should expect the African-American culture to reflect this. Accordingly, Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker added during the Q&A of the talk that as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1976 she was warned to be careful on campus after dark, lest she “end up as a cadaver in the medical school.” Thus, histories of interacting with death and the deceased have far-reaching consequences of our cultural organization and social institutions.

Death – The Great (In)Equalizer

A traditional Western European plague doctor; they were hired en masse during the “Black Death” epidemic. Retrieved from http://www.themiddleages.net/plague.html

Death is an omnipotent force, inescapable and looming. For this reason, it has been quite often referred to as the “Great Equalizer.” This designation masks the inequality of death as a culturally constructed process affected by social power dynamics. A quintessential case in the regard is the relationship between African-Americans in the United States and death.

The social oppression of individuals of African descent in the United States has been subject to scrutiny since the inception of American slavery, a “peculiar institution,” according to Frederick Douglass via his published autobiography (1845). Hence, we know that there is no facet of African-American culture that remains unaffected by the history of racism and prejudice in the United States. The experience of death is no different.

For African-Americans (and perhaps other marginalized groups) death remains a queer dyad, consisting of the social death in addition to the physical death. The concept of social death was originally described by Orlando Patterson in Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982) where he argued that the dehumanization of enslaved Africans related to the enforced erasure of their culture and deprivation of what are now more widely considered universal human rights constructed a slave as a “socially dead person.” He writes: “Alienated from all “rights” or claims of birth, he [the slave] ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate social order.” In other words, an individual who does not possess capacities that are conventionally seen as common to all living humans cannot be rightfully considered to be alive in the typical sense. This state of existence can, and should, be applied contemporarily to African-Americans who still do not have equitable access to fundamental resources such as housing, education, healthcare, and education. It should also be noted that physical death rates between Blacks and whites in the United States are also still unequal (Payne & Freeman, 2006). The realization of the tension African-Americans may feel between the social death and physical death can be seen in literature. August Wilson’s 1983 play Fences (and its 2016 film adaptation), an enduring gem of playwriting on African-American experiences, provides a stellar example of this.

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in their roles as Rose Maxson and Troy Maxson, respectively, in the 2016 film Fences

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in their roles as Rose Maxson and Troy Maxson, respectively, in the 2016 film Fences. Retrieved fromhttp://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126195963. Taken by Joan Marcus

(**Spoiler Alert**) Though the protagonist of Fences, Troy Maxson, dies physically at the age of 62, the story told by the play is very much concerned with the social death. Frequent references to death and dying throughout the play avail readers of the characters’ relationship with the end of life. Gabriel, Troy’s younger brother, who was wounded in World War 1 causing him to have a mental disability, says of St. Peter, the Christian apostle: “[He] Ain’t got my name in the book. Don’t have to have my name. I done died and went to heaven. He got your name though. One morning St. Peter was looking at his book, marking it up for the judgment, and he let me see your name.” This is a representation of the social death Gabriel underwent, as his disability caused him to become a ward of the state, unable to make decisions for himself.

Troy, a sanitation worker, expresses his dissatisfaction with his own life several times throughout the play, illuminating his awareness of his social death. He says: “Woman . . . I do the best I can do. I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain’t got no tears. I done spent them[…] I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. (Pause.) That’s all I got, Rose. That’s all I got to give. I can’t give nothing else.”

By characterizing tears and strength as objects external to himself, Troy positions himself here without basic characteristics of humans. This aligns with Patterson’s above definition of socially dead.

Finally, the following impassioned dialogue occurs between Troy and Rose, who are married:

“Troy: Rose, you’re not listening to me. I’m trying the best I can to explain it to you. It’s not easy for me to admit that I been standing in the same place for eighteen years.

Rose: I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me?”

During the exchange, which occurs following Troy’s reveal that he has impregnated another woman, both Troy and Rose lament their long unfulfilled, i.e. dead, hopes and dreams, cuing us in to the social death they have experienced as a poor African-American couple circa 1960.

Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” August Wilson beautifully reflected the aberrant relationship between African-Americans and death by telling the story of the two deaths, which serve as a testament to the inequality of death.

 Works Cited

DOUGLASS, F., & GARRISON, W. L. (1845). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Boston: Anti-slavery Office.

PATTERSON, O. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

PAYNE, R., & FREEMAN, H. (2006). Racial Attitudes and Health Care Disparities in African American Communities: Historical Perspectives and Implications for End-of-Life Decision- Making” in Key Topics on End-of-Life Care for African Americans. North Carolina: Duke University

WILSON, A. (1983). Fences. New York: Plume.