Sunday, July 13, 2008

refuse to bury their dead in black cemeteries

A handmade grave-marker at
the Lamington Black Cemetery
in Bedminster, New Jersey

Most white Americans think that racial segregation died with the end of the "Jim Crow" era. However, in many areas of life, white people continue to separate themselves from non-white people--even when life is over.

Americans in general don't spend much time pondering death. The awareness of our own impending mortality--an awareness that perhaps most truly separates us from other animals--is continually repressed for us by America's consumerist, live-for-the-moment society.

In fact, in many ways, Americans more or less deny death, including the mass deaths caused in so many places by our white supremacist foreign policies.

As for white Americans, I think it's safe to assume that most of them probably aren't even aware of the many black cemeteries out there. If so, it means that they haven't taken another step in this regard, which is to consider what it would mean to be buried in such a place. To be a white corpse in the ground, surrounded by black corpses. To have those friends and relatives who are willing to visit their white remains come less often, because this cemetery is known as a "black cemetery."

And why, you might ask, would the possibility of a white body's burial in a black cemetery ever come up in the first place?

Here's a recent story about an incident in Texas where this possibility did arise. In this case, members of the white community rallied around a white body that was in danger of ending up in a black cemetery, apparently in an effort to "save" it from such an ignominious state of final rest. After all, the logic here seems to go, how could a white person ever rest in peace if she's surrounded by black people?

Racial divide stirred by burial of murder victim

By MONICA RHOR Associated Press Writer
© 2008 The Associated Press

HOUSTON — More than a year ago, an unidentified woman's body was found on a road, her dark hair shorn off, a plastic bag taped around her head, her hands severed. She had been strangled and tossed away by her killer.

Today, the crime remains unsolved, the murder victim's name is still unknown and efforts to bury her have set off controversy in Waller County — a rural area just west of Houston that has long been roiled by racial divisions.

The victim is white, while the funeral home and cemetery that a justice of the peace initially chose to handle her burial in Hempstead are historically black.

But Waller County Commissioners Court balked at paying for that burial. When activists started raising questions about the county's hesitation at burying the woman in a black cemetery, the commissioners asked a white-owned funeral home in Waller to handle arrangements.

That outraged Walter Pendleton, a local black minister who filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hempstead that forced it to integrate its public cemeteries.

"I'm just appalled right now. I can't believe this county stooped that low," he said. "The county overstepped its boundary to get a white funeral home to pick up the body so that it could not be buried in a black cemetery."

The victim would be the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in Waller County. Since March 25, Waller County has paid neighboring Harris County $50 a day to store the body.

"I have never seen such defiance and determination to protect a segregated system," said DeWayne Charleston, the Waller County justice of the peace who first ordered the black funeral home to handle the arrangements.

Judge Owen Ralston, the county's top elected official, denied that racial issues were at play. "I didn't know if the victim was black or white, and I didn't care," Ralston said.

Rather, he attributed the delay in burial to the black funeral home director's insistence that the county sign a letter guaranteeing payment. Ralston said that went against county policy, and instead contacted another funeral home to handle the arrangements.

The white-owned funeral home picked up the woman's body on Monday — the same day community activists sent out a news release calling attention to the situation.

That a nameless murder victim's burial is stirring claims of racial discrimination is not surprising in Waller County.

In 2006, the Texas Attorney General investigated claims that the rights of black voters were violated. Earlier this year, students at historically black Prairie View A&M University protested to bring attention to racially motivated voting problems in Waller County.

"The issue of racism always raises its head here — from voting rights to education, to the criminal justice system," Charleston said. "Waller County is stuck in the 19th century."

Charleston said he wasn't trying to cause trouble when he ordered the black funeral home to handle arrangements for the woman. He was simply struck by the brutality of the crime and the poignancy of a murder victim with no family to claim her.

"You never know what her circumstances were. She could be from Texas and estranged from her family. She could be the victim of human trafficking," Charleston said. "She's certainly entitled to a dignified burial no matter what the circumstances. I'm treating her as though she is a kin of mine."

The woman's nude and mutilated body was found on a Prairie View road just before dawn on March 18, 2007. She is believed to be between 30 and 50 years old, and was likely killed at another location, then dumped on the roadside, police say.

"It was gruesome and that no one identified her or claimed her makes it more horrific," Charleston said. "I thought that this woman, if nothing else, was going to have the distinction of integrating Waller County cemeteries."

[The New York Times also covered this story]

PS--I have no idea how this poor woman came to her end, but her story reminds me of one of the most powerful films I've ever seen, Agnes Varda's Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond or Without Roof or Rule in English). Released in 1985, it follows a lone woman for awhile, raising questions (for me at least) about just what "freedom" and "community" really mean, especially when you die.

Here's a taste of it:


  1. I can see the logic of their decision. Even if it isn't overt, there remains a latent feeling of superiority over blacks by the white population, and this is brought to the fore in circumstances like this, where great importance is set in trying to dignify and honor the dead.

    I could even feel a twinge of it myself before I realized where it was coming from when you first mentioned the story, as I attempted to put myself into the story. I think this is why racism will never be overcome by some ideology of color blindness, because it can't be overcome until people actually think about it and second guess a lot of these ingrained responses with the implicit racism behind it. Color blindness with its mantra of avoiding any thought whatsoever is merely the latest stage of racism. Only now it wants you to ignore the man behind the curtain.

  2. When I blogged about this issue the main point that I tried to get across is that dehumanizing this woman to fight racism is wrong. We cannot correct one wrong by perpetuating another. This fight over ownership is only able to continue because the body is female and unclaimed. At what point do we decide to respect her and let her rest in peace?

  3. Remember when Dwayne "Dog" Chapman got in trouble for his "N word" rant? Part of his "apology" was offering to be buried in a slave cemetery. At the time, I thought he was beyond crazy, but if white people are really that "disrespected" by being laid to rest surrounded by deceased black people, I guess he figured he was making the ultimate ego sacrifice.

    Thanks, but no thanks.

    A cemetery is sacred ground, and if human white folks don't want their disintigrating white bones too close to my human black ancestor's disintegrating white bones -- I say let the dead bury their dead somewhere else

  4. Being a Texan, this isn't surprising, especially for that Waller County. Overt racism is very much alive and well in certain areas and even though people want to pretend it is a thing of the past, events like this prove otherwise. Why was the country willing to keep her from being buried so that they could bury her in a white cemetery? No one seems to be outraged at tax payers dollars going to keep this women from being buried in a black cemetery.

  5. "The awareness of our own impending mortality--an awareness that perhaps most truly separates us from other animals"

    Actually, other animals have been found too to be quite aware of their own impending mortality, and exhibit the same signs of fear, concern, and stress as humans do when their lives are put in danger. They also exhibit the same signs of sadness, loneliness, and mourning upon losing a loved one.

    It's this sort of thinking - that we are somehow "different" or "separate" - that allowed blacks to be slaves in the 19th century and that currently allows non-human animals to be tortured, abused, and finally murdered all so that someone somewhere can make 50 cents by selling his dead body for food.

    Racism is a prominent issue right now, but let's not forget the other issues of discrimination facing us as well, and let's certainly not promote such discrimination - against anyone.

  6. I get what you're saying, Scarlet, and I mostly agree. But, I'm not sure you got what I was saying -- that humans know, even as children, that they're going to die some day. Not necessarily soon, but that they will, some day, die. I don't think any other animals are aware of their own eventual (as opposed to immediately impending) death, are they?

  7. I believe that they are, macon. The more we learn about non-human animals, the more we see just how similar they are to us. I adopted my friend's dog after he died, and the dog, who had previously had a very cheerful, happy, approachable personality, has been miserable and depressed ever since the death. I take him to the park and he doesn't even want to play anymore, he just lays down in the grass. He doesn't get excited about things anymore - things that used to be a source of great pleasure for him now just don't make a difference. It's really quite sad for me to see.

    You seem very socially aware when it comes to racial issues, but the same things that apply to racism can also apply to many other forms of discrimination, such as speciesism. They all come from a sense that we are somehow different or separate and that other races (or in this case, other animals) possess a distinct "otherness" that makes it okay to use them for what ever purposes suit us, and from a desire to feel like we are inherently better than or superior to someone else.

    If you look at history, this sort of thinking has played itself out over and over again, and the consequences have always been negative. Sure, slavery may have helped the economy, but most people alive today recognize that it definitely wasn't worth the suffering that slaves endured.

  8. Macon, so you are saying that you think only humans can think about mortality in this way, but why? Why must we be unlike other animals?

    We tend to think that humans are the pinnacle of evolution. The monkey becomes the ape becomes the caveman becomes the human. Or else, on the sixth day God created Man in His image (after having created the other animals in some other image). Personally I don't see much difference between thinking that humans are somehow better or higher than other animals and thinking that Whites are better than PoC or men are better than women, etc. We all (women, men, PoC, whites, humans, non-humans) share the same planet, are evolving/being created along side each other at the same time. All life is symbiotic. Science has demonstrated that much more clearly than it has demonstrated that animals don't know they will eventually die someday.

    This cultural trend of trying to separate humans from other animals, of refusing to even admit that WE are animals, is just as much a form of "othering" as the racism that is always talked about in this blog. This othering allows us to then move on to objectifying (again, a subjuct that I believe you are versed in). While othering and objectifying of people often results in genocide, othering and objectifying of the rest of life results is ecocide (mix the two together and you get envorinmental racism). And believe me, we will never enjoy a world free of racism if we have no world to live in. People often talk about the cozy friendships that racism and classism and patriachy have. The superiority over (which leads to domination of) nature parties with them too. How is treating mink as nothing more than a source of fur to be breed for profit any different from treating Africans as a source of labor to be breed for profit? We know better than to claim that whites think about their existence (in the primal sense, I mean) differently than blacks do. Women are not here for the sole purpose of being subservient to men any more than trees are here for the sole purpose of being harvested for pulp and lumber.

    Some say that animals don't feel pain. (Ever step on a dog's tail?) Some say animals don't have feelings. (Ever even HAD a dog?) Those are both clearly myths. Consider if animals not understanding mortality might be one too. The kyriarchy is quite comprehesive.

  9. Scarlet and Silver, you seem to be ignoring what I'm saying. As I said above, I mostly agree with you. But as I also said -- which you both seem to be ignoring -- is that I don't know of any animals that think about their eventual deaths like people do. Yes, if they're under immediate threat, they typically do all they can to avoid it, perhaps because they know that they'll die otherwise. But what I asked is, where is the evidence that other animals know that they're going to die some day, at some undetermined point in the future?

    I agree that we should stress the commonalities between animals and people. At the same time, I see no reason to pretend that in this sense they're the same if they're not. Religion, for instance, is commonly practiced by human animals with an awareness of their eventual death, and of what they hope or believe will happen afterward. Do any non-human animals practice a religion in this sense?

  10. Macon, can animals only know about their eventual deaths if science has proved it, provided "evidence"? Science is the enabler of exploitation. I understand that you don't know of another animal that doesn't understand death, but perhaps it is you who is (also?) ignoring what I (and I think Scarlet) are saying. Do you know of any animals that do not have those thoughts? Where is that evidence? The only reason I know that YOU think about dealth is because you and I both speak English and you say you do. I don't speak Cocker Spaniel, so one cannot tell me that it also thinks such things.

    I happen to believe a couple of things about religion. One is that religion alienates us from our animalistic place within nature. The standard judeo-christian (the religious system that I am most familiar with) teaching is wholly human-supremecist (just as it is patriarchal). God gave Man all the other lifeforms on the planet, including Woman, to be master over. Man is in God's image, and since God is synonymous with Lord, therefor Man's role on Earth is to lord over everything else. God actually said as much. Since (in the eyes of most whites, the followers of the Plotonic/Aristotelian learned-thought pattern that we call western civilization) God is a bearded white man in the sky, His son/incarnate-self is a blond-haired, white hippie male. The first Man (ie: human male) is in God's image. Thus everything revolves the white male. Although the dogma of western religion is explicit only about Patriarchy, the "white Jesus", et al reinforces and perpetuates white supremacy. A person would naturally create God in THEIR image (if humanizing of God must indeed occur) and since God of all things is now White, White must therefore be the top of the pyramid. Let us not forget that human is also implied to be at the top of this pyramid.

    I prefer to know a different version of that story. Humans lived in balance, as equals, with the rest of the "garden". Somewhere along the line we decided we knew better than the other lifeforms, were no longer willing to have faith that nature would provide as it always had and had to start meddling, developed science, bit the apple. In the process we expelled OURSELVES from the garden, alienated ourselves from our nurturing environment, went out to till the Earth and sweat and labor. We've never gone back. Now we are consuming the planet like PacMan consumes dots and billions of non-whites, non-males, and non-elites/"lords" are sweating and laboring; something no other animal does to any such extent. This alienation also allowed us to conceive of things like slavery, class, crusades and inquisitions. Remember religion has committed more genocide than any other overt excuse.

    What use does another animal need with religion? They knew better than to leave the garden. I think they understand the fundamentals of life and death as well (or even better) than we do.


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