Tiffany Jenkins

Mourning in America

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

Mourning in America
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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 colonial-era 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 African–American 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.

The idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ wars has been further confused in recent decades, and so too have conventional ideas about honouring the dead. Instead of bombastic memorials to successful campaigns abroad, we are now more likely to mark scenes of tragedy. Sites of random violence are sanctified, such as the Oklahoma City and National Memorial Museum, which commemorates the 168 people whose lives were taken in the bombing of 1995. No cause is acknowledged here, only terror and death.

Elsewhere in Lower Manhattan, in what is, sometimes, tellingly, called the Memorial District, is Ground Zero. There, too, another monument to the fallen is being constructed — two massive pools, set into the footprints of the Twin Towers, inscribed with the names of those who died on 9/11. Alongside it, when it opens next September on the tenth anniversary, will be a museum complex which documents the terrorist attacks, and the Memorial Plaza, a peaceful green space for contemplation.

Details and photographs have just been released, but they can scarcely do justice to the scale of the project. Four hundred oak trees will surround the pools. The museum alone will be seven storeys high, if all below ground. Inside, visitors will see a fire truck preserved from Ground Zero and hear the testimonies of those who were there. After the early galleries, visitors will walk down a slope taking them into a darkened space where they will overlook the main gallery, which is dominated by the ‘Last Column’, saved from the Twin Towers.

The academic Paul Williams has found that more memorial museums were opened in the past 15 years than in the previous 100. They often preserve once fairly meaningless everyday objects that have been ‘touched’ by death — for example, the columns at Ground Zero, as if these pieces of metal communicate something profound simply by being there.

Instead of celebrating kings and generals on granite pedestals, there is now a growing body of what Erika Doss, author of Memorial Mania, terms ‘shame-based’ memorials, such as those which uncover a murky and neglected past, dealing with slavery, lynching and so on. No one would want to return to the days of old but traditional memorials did at least present people as history makers, rather than as passive objects of history.

Consider the African Burial Ground: New York Governor David Paterson has dubbed it ‘our Ellis Island’, after the island off the southern tip of Manhattan that was the gateway for millions of immigrants between 1892 and 1954, and which now houses an Immigration Museum. The African Burial Ground is historically significant but it is no Ellis Island: there is an important difference between marking a cemetery and a port that was a gateway to the future. One is a place of death and a focal point for suffering and grief, while the other signals the start of a new life — for immigrants and for a country.

You have to ask, when does remembering become morbid? An excessive preoccupation with the past is usually a sign that something is missing in the present. At times it is good for people to move on. But today, in New York City, monuments to the dead are multiplying. The City That Never Sleeps is taking too much time to mourn.

Tiffany Jenkins is a sociologist and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.