NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 101

“Only one,” he said. “There’s one marker there.” He pointed straight ahead to a perpendicular intersection. “The family plot’s that way, when you cross the other path,” he said, wagging his left hand. “The slave plot’s straight ahead. When you reach the barrier,” he said nodding, “the headstone’s about one o’clock.” Family plot, slave plot, I thought. The marker was very hard to see. It was less than a foot high, moss-covered stone, an irregular rectangle that at a distance of twenty yards from the split-rail barrier was almost lost in the carpet of dead leaves and brush. It took us about fifteen minutes, trying to work out the orient points he’d indicated with his body, to spot it. The Bakongo cosmogram is oriented around an axis like that of the Greek cross, representing the intersection of physical and metaphysical worlds. In Bakongo culture — in reality a diverse grouping of cultures spread across Central Africa, in and around the present day Republic of the Congo — the world of the dead was represented as white and watery. Writes historian Robert Farris Thompson, “in the Kongo it is thought that the powers of the ‘white realm,’ the Kaolin-tinted world of the dead, are released by the sacrifice of a white chicken. In fact, the placement of images of white chickens on Kongo graves symbolizes the presence of the dead within the horrific whiteness of their realm.” These traditional burial sites, to which many African-American graves in South Carolina’s Sea Islands and other parts of the Deep South bear a strong, if fragmentary, resemblance, are also often covered with shards of broken glass or pottery, the remnants of things broken to free the spirit within the clay. In contrast to this breaking and release, the heads of the deceased were often bound with cloth before burial, keeping the soul from escaping before making its final, homegoing journey. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE “Are they marked?” I asked. The Bakongo cosmogram is one of the most significant of so-called African retentions in the New World. The fact of the matter is that the majority of enslaved people in the u.s. were bred domestically for that role and not brought via the Middle Passage from Africa, but that terrible crossing has remained an ineluctable mediator of shared experience. The legal importation of slaves ended in 1808, and while smuggling from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America continued long after that, the practice of breeding and marketing human beings as chattel had already — for the pl anters of Virginia and elsewhere — rendered importation undesirable, a matter for protectionist legislation. As what was then called the Southwest was annexed and added as slave territories, many of those domestically born slaves were brought around Florida by ship from Norfolk, Charleston, and other ports to New Orleans. Whether direct or mediated, individual or collective, the enslaved people clearly retained memories of the places from which they or their families and communities had been forcibly taken and of the violent silence or void that had replaced it. 99 “The Fergusons probably had close to sixty people,” he told me. “They’re buried out there. Some of them, anyway.” He pointed down a straight path from the covered porch that was keeping the heavy rain off us, drumming against cedar shake. “They found the remains of forty-four people there.”