Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pathways to Empathy at the African Burial Ground Memorial

Over the weekend, on a walking tour of lower Manhattan with my students from Rutgers-Newark, we visited the African Burial Ground Memorial on Elk Street. For me, the memorial is one of the most moving sites in the city. But on this visit, a ranger explained to me that I've been walking through the site backwards.

I've always entered the memorial from left to right. I walk down a spiraling ramp, past African spiritual and religious symbols that remind me how the people buried here were people of heart and mind, with their own faiths and traditions.

Then,in a subterranean space, I read the engraved messages about the physical remains of the people buried there: that in one plot was found a man aged 22-28 years, in another a woman 18-20, in another a baby. For me, this makes the dead a living presence.

Then, I enter a tight chamber with only one exit, through a narrow door at the opposite end. My heart runs cold every time I do this, because I think of the millions of Africans who passed doors of no return before they were shipped to the Americas.

Through door and I'm in an open space, with all the memories of the passage and ambiguities for freedom before me.

It turns out, according to the ranger, that I have it entirely backwards.

As she explained, the memorial should be experienced first with the entry through the door, then the confinement of slavery, then the engraved identities of the interred, followed by an ascent alongside religious and spiritual symbols.

Frankly, I think the memorial is so good that it works either way. But next time, I'll try the preferred route. And if you haven't been there yet, visit soon.

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