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“Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940)
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and many more; and in the wake of the continuing first wave of the corona virus epidemic, New Yorkers have marched to make Black lives matter. Our mourning for 24,000 dead is our marching. To march at personal risk of brutality by the police and infection from the corona virus is an embodied act of personal reparations with the past, present, and future dead. By the drumming of feet, the repetition of chants, the burning of sage and the defiance of the police, the marchers transform sterile real estate into the embodied ground of history. They respond to Walter Benjamin’s warning by creating a militancy to go with our mourning, and thus make an antifascism for the dead. Without this militancy, there is no antifascism. With it, much is now possible.
This antifascism has a repertoire developed from the performative re-enactment of violent death: the saying of names; the mass taking of a knee; chanting “hands up, don’t shoot”; and the overturning of monuments to the fascist dead. Each of these actions can and should be thought of as transformative practices of abolition and antifascism. The museum is next in line for change. Long the site of performative interventions, it can be transformed by this engagement of mourning, militancy and liberation. It is not neutral, in general or in particular. It decides who among the dead matter and it shapes space-time into the patterns of white settler colonialism.
Any settler colony is all about land. Take the New Museum, built over some of the land that held the former Negro Burial Ground on Chrystie Street. Purchased by “free people of color” in 1795, this tiny 200 by 50 feet plot replaced the better known African Burial Ground downtown when that was built over to be sold as real estate. An estimated 5000 African, Caribbean, and African American people were buried on Chrystie Street, until the ground became full after 1835. Therein lies a messy history.
In 1852, African American abolitionist James McCune Smith described in Frederick Douglass’s Paper how the controversial sexton of this burial ground had long used his “skill in packing, [and] made room for more.” While the sexton’s macabre actions were wrong, Smith implied that he was put in an impossible position by both white authorities and church elders. That same year, the land was sold by St Philips Episcopal Church and the bodies were removed to Cypress Hill cemetery, where they now rest in anonymity.
Nonetheless, when ground was broken for the New Museum in 2006, human remains were unearthed. Just two days of forensic archaeology were allowed. The archeological report detailed fragmentary human remains from about 40 unidentified people. In the photographs, bones are quite visible. Local observers even claimed to see a tombstone. There may still be human remains beneath the sidewalk on Chrystie between Stanton and Rivington. But in a museum whose very name is “New,” there was no place for a memorial or reflection on any of this history. How do past Black lives matter, now, in this newest of new moments?
A settlement is about both space and time. For the 300th anniversary of white settlement (known as the Hudson-Fulton Commemoration) in what became New York City in 1909 there were parades and exhibitions everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum to the Brooklyn Institute (now the Brooklyn Museum).
In its Indians of Manhattan Island, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) included Lenape human remains. A display case showed these remains pierced by arrows and was accompanied by catalog photographs showing the bodies in the ground discovered during excavations conducted by the museum. From Burial Ridge on Staten Island in 1895, AMNH removed Indigenous human remains from at least 24 individuals and 167 funerary objects. The rows of taxonomic display cases in 1909 set out to draw a line in time. The catalog and exhibit labels distinguished between the Indigenous as “prehistoric,” now “scattered and lost,” and European “civilization.” The year 1609 was when history began for AMNH.
In 2018, AMNH quietly repatriated these human remains to their descendants in the Delaware Nation, Oklahoma; the Delaware Tribe of Indians; and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Wisconsin under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This distribution shows how far the original inhabitants of Manahatta have been dispersed. If the dead at long last have some measure of peace, that is only because there was some measure of justice.
Nonetheless, AMNH still holds extensive collections of human remains, making the museum into a mausoleum. It persists in retaining African human remains, refusing to even meet with Overherero and Nama leaders. Antifascism for the dead means starting over by asking why human cultures are depicted in the Museum of Natural History at all? Either all humans should be in the museum or none. At present no European or other white-identified cultures are represented, implying that other ethnic groups are somehow “natural.” For AMNH, white settlement is still the beginning of history and culture. AMNH holds more than 47,000 pieces made by the Indigenous nations of North America. The museum calls them “ethnographic objects.”
What happens now? I am ready to follow any coalition led by BIPOC that calls for the Roosevelt statue and the Columbus Monument to come down; for reparations and acknowledgments made in and by both these museums; or for changing the American Museum of Natural History into the American Museum of Racism, in the manner of South Africa’s Apartheid Museum.
But as a person of Jewish descent identified as white, how can I take responsibility for this privilege and contribute to the antifascist movement for the dead? I imagine creating a pop-up or virtual museum against white supremacy, in the manner of the Museum of Capitalism or The Natural History Museum. It won’t have collections or buildings, though there will be an open access museum journal. It can only try to, as Benjamin said, “fan the spark of hope from the past” that has been struck by the protests. And with 65 protests this past weekend in New York City, with long-resisted, legal reforms to the police conceded, but with fatal shootings continuing unabated, and with Juneteenth to come — it really might be the fire this time.