One in five New Yorkers was a slave…They dug the roads, and their own graves at the Negro Burying Ground.
-Jill Lepore, "These Truths; A History of the United States"
I had thought I would write about voting today, the turning up and turning out, the waiting on lines the first day of early voting, the patience, the conversations, the determination despite the persistent dangers of the pandemic, a celebration of hard-earned universal suffrage. But after returning home from a commemoration at the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, I felt sad rather than elated, or sad and elated. Elated by the texts I was receiving about casting a ballot, sad as I walked down Huguenot St. after the event. We had stood near—or on—a field of bones and ash, no more than a burial pit, covered by a verdant lawn, a tarmac road, houses, cars driving by too fast, bikers, peak weekend. It was not a comfortable sensation standing in proximity to abandoned unmarked graves except for a sign and a concrete memorial bench with a thick, broken metal chain, that was placed there twenty-years ago when a racism study group commissioned the work. The stone memorial bench has stopped me cold many times; it is a powerful image. I thought of my grandfather's grave in Vienna, which all through World War II had been a mound without a stone, or even a wooden marker. My grandfather, who died before the round-up, was spared the cattle car, the enslavement in the death camp before the killing, and then the killing itself, all family connection obliterated in that not so long ago genocide.
The survivors of once large, extended Jewish families—including my own—are forever scattered in a diaspora, not unlike the African slaves brought as chattel to the New World. Reparations for the latter are overdue. Families riven, and then reconstituted, or newly assembled, families without inherited well-tended burial plots, or inherited wealth, their ancestors thrown asunder into the ground, bones and viscera commingling.
The burial ground on Huguenot street has never been excavated. Should it be now? Would it matter? How would descendants of the slaves feel if they had a voice in these commemorative decisions in a town settled by Dutch, English, and French Huguenot slave-owners? What would they say? How would they want their ancestors who labored and suffered here remembered? Is the commemoration for them, for the descendants of the slave owners, many of whom still live in New Paltz, or for everyone?
Though New Paltz is a very white town--a story in itself-- thoughtful restorative justice initiatives continue, with more projects underway. The elliptical, mythic, false American narrative is shifting.