What does a national monument to a forgotten slave cemetery confer upon the history to which it refers? And what does the form of the monument itself do to how we are meant to grasp this history? In a germinal form, these questions occupied me as I approached the African Burial Ground National Monument, a structure that takes up about a quarter of a small block enclosed by Duane and Reade Streets in New York City amid a towering complex of federal administrative buildings. The monument sits atop a larger span of land that, following a 1697 law in the recently established Province of New York, became a burial plot for slaves and free blacks who had been banned from being interred alongside white parishioners.1 Andrea Frohne’s history of the site points to a 1735 map that marked the plot as the “Negro Burying Place,” reflecting its situation within the racial geography of Manhattan’s sprawling slave estate.2 After 1794, the burial ground was closed and within a century became a plot that would be occupied successively by a department store, a credit reporting agency, and finally a federal building—each erecting an architectural stage in a process of forgetting that transmuted slave society into a multicultural democratic space. Preparatory excavation for a new federal government structure in 1991 once again unearthed the racial history of the plot. The site’s 300-plus year history thus is an archive of this forgetting, and this is the problem that the monument seeks to redress.
The monument project was set in motion when the site was named a National Historical Landmark in 1993, following a law signed by George H. W. Bush halting further construction on the plot after two years of protest over the destruction of what Black community members saw as sacred ground. In years following this new designation, researchers at Howard University partnered with General Services Administration (GSA) officials to conduct extensive archaeological research to attempt to reconstitute a history of the erstwhile Negro Burial Ground; their excavations suggested the presence of as many as 15,000 skeletal remains on the site. From this process, a total of 419 skeletal remains were exhumed, and later reinterred in a 2003 ceremony when the memorial site was officially dedicated. As an event that drew on West African funerary practices and traditional African religious sites, the ceremony was intended to re-sacralize the space, establishing it as a place of reflective contemplation.
As the future of the site became a question at various levels of government, the nomenclature tied to the location shifted—from the “Negro Burial Ground” to the “African Burial Ground.” For Frohne, this shift marks the influence of pan-African and Afrocentric community organizations in the process of protecting the plot; the framing of the space more broadly was shaped by a desire for “a return to Africa (at times a homogenous one)” that could unite the varying arts, cultures, and spiritualties of the diaspora.3 Such a desire played a central role in the design competition run by the GSA for the creation of a monument. The proposal that won the competition was designed by Rodney Léon, a Haitian American architect, in association with Nicole Hollant-Denis and AARIS Architects. Through its visual and processual design, their plan for the site pursues one kind of affective relationship between the Black diaspora and Africa as a lost homeland, wherein the imagination and performance of a return to West Africa repairs an experience of absence, lack, and forgetting.
Understanding the aesthetic potentialities of monumentality helps to illuminate how the architects recruited monumental form for the project of remembrance. Writing in early twentieth-century Vienna, the conservationist and art historian Alois Riegl offered a paradigmatic description of the monument. For him, the category defined “a work of man erected for the specific purpose of keeping particular human deeds or destinies (or a complex accumulation thereof) alive and present in the consciousness of future generations.”4 His is a distinctly anthropocentric definition of monumentality, and it also implies that monumentality marks a relation between a viewer and a particularly venerated artistic object, one mediated primarily via “consciousness.” The object is called on to catalyze the preservation of historical memory within the viewer, and somewhat paradoxically this process of keeping memory “alive” perpetually freezes a particular notion of the past as a point of reference. The subject who engages monumentality in this model—a singular, humanist “man”— stands on the stability offered by a (presumed) distinction between past and present.
This temporal dichotomy establishes one’s presence in relation to a monument. In the place where Riegl’s viewer stands, he finds himself grounded in an experiential stability secured through reference to the markers of historical temporality, which enable a knowledge of oneself as situated within a present distinct from either past or future. Monumentality’s potential for cultural, sentimental, or political efficacy seems to rest in the capacity to make such temporal distinctions. While Riegl’s reference to a singular and global “man” universalizes this viewing subject, such a positioning specifically derives from colonial modernity and its metaphysics. The notion of a subject who is proper to his time (especially within Riegl’s context, that of late nineteenth-century Vienna) is always already a racial idea: it is defined against those outside of Europe who are marked as improper to time (framed as primitive, regressive and un-modern) or who have been cast outside of history altogether.5 Hegel’s oft-noted influence on Riegl’s thought brings to mind that the former famously jettisoned Africa from the historical commons in his Philosophy of History, thereby submerging the African within what James Snead once called “historylessness.”6 The racist assertion of a Black lack of history in turn glimpses a problem at the core of the hegemonic concept of monumental form. What might pass for a universal and shared basis for an aesthetics of monumentality is in fact structured by a racial, and distinctly anti-Black, asymmetry: namely, between those possessing capacities suited to monumentality’s perceptual logic (Europeans) and those who mark the absence of such capacities (Africans and, eventually, Blacks).
Speculatively, one might also ask: What is monumentality’s historical significance to art viewing more broadly, or the extent to which it anticipates later art forms and practices such as installation art? And how might such influence be tracked as a mutation of the implicit racial logic at the base of monumentality’s perceptual arrangement? Such a connection between monumentality and installation art seems counter-intuitive, given that installation art is conventionally seen to privilege embodiment, while a theory of monumentality like Riegl’s privileges consciousness on first glance. Indeed, as Claire Bishop has argued, the “insistence on the literal presence of the spectator” sets installation apart.7 Within this argument, installation springs from successive twentieth-century artistic interventions that challenged the metaphysics of viewership elaborated in Renaissance visual arts and Enlightenment philosophical texts.8 The art object breaks out from the vertical picture plane, morphing into a site of experience that immerses the viewer within the installation. These shifts unsettle the distanced remove of a position for engaging artworks defined only by sight, resituating the viewer as an embodied participant and even, at times, a kind of performer within the work. In short, the historical arc toward installation art that Bishop and others trace sees modernity’s “viewer” become an increasingly fluid and mobile positionality.
This art-historical account of the emergence of installation art may be associated with the notion of the subject’s “death,” a final plot point in the Western subject’s narrative that post-modernity and postmodernism seemed to announce. Bishop herself notes how her account of the decentering of the modern viewer in installation art parallels that of poststructuralism’s “dislocated and divided” subject.9 This story may look different, however, when one is tasked to consider how the racial foundations of modern thought live on despite and through assertions of their obsolescence. Rethought with this analytic need in mind, the subject’s death becomes, as Denise Ferreira da Silva has suggested, largely irrelevant, because “his ghost . . . remains with us.”10 Taking up this observation in relation to dynamics of viewership, I suggest that, although installation art’s invitation to the body and performance would seem to challenge the stability of the subject’s perceptual ground, the metaphysical tools that establish the subject as “the viewer” remain in effect. On at least an etymological level, the term installation is intimately related to the fundaments of monumentality, insofar as its component “stall” derived from Latin and Germanic root words used to name a standing place or position.11 This suggests that we might grasp monumentality and installation together, as two articulations of a shared ontoepistemological grammar.
Indeed, as I experienced while walking through the African Burial Ground monument, an emphasis on the embodied aspect of immersion did not suspend monumentality’s reliance upon mental remembrance. Rather, the monument entangles these two capacities by asking the visitor to perform a memorial ritual that necessarily draws on them both. Walking up to the slice of land, I am greeted by an informational program that announces the site as a place of remembrance, a sentiment that is echoed in a dedication engraved on the structure’s granite: “For those who were lost; for all those who were stolen; for all those who were left behind; for all those who were not forgotten” (fig. 1). This monument proposes, for the visitor, that the act of remembering the lost and stolen be undertaken by moving through a particular choreography. This begins with a spiral rampway that leads into the Ancestral Libation Court at the core of the monument’s design—a circular granite enclosure lowered into the ground by about eight-and-half feet (fig. 2). Ghanaian Adinkra symbols line the continuous wall of the structure, marking the stages of procession.12 The first symbol is described by an engraved label as signifying “love and unity.” Following symbols are drawn from the Adinkra lexicon, but also represent the range of religious commitments of the enslaved and the history of their interaction with Indigenous people on Manhattan. The final symbols underscore the monument’s insistence on a West African spiritual legacy that survived despite the violence of slavery; the progression of these insignia seems designed to prompt reflection on this persistence. Such reflection is integrated into the description of the Libation Court as a “spiritual space” for the enactment of rituals that link “past, present, and future generations.”The architecture of the monument assists in producing a feeling of reflection by intervening in the aural experience of the city block: descending steadily into the chamber slowly filters out ambient street noise from my ears, rendering it muffled but not absent. The monument’s official framing claims that recessing the chamber into the ground honors the site’s history as a burial plot. It marks one of the monument’s attempts to bring the visitor into a physical proximity to the burial ground below. Running water from two fountains spills into pools situated at the end of the spiral ramp, sonically culminating the monument’s attempt to seal the visitor within the space of remembrance. Once situated within the Libation Court, one arrives at the circular floor of the monument engraved with the Circle of the Diaspora, a map that centers the eastern coast of North America and the western coast of Africa. At the juncture between the ramp and Circle of the Diaspora, an engraved line begins. Along the line, selected descriptions of the exhumed remains from the burial ground are written into the pavement: “Burial 189 – Adult of Undetermined Age and Gender” (fig. 3). This gesture is repeated with numerous inscriptions following one another following along a spiraling line toward the center of the Circle, arriving finally at the map’s representation of an area somewhere near present-day Senegal.
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Introductory placard at the African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City, 2022. (Photo: Author.)
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Spiral rampway at the entrance to the Circle of the Diaspora. (Photo: Author.)
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Inscription describing “Burial 189” on the floor of the Ancestral Libation Court. (Photo: Author.)
This pathway conscripts the visitor into performing a return to Africa by asking them to physically trace the narrative arc that begins upon entry to the monument. It is an architectural strategy that led me to move in deliberate, contemplative steps. Within the Chamber, I acted out the journey that the monument announced through its visual and architectural strategies. Another feature of the monument’s design was more direct in crafting my experience of the space. Just to the right of the beginning of the rampway, a slender archway opens onto a tall granite chamber capped by a skylight (fig. 4). The archway and its chamber form a vestibule leading to the Circle of the Diaspora, ostentatiously sporting the name the Door of Return, a reference to the mythologized Door of No Return on Senegal’s Île de Gorée.13 The effect of silence produced by the surrounding granite is even more intense here, and the choreography conscripted by the architecture—a direct, forward procession—is also physically more linear. A slim exit concentrates the exterior light into a glowing contrast with the darkness of the chamber, drawing me down a flight of stairs that ends at an extended compass point oriented to the same geographical place where the spiral ends (fig. 5).
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Entrance to the Door of Return. (Photo: Author.)
The monument’s reconfigured map forms the physical and conceptual center of its aesthetic gestures. It summons an imagination of the Atlantic Ocean as a medium through which to access an ancestral home. The map compresses the totality of a geographic space into a discrete object of knowledge, and it addresses the visitor as someone who can undertake the symbolic journey of return. It seems that two things occur in this performance. First, the visitor performatively returns to Africa on behalf of the dead as their representative in the present; this is a restorative act that seeks to repair the loss of homeland and fragmentation of culture. Through both their capacity to remember and move through the space, visitors are recruited to enact a connection that is intended to bridge the purported gap between the times of slavery and the present. While, as a national monument, the site is visited by a range of people across racial and ethnic identities, it is perhaps relevant to the performative aspect of this monument that the federal government addresses the structure to Black people. A 2006 Executive Order signed by George W. Bush designated the monument as the first in the nation dedicated specifically to “Americans of African descent,” suggesting a kind of genealogical connection between the dead and the Black visitors who arrive at the site. Because of this connection, it seems that the monument delegates the work of remembrance to its Black visitors in particular, interpellating them as integral components of the monument’s commemorative program.
But what happens to this project if slavery cannot be contained as a past historical event and instead marks an ongoing, violent rupture that necessarily complicates the categories of past and present? What becomes of monumentality without this temporal dichotomy as its foundation? Questions of this kind have already been posed by Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman.14 I think specifically of Sharpe’s pertinent question, “How do we memorialize an event that is ongoing?”15 Monumentality, for its consistent reliance upon declaring slavery as over, may not be suited to the task, even as its production of contemplative space offers a moment of communion with the past. In the space of the African Burial Ground, such communion occurs with the few deceased that the monument selectively names and represents, while surrounded by towering state architecture. And, to this point, I note that the monument is itself a work of state architecture. Importantly, Riegl’s essay on monuments was published while he was employed as Conservator General for the Viennese government; this suggests a broader interrogation of how an influential discourse that defined and valorized monuments itself developed in service to the nation-state.
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Compass point leading out of the Door of Return. (Photo: Author.)
In the case of the African Burial Ground, the state’s grasp on monumental form struck me as a strategy for setting the terms of Black identity. Asserting the possibility of reparation attempts to settle the question of the racial violence that, among other things, continues to produce Black physical and social death. It also attempts to confine such violence to the past, limiting the extent to which we might think it as relevant to the present, to the space on which the monument stands, and to the questioning of the state that authorizes it. The politics of monumentality felt particularly salient as I navigated to the monument’s website while walking along its perimeter. The first link greeting me at the top of the landing page was an update written by the National Park Service (NPS) dated June 5, 2020 titled “A Message to our Visitors.” In it, the NPS expresses its support for “peaceful assembly,” but warns that it cannot “tolerate violence to citizens or officers or damage to our nation’s resources that we are entrusted to protect.”16 Published within two weeks of the murder of George Floyd, the statement addresses protests happening at the time throughout Manhattan, including one of an estimated 2,500 people on the Juneteenth holiday that year. In this statement, the notion of the site’s sacredness as codified by the state is easily pivoted into a notion of its inviolability as a kind of “national resource.”17 The NPS understands its role as that of a protector of meaningful national property, and part of its arsenal for doing so rests in the statement’s threatening language, which asserts a distinction between tolerable and intolerable conduct. It suggests that what the NPS deems intolerable conduct is improper relative to the “difficult” story it attempts to tell.18 If the consequence of transgressing the border between tolerable and intolerable political behavior seems vague in the language of the statement, its potential form and force were made clear by the array of police vehicles I saw in the immediate vicinity of the block. This suggested a repressive underside to state monumental aesthetics: the project of Black remembrance here ideologically narrows the scope of what questions one might ask of the space, and relatedly what claims one might raise against the state that administers it.
1. Andrea E. Frohne, The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010), 42.
2. Ibid., 49.
3. Ibid., 21.
4. Alois Riegl, “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Its Development,” in Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, ed. Nicholas Stanley Price, Mansfield Kirby Talley, and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010), 69.
5. Denise Ferreira da Silva and Rei Terada have meditated on the raciality of the category of time and its integral role in yielding the hegemonic form of being. Both their works inform how I read the underside of Riegl’s insistence on distinct historical-temporal markers. See Terada, “The Racial Grammar of Kantian Time,” European Romantic Review 28, no. 3 (2017): 267–78; and Ferreira da Silva, “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” The Black Scholar 44, no. 2 (2014): 81–97.
6. Snead offers “historylessness” as a translation for the German Geschichtslösigkeit as part of his commentary on how Hegel distinguishes Black/African from European culture. See James A. Snead, “On Repetition in Black Culture,” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 4 (1981): 148.
7. Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005), 1 (emphasis added).
9. Ibid., 13.
10. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xxxii.
12. Adrinkra symbols are a visual lexicon that were developed by the Akan people in Ghana. Each symbol refers to a myth or aphorism with a commonly agreed upon conclusion or meaning.
13. The so-called Door of No Return is an architectural feature of the Maison des Esclaves on Île de Gorée in Senegal, and it gained mythic significance as the last portal through which slaves passed before being transported across the Atlantic as chattel. Historical research has suggested that this was not the case for the majority of the enslaved, but the monument nevertheless draws on the significance of the myth in its conceptual and aesthetic program.
14. See Saidiya Hartman, “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 4 (2002): 757–77.
15. Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 20.
16. “A Message to Our Visitors,” National Parks Service (U.S. Department of the Interior, June 5, 2020), available at https://www.nps.gov/afbg/assemblymessage6-5-20.htm.
17. Ibid. Notably, the article also analogizes the African Burial Ground to other politically significant sites the NPS manages, including the nearby Stonewall National Monument and the “Selma to Montgomery National Historical Trail” in Alabama.