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Portsmouth African Burial Ground Blues


Portsmouth African Burial Site Chestnute & Court Streets. (c)

I wish I was that artist. I have all of the necessary emotion, but none of the requisite skill or experience. Today I took the city’s sketches over to Chestnut Street and tried to "see" the memorial as it will look years from now. It is a hard assignment. Our planned homage to centuries of neglect will only close off a tiny portion of a largely-untraveled side road connecting the busy Court and State streets. It is not a significant sacrifice when compared to the event being memorialized, so the memorial itself must speak loudly and clearly.

The design divides Chestnut into three zones. At the State Street end, traffic will continue to flow in and out of an apartment house parking lot and a drive-up bank building. The second zone will be limited to the traffic from three driveways. The third zone blocks off the end of Chestnut where it meets Court Street. This is the heart of the memorial, a space about the width of a house and smaller than my little back yard. Much of the African Burial Ground with its anonymous dead, therefore, remains under the streets where traffic flows freely.

What I see, no matter how I try to look away, is a massive black hand and arm erupting from the broken asphalt. The hand is worn and deeply lined. It reaches at an angle toward the sky. The hand is half-open, fingers half curled in a gesture that is both gentle and strong. This is a figure in the act of breaking free, but a figure still unknown and unseen, invisible beneath the pavement. It is any figure, from the past or modern times, anyone who has been enslaved by powerful forces and refuses to remain there. Maybe the hand is carved from wood or stone. I’m no artist, it’s just what I see.

Others have suggested trees. I like the feeling in that concept. I’m intrigued by the idea of turning Chestnut Street back into the wooded area it was when the city fathers set it at arm’s length as a burial place for Africans and paupers. How great would it be to make a forest out of a street, with green plants rooted in the rich dark past and disrupting the predictable cityscape? Someone noted in an earlier planning meeting that trees presented a problem since their roots would disrupt the graves, as if cellar holes and sewer pipes and water mains did not do that already. Maybe the trees are not made of wood. Maybe they are decorated in colorful imagery. I don’t know. I was weaned on Gerry and the Pacemakers and my favorite color is beige. I’m not African American and I’m no artist. But I don’t believe we honor the long-forgotten dead by creating a space that attracts no attention.

Councilman John Hynes, who chairs the African Burial Ground Committee ended the last meeting hopefully. Now that we know what we don’t want, he said, we are one step closer to finding an answer. Hynes re-emphasized that the memorial is, on one level, an apology, and on another, a promise from the city that it will never treat its citizens so horribly again. By working together, Hynes concluded, we will create a space that pleases everyone. On this point, I told him after the meeting, I had to disagree.

I hate to think we are building a space, small as it is, that has to please the public. Pleasing the public is what got us into this mess in the first place when our ancestors quietly turned the Negro Burying Ground into a commercial development, then pretended the cemetery had never existed. Pleasing the public gets us concrete benches and shrubs and water features. It gets us guys on horses and men holding rifles and neat little tombstones all in a row. If this is the 18th century African Burying Ground, then it should tell us a story we don’t already know about people we almost forgot. I want to hear one colorful voice singing out among a chorus of white faces. I don’t want something safe and comfortable here. I have lived all my life among people who look like me, so I cannot imagine the life these invisible citizens endured, but I want to learn about it now. Please tell me, Portsmouth, about the people beneath the road. Years from now, when this process is done, I hope to walk down Chestnut Street and discover a world I’ve never known.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

OUTSIDE LINK  City of Portsmouth burial ground design


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