The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space is a meticulous survey of historical, aesthetic, and contemporary aspects of the African Burial Ground. Andrea Frohne spent decades within the bureaucracies, art communities, and publics that united to define the historical memory of the cemetery. Her specific labor with the African Burial Ground Office of Public Education and Interpretation (OPEI) was essential to the monograph under review, the first academic title that solely focuses on the site. Throughout her edition, Frohne explores the artistic conceptualizations of space, spirituality, and memory applied to honor the African Burial Ground through what she often acknowledges is an essentialized pan-Africanism that links Akan, Yoruba, and Kongo cosmologies into fresh and respectful patterns of remembrance. What emerges from the book is a visual studies account of democratic processes that have allowed for aesthetic remembrances of the African Burial Ground to flourish as part of the body politic of New York City. The monograph is accessible to a wide audience and includes numerous innovative contributions that will be essential to scholars of slavery in New York, historians of African art, and students of grassroots politics in contemporary New York City.
Frohne researches the history of the African Burial Ground through various forms of documentary evidence that portray the cemetery during its use from 1712 to 1795, when approximately 15,000 people were interred at the site. In chapter 1, she outlines the interplay between space and race in Dutch New Amsterdam and British New York City through a deep visual reading of colonial prints and maps, including cartographic representations in Nieu Amsterdam (1642–1643), a Visscher map of 1648, and a Sutter map of 1740. Some of these maps include images of Africans working in the city, offering a direct visual connection to the types of labor performed by slaves both before and after the transition to British rule in 1665. The civic maps, patents, and city plans that Frohne analyzes frequently do not include direct representations of African bodies. However, Frohne analyzes a wide array of sources to find African labor in the blank spaces of colonial and early American prints. Her reading of these maps is masterly, following a recent historical field inhabited by Sara Gronim (2001), Benjamin Schmidt (2015), and Francesc Relaño (2002) that portrays how mapping represents power and can also reveal various spatial relations of resistance.
Frohne expands these analyses by examining how different representations of the city changed over time, in part due to the African presence that emerged from hidden spaces of forgotten agency. Many of these changes are apparent due to the 1712 and 1741 slave revolts in New York City, notably analyzed in Jill Lepore's New York Burning (2005). These mapped alterations, also important in Frohne's portrayal of racial dialogues related to the Doctor's Riot of 1788 and her extended analysis of ownership claims to specific areas of the African Burial Ground, show how colonial actors felt the resistance of slaves and free blacks. The second chapter applies an increasingly plentiful alliance of diverse archival materials, including surveys, legal cases, and urban narratives, that relay the goals of commercial development as New York City entered the era of capitalism during the late eighteenth century. Here, Frohne shows how civic development resulted in new forms of visual erasure for African and African American labor in the city after the American Revolution.
Even with the intellectual force and creativity of the first two chapters, the object and skeletal analysis of chapter 3 is the center of African Burial Ground. The object scrutiny performed by numerous scholars, which Frohne expertly summarizes, relays different forms of cultural retention through both funerary objects, especially copper pins and shrouds recovered at the site, and personal items, like beads from Ghana that were often buried in the coffins. There has been much historiographical debate regarding many of these funerary objects, and Frohne offers nuanced arguments that provide a middle ground between Africanists who argue direct retention can be correlated between funerary traditions and specific African ethnic groups, and Creolists who offer that syncretic spiritualist traditions and combinations with European culture are the central intellectual structures to understand the multifarious objects. This debate often centers upon whether a specific design inside one of the coffins represents an Akan sankofa symbol or is merely a sentimentalist portrayal of a heart. Frohne does not take sides in this debate, while noting that pan-African approaches to the African Burial Ground can habitually help create positive remembrances even as arguments about cultural survivals endure.
Frohne next summarizes the analysis of skeletal remains and DNA testing that provided researchers the geographical origins of many of those buried at the African Burial Ground. As well, skeletal analysis has portrayed different aspects of daily life and the harshness of labor for Africans who worked in early New York City. The bone diseases and fractures that were discovered on nearly all the African bodies uncovered at the site point to an era of labor callousness. To describe these conditions, Frohne offers different arguments regarding the structure of skeletons and the shape of skulls discovered in the African Burial Ground. Skeletal analysis suggests that those buried who were born in Africa died with a skeletal system that showed early health, no matter how their later life was marked in their bones, as opposed to the signs of the forces of child labor apparent on bodies confirmed to have been born in New York City.
Stratigraphy of the site is explored next, where Frohne summarizes the different ceramics and industrial waste markers on the soil that allowed researchers to date specific burials. Through a review of these scientific, skeletal, and stratigraphic analyses, Frohne also relays interesting discoveries of early American environmental racism revealed through the amount of lead discovered in areas where African American populations lived, labored, and were buried.
After situating the burial ground in historical context, Frohne uses the second half of her monograph to explore different phases of debate within contemporary political arenas. Her work for these final three chapters is more personal and subjective, as Frohne interviewed many of her subjects and often attended the public meetings that she describes. For this section, African Burial Ground consequently applies sympathetic and romantic terminology to explore grassroots efforts to expand knowledge about the burial ground after the site was initially encountered after the General Services Administration (GSA) surveyed possible sites for new buildings during the late 1980s. While the GSA removed 419 burials from the site between 1991 and 1993, grassroots movements often wavered between trust and distrust of governmental officers. In her summary, Frohne offers critical analysis of the early neglectful role of the GSA and the numerous ad hoc development failures at the site prior to 1992, after which methods improved under the guidance of Congressman Gus Savage.
In her summary, Frohne offers critical analysis of the early neglectful role of the GSA and the numerous ad hoc development failures at the site prior to 1992, after which methods improved under the guidance of Congressman Gus Savage. As excavation ended in 1992, debates began on reclamation and reconstitution. Examination methods and trust improved, which Frohne summarizes through the work of scientific teams led by Michael Blakey at Howard University, which were vital in the completion of skeletal analysis at the site and for renewing public confidence. Many reburial negotiations continued throughout the 1990s, until the triumphant 2003 public ceremony of reburials that focused on diverse African spiritualisms.
While the scientific work and reburial debates that Frohne describes in chapter 4 were occurring with increased intensity, an important tangential debate occurred in the American public sphere regarding how to retain spiritual content concerning the aesthetic remembrances of the burial ground. Frohne outlines these discussions in chapter 5, which explores artistic remembrance in public commemorations, through governmental assistance, and as part of private offerings. Her analysis is often celebratory, portraying how the public and government worked together to provide numerous spaces for spiritual connections through cosmological recollection. Frohne specifically analyzes the deep emotional content of artworks most associated to the site, as with the early depictions of historical memory in the painting African Burial Ground (1992) by David Rashid Gayle and the multiauthored cosmogram The New Ring Shout (1994), which adorns the rotunda at 290 Broadway, today the Ted Weiss Federal Building that sits atop the African Burial Ground.
Frohne concludes with a chapter that summarizes artwork commissioned by the government from 1998 to 2007. She provides specific attention to works that explore anamnesis, the individual aesthetic discovery of a collective spiritual memory. This concluding summary chapter encompasses more recent artwork at 290 Broadway, including the bronze sculpture Africa Rising (1998) and the silkscreen Renewal (1998), as well as fresh work commissioned nearby the site, as with the multiple art forms applied in the civic memorial Triumph of the Human Spirit (2000) and the external memorial Ancestral Libation Chamber (2007). Although relatively little attention is paid to the importance of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 to the modern conditions and remembrance of the burial site, Frohne's multitemporal and interdisciplinary tale is a wonderful rendering of how an engaged public worked with various state institutions to reconnoiter different contours of historical memory, spiritualism, and aesthetics for the remembrance of life, labor, and loss in early New York City.