Cultural Sustainability and the African Burying Ground

black heritage trail

I just had the pleasure of attending the summer seminar “Ecology and Ethnicity: Sustainability Studies’ Contributions to Place,” sponsored by the Sustainability Institute of the University of New Hampshire and led by Siobhan Senier of the English Department. After reviewing the history of sustainability and the rise of Sustainability Studies as a field, the seminar asked pointed questions about the contributions of the environmental humanities to that field. It asked how the project of sustainability should be informed by issues of race and ethnicity as “wicked problems” that humanists study. We were addressed by Darren Ranco, an anthropologist from the University of Maine who studies the impact of the Emerald Ash Borer–an invasive insect that destroys ash trees–on Wabanaki basket-making, and by Angel David Nieves, a professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College, whose research traces the rebuilding of District 6, a multicultural neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa, that was razed under apartheid.

One of the most provocative concepts they addressed was cultural sustainability, the aspect of sustainability excluded from technocratic treatments. Following David Throsby, we can understand cultural sustainability as the promotion of cultural diversity as an aspect of ecological sustainability. Our field trip to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, provided a lesson in cultural sustainability through our investigation of its African Burying Ground. The African Burying Ground, originally a swamp where African slaves and indentured servants were buried, dates from the eighteenth century. This ground was paved over in the twentieth century, and the graves lie under Chestnut Street, as seen in the photograph below, taken from In Honor of Those Forgotten: The Portsmouth, New Hampshire African Burying Ground.

burying ground2

The situation of the Burying Ground illustrates the intersection of cultural sustainability with ethnicity. While the graves of English townspeople from the same period are well-preserved, raised off the street level and marked by fence and gravestones, the African graves were unmarked and forgotten until very recently. This raises questions of racial equity in the representation of history. Whose history is honored? Whose history is accessible to the public? How does the loss of memory shape our use of urban space, and whose interests are served by this loss? Who benefits from the recovery of the Burying Ground? What is the relationship between the forgotten graves and the filling-in of their swamp? When examined on the scale of centuries, these questions clearly fall under the rubric of intergenerational equity, an important principle in Sustainability Studies, which states that a sustainable culture should not steal from the future or the past to serve the present. In Portsmouth, intergenerational inequity is inflected by race: the white masters are remembered and the black servants are forgotten. But equity, understood across race, also suggests that the loss of the African Burying Ground disfigures the present of Portsmouth because the city has been shaped by African American lives since 1645. Sustainability teaches us that the burying ground must be recovered in order to understand the history of the city’s land and water, which is also the story of race and power.

Through the work of local activists, historians, and the Portsmouth Town Council, the burying grounds have been reclaimed through an ongoing project, In Honor of Those Forgotten, which seeks to convert this block of Chestnut Street into a memorial park. The work has proceeded in phases. As we saw, there are new signs of the burying ground even as the street continues to be used. At the moment, the problem of collective memory is highlighted by signage:

town records2

This sign is posted on the side of a house used as a local business, demonstrating the potential conflict between economic and cultural sustainability: once the memorial park is built, the business will have to relocate, and the character of this part of Portsmouth will change. However, because the reclamation of the burying ground was pursued as a public matter, it has become a matter of civic pride, raising the cultural capital of the city itself, as demonstrated by the rhetoric of the project’s web site. The city hired professional archaeologists and designers to investigate the grounds and design an appropriate memorial, resurrecting the memory of the African dead through an official civic process.

The practical limitations of such work can be seen in the problem of financial capital. Though the project has been approved, it cannot move forward until all the funds for the memorial have been raised. Local sources suggest that the city has not raised half of the needed funds. Until the fundraising goal is reached, the creation of public memory will be stalled in its current state, where the memory of forgetting features more prominently than the ground itself. As material ecocriticism reminds us, the transformation of the land as a site of memory is more complicated than the transformation of media about the land. The case of the Portsmouth African Burying Ground demonstrates that the intersection of race and sustainability creates a long-term need for financial, cultural, and social resources that require the attention of communities over many decades. As ecocritics consider the practical import of sustainability and resilience, we should remember that intergenerational equity is broken across lines of race and ethnicity, and fashion our responses accordingly.


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