In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African American Deathways

  • Introduction
  • Death through a Historical Lens
  • Funeral Home Industry and Business
  • Funerary Traditions
  • Black Bodies and Medical Research
  • Death, Mourning, and Culture
  • Death and Gender

African American Studies African American Deathways
by
Candi Cann
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0087

Introduction

This bibliography on African American deathways examines the role of death, dying, and disposal from a variety of different perspectives. Studies focusing on the intersection between death and history survey a wide range of materials, ranging from general histories that contextualize the importance of death culture to more specific studies of prominent burial grounds and cemeteries. Scholars focusing on cemeteries and material culture tend to highlight the importance of burial customs in African American remembrance and mourning, while also examining some of the intellectual divides that archaeological excavations of these cemeteries have created. Additionally, many burial customs and traditions retained markers of identity tying them to West African traditions and pan-African identity, in general. Cemeteries function as signifiers of belonging and exclusivity, with many cemeteries in North America either segregated or unmarked. Cremation, on the other hand, remains a less popular form of disposal in a culture with a deep respect for embodied funeral traditions, even though it is a far more affordable option than burial. Regarding the economic dimension of African American deathways, studies of the funeral home industry highlight its role as a nexus for cementing cultural identity in the African American community, since, historically, funeral homes were one of the few businesses that blacks were allowed and encouraged to run without interference from the white community. The funeral home thus became an important center for commerce, building equity, funding education, creating political action, and providing infrastructural support, causing the funeral home business to prosper. Similarly, funerary traditions often formed an important part of African American culture, and the body was, and remains, the locus of funerary traditions, often with long wakes (in which families and friends sit with the body telling stories and remembering the deceased), and equally long funeral processions, in which entire communities come to pay respect to the dead. Recent research on the dying experience among African Americans reveals disparities between whites and communities of color, with unequal access to medical care and a history of gross abuse and experimentation by medical professionals. Those studies focusing on mourning and culture tend to address larger cultural frameworks of death from a qualitative perspective, while gender-critical analyses of African American deathways examine the role of women and LGBT folk in the funeral business. Unfortunately, like many businesses, women’s roles were diminished as the industry professionalized and men became the primary faces of the business, while death studies in general remained heteronormative in its focus. Finally, the political dimension of death represents a significant area of research within African American death studies. These works examine the politics of mourning and the ways in which death and mourning create agency for the African American community. Death, funerals, and a politics of mourning were all essential to political movements in the United States, and evidenced through collective responses found in both the anti-lynching movement and the civil rights movement. More recently, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has highlighted the continued killing and spectacle of black bodies, and can be viewed as a powerful contemporary resistance against the ongoing oppression of people of color in the United States.

Death through a Historical Lens

This section emphasizes African American deathways from a historical viewpoint, from the precolonial period to the present day. Brown 2008, though focused primarily on Jamaica, offers a compelling necropolitics of death and the black body that equally applies to enslaved Africans in North America. Seeman 2010 provides a comprehensive overview of death customs and rituals in the precolonial and colonial era, with a chapter focusing exclusively on the African and enslaved African experience, while Kelley and Lewis 2000 provides a general history of African Americans in North America. Berry 2017 writes about the cadaver trade and ghost values of enslaved corpses in the early United States, and Castronovo 2001 studies necropolitics in the 19th century from a broader societal perspective, continuing the examination of cadavers and their agency. Warren 2014 also examines West African influences on antebellum burial practices, while arguing that blacks were transformed into dead objects even before they died. Fletcher 2014 studies the African American funeral industry from the early 19th century to the 20th century through the lens of one cemetery in Maryland, while Nichols 1989 examines the history of homegoing traditions across the United States from the late 19th century to the present day. Turner 2013 is a rich documentary film tracing the history of African American deathways; it follows a New York City funeral director through his daily life, while reflecting on death customs. Finally, Mack and Blakey 2004 offers an important analysis of the African Burial Ground in New York City, arguing that the study of African American deathways continues to be fraught with issues over agency, identity, and belonging.

  • Berry, Daina R. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

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    A comprehensive examination of slaves and the commodification of slaves in life and in death in early United States. Of particular interest is Berry’s study of the cadaver trade and the “ghost values” of corpses.

  • Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

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    Although Brown’s study focuses primarily on the British slave enterprises in Jamaica, his analysis of the “mortuary politics” that developed in this context applies just as forcefully to the transatlantic slave trade at large. Brown contends that death was so pervasive within slave colonies that it became the principal organizing factor of social, political, and cultural life among both slaves and slaveholders.

  • Castronovo, Russ. Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

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    Castronovo examines the history of necropolitics (how dead bodies are defined and understood, and the ensuing political implications) in the United States. Though a broad study, this is an important text for understanding how and why dead bodies and their spaces matter.

  • Fletcher, Kami. “Real Business: Maryland’s First Black Cemetery Journey’s into the Enterprise of Death, 1807–1920.” Studi Tanatologici-Thanatological Studies-Etudes Thanatologiques 7 (2014): 53–85.

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    This article studies the history of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Maryland’s first black-owned and -operated cemetery.

  • Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis, eds. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    An edited collection, this general history of African Americans is formative and essential to understanding the role and importance that deathways play in black American culture.

  • Mack, Mark E., and Michael L. Blakey. “The New York African Burial Ground Project: Past Biases, Current Dilemmas, and Future Research Opportunities.” Historical Archaeology 38.1 (2004): 10–17.

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    Mack and Blakey discuss their findings at New York’s African Burial Ground, but also discuss the difficulty of conducting archaeology on a site that is historically fraught and has important political repercussions.

  • Nichols, Elaine. The Last Mile of the Way: African-American Homegoing Traditions, 1890–Present. Columbia: South Carolina State Museum, 1989.

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    Nichols examines African American funeral traditions from the end of the 19th century through the 20th century in South Carolina. She links these traditions with West African cosmology in order to show the ways in which African traditions intersect with European mortuary practices and manifest themselves in contemporary Christianity.

  • Seeman, Erik R. Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

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    Chapter 6 focuses on mortuary beliefs, customs, and rituals during the time of African enslavement in North America.

  • Turner, Christine, dir. Homegoings. Produced by Peralta Pictures Inc., American Documentary POV and the Diverse Voices Project, and Independent Television Service. San Francisco: Independent Television Service, 2013.

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    This documentary follows Harlem, New York, funeral director Isiah Owens, of Owens Funeral Homes, as he moves through the process of burial preparation. Owens gives a rich oral history of African American funeral homes, documenting differences between North and South, and explaining changes in death culture through the 20th century.

  • Warren, Jamie. “Masters of the Dead: Slavery, Death, and Ideology in the Antebellum South.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 2014.

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    This dissertation examines the death process on antebellum slave plantations among blacks and whites. In particular, the dissertation notes the ways in which death practices and beliefs reflected the ideology of slavery and the politics of enslavement, including the ways in which African Americans were ideologically transformed into dead objects before their physical death.

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