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  • Aaron Jamal

Burial & Bloom




Wind is a constant companion. It often gives us a worthy direction. At its strongest it terrorizes civilization and reorganizes geography. At its softest and most subtle, it reminds you of your senses. And, on this warm mid-February afternoon, it blew through my hair as I blew past my right exit. After a quick u-turn in a used car lot, I made my way back down the busy road and into a newly constructed neighborhood of high-rise apartments. I decided to park, knowing what I was searching for was nearby. The wind kept me cool, my focus was clear but my eyes were searching. At the end of the block, I stood at the intersection of a gentrified neighborhood and a busy street I had just crossed. It hit me at once. Youngblood and Remount. My people pulled up and parked as I finally realized that this was it. Below the chipped and disregarded bricks and stones was the final resting place of unnamed, unmarked graves of Black people.


My brothers and sisters, along with my Dad and a handful of family friends, arrived as soon as I realized where I stood. I was nestled on a small patch of grass, closed in between a busy street and a new high-rise. I walked across the cemetery to grab new soil, used shovels, and a large white sign. Our task was to sanctify this ground. Cars passed by, the wind picked up and we began to get to work. The first task was to rake leaves and remove branches. In no time my hands were covered in dirt. There is something significant about using bare hands to clean a long forgotten sacred ground. The disregard for this land was clear. As I packed fallen leaves into large bags, I knew my work that day was more than just volunteer activism; it was radical reverence. We piled bags of leaves into my Dad’s van. I grabbed a bottle of water, took a break near the van, and glanced across the yard at the white sign I helped unload. In big black letters with a white background-- PERIWINKLE.


My Dad called me one day a few months before our ancestral work at the cemetery. He said it came to him in a dream; that he needed to do more to honor the people who got us here. He had been reading The Black Jacobins, and was learning about the Hatian Revolution, about the revolutionary abolitionism of Cecile Fatiman, Victoria Montou, Toussaint Louverture & Jean-Jacques Dessalines. He had researched periwinkle, and learned that the plant was one of many signs used by enslaved Africans to mark the graves of loved ones. For many centuries, Black burial and ancestral reverence were punishable by death. By planting this bright, resilient plant near their ancestors final resting place, Black people found a way to both honor our ancestors and resist oppression and racist domination. My Dad wanted to continue that exact legacy of reverence and resistance.


***

Our day wrapped up as quickly as it had begun. My Dad cut overgrown grass, my sister planted Periwinkle near the tombstones, we watered small patches of grass, packed our belongings and left. While the day was over, the work had only just begun. We decided to continue to nurture Periwinkle. In the meantime, my Dad had a vision for Periwinkle to grow beyond Youngblood & Remount. A few months later, he co-organized a community event that hosted Representative Alma Adams. The event focused on the federal and state government work of identifying and preserving Black burial grounds. Our congressional representative spoke about her support for federal legislation to create a network of historic African American burial grounds that would receive grant funding, technical support and information on how to identify, preserve and restore ancestral resting places. After only a few months of organizing, my family watched as my youngest sister gifted her representative a potted periwinkle plant.


***

It was my Mom who encouraged me to look and learn more deeply about my own ancestry. The seed was planted when I was young; I read books she gave me that encouraged me to go farther, read deeper, study closer the death and life of Black people, to never forget where I come from. My Moms encouragement led me to begin the construction of a genealogical project that is centered on the stories, struggle, sojourn and salvation of my family stretching back over the last 500 years. The theme of this genealogical project is sojourn, meaning to temporarily stay in a place. Since modernity, Black people have been a people largely without a home; we have stayed on the move. The project I began is a reflection of that larger reality. I spoke to family members distant and close, people who I had no idea knew so much about me and where I come from. The history of Black people in the United States is one of terror, triumph and struggle. My own family is a part of this history. From the indigenous African societies to the transatlantic slave trade, from the depths of slavery, to the heights of the Reconstruction Revolution, from the terrors of Jim Crow to the victories of the Long Civil Rights/ Black Power movements, and from the destructive police and racist state violence to the current Movement for Black Lives, our family has been in the midst of it all. Knowing where one comes from can help to orient oneself in a world that is increasingly disorienting. We must sojourn so that seven generations from now, our family will know how to keep moving forward. A genealogical grounding in our history, migration patterns, religions, cultural practices, forms of resistance and traditions can, like the periwinkle plant, root us.


One of the most disconcerting parts of this journey is the recognition that genealogies, particularly of African descendant survivors of chattel slavery, are fragmentary & fractured. In truth, there is no way to fully piece together my genealogy. Much of this is buried in the winds of history. But history and time can be allies, and often give as much as they keep. It was through my genealogical work that I learned that my ancestors fought the old confederacy in the Civil War and escaped the barbarous death of enslavement. My ancestors organized with Ella Baker and Dr. King. My ancestors made a way out of no way in New York at the height of the racist War on Drugs. My ancestors implemented a second reconstruction agenda in Tuskegee Alabama in the 1960s, and my ancestors were abducted from the shores of Gold Coast. Like the unmarked graves of Black people at Youngblood and Remount, I endeavor to remember and honor them.


***

My mind often returns to that warm, mid-February afternoon. Even in the face of of a history forgotten and discarded, I believe it is taboo to forget where you come from and that it is incumbent on us to fight for our historical heritage. We must never allow our history and people to be taken from us again. I believe that those Black people in unmarked graves and those like my own remembered ancestors are, just like the periwinkle plant, historic beings of deep resistance to oppression and eternal commitment to ancestral reverence.


Our task today is to resist and revere; to honor the burial and nurture the bloom.

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