- The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space by Andrea Frohne
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 [End Page 95] 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...