Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries by Roberta Hughes Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book seems to have been designed as a textbook for an African American Studies program, but that’s not a bad thing. Whenever the Hugheses get down to the business of discussing black history, I learned things I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else. However, everything is viewed through the lens of race (as opposed to cemetery history). When the authors lament the destruction of historic black cemeteries, they don’t step away from their topic enough to see the destruction of all cemeteries that stand in the way of land developers or freeway construction. The guarantor of destruction is not race, but class. Poor Irish, poor Polish, poor Chilean, poor Chinese: if communities could not afford permanent markers or perpetual care for their dead, the dead were at risk of being evicted or paved over.
That said, the Hugheses made remarkable efforts to locate living historians in the African American communities they visited, whether those people were morticians, academicians, or storytellers. These stories, in the tellers’ own words, provide a wealth of detail missing in many dryer cemetery tomes.
Also included in the book is a vast amount of information on how to do genealogical research. The combination seems like a natural, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.
The major drawback to the book is the muddiness of the illustrations. I’m not convinced that the photographs were taken intentionally as illustrations. No care seems to have been taken with the lighting or focus. Still, though, they cover subject matter collected nowhere else.
Copies are available through Amazon: Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries.
This review was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #5.
Cemetery of the Week #65: African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City, New York
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