It was beautiful Wednesday morning so I walked the three miles to work. My path took me through the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. I chose to walk through its small historic African American section. I passed the newly installed monument remembering those in unmarked graves who, in the engraved words of an enslaved poet, “like birds, retreat / To groves, and hide from ev’ry eye.”
The stone is a welcome addition to this section of the old graveyard. A normal cemetery doesn’t need such a marker. The many individual gravestones and obelisks are there to do the work of memory. The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery has plenty of those where the Aycocks and the Mannings and the Phillipses are buried. But at a certain point as you move back from Ridge Road the gravestones disappear and the ground goes bare. A marker, perhaps lopsided or decapitated and certainly illegible, leans here and there, but the uneven ground is mostly moss and branches and last fall’s leaves.
The new marker helps us populate the barren burial ground in our mind’s eye, helps us imagine the dignity of the many enslaved people laid to rest there and the sorrows of those gathered in small groups as their friends and loved ones went into the ground.
But I prefer to remain in the present. I want to experience the absence of stones and tombs and benches for mourners to rest. I want to pay attention not to the time the people beneath me passed, but to the time since then, the time when, through penury and neglect, presence dissolved to absence. I want to sense my own role in their disappearance. There are people here, but where exactly are they? We don’t know, and the ground keeps its secrets. All cemeteries are homes to ghosts, souls rendered invisible by the passing of the flesh. In the African American section of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, the ghosts are doubly invisible, vanished first from life and then again from memory.
These might seem like morbid musings for a sunny morning walk, but what put them in my mind was the controversy about HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s recent comments about enslaved people coming to America, “the land of dreams and opportunity.” Carson said they were “immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships [and] who worked even longer, even harder” than other immigrants, and “for less,” because “they too had a dream – that one day their sons, daughters,” and other descendants “might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
Immediately there was an uproar against the new HUD Secretary: the enslaved were not “immigrants!”
And immediately there was a defense: President Obama said the same thing! “Life in America wasn’t always easy for new immigrants,” he said in 2015, certainly “those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.” These people faced “discrimination and hardship and poverty,” but “were able to muster faith that here in America, they might build a better life.”
To me, standing in the African American section of the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery that morning, both statements seemed obscene. What mars them is not that they call enslaved people “immigrants.” It is that they had the audacity to plant optimism and patriotism in their minds. They ignored the actual things that a malnourished, possibly sick person, ripped from home and family for a miserable voyage to auction in an unknown place across the sea, might conceivably be imagined to think and feel. They put a second yoke on those people in chains, hitching them to a sunny story of American progress and opportunity that we love to tell ourselves about ourselves.
I can’t pretend to know exactly what would be in the mind and heart of a person in chains on a transatlantic voyage into the unknown. But I’m sure it wasn’t a dream of prosperity and happiness for themselves and their progeny. The “American dream,” the narrative of relentless progress with which some would later forge a national identity, didn’t exist for just about anyone at that time. It certainly didn’t exist for people coming to the American colonies in slavery.
Carson’s and Obama’s messages help us feel a little better about something that we have no business feeling better about. They deny the humanity of the people they purport to honor. They use those people in death as a means to someone else’s end just as those people were used as a means to someone else’s end in life.
Let us leave the enslaved people be. Let us not fill their unmarked graves with our own needs.
Eric L. Muller is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.