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abby rose's picture

Interring Black Humanity

What does a grave give to a body? Perhaps not to a body, but to the survivors. To the loved ones. To those who remember. To history. They say you die twice: once when you stop breathing, and a second time when somebody says your name for the last time. But what if the subject experiences systemic dehumanization, social death, before they reach their last breath? In this essay, I will focus on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body, and Alice Walker’s search for Hurston’s graveto highlight how the burial of Black bodies is significant to the construction of humanity in a White supremacist society.

Set in 1960’s Texas, Getting Mother’s Body features the vivacious and deceased Willa Mae Beede and her surviving family. Though Willa Mae remains interred in the present setting of the book, her grave is the site that pulls her entire family together in spite of their differences and conflicts with each other and Willa herself. Throughout the novel, the Beedes are subject to social death at the hands of racial profiling, unlawful incarceration, exploitation from White employers, and all the reaches of insidious Jim Crow laws. But in spite of this regular dehumanization, Parks does not attempt to prove their humanity to her readers. She does not have to do so, for they are already humans going about their naturally complex and rich lives. By placing Willa Mae’s grave at the center of Getting Mother’s Body – the title itself is literally about her – Parks asserts that not only is Willa Mae significant in life, but in death continues to be complex, loving, hurtful, and present in the lives of her family. The journey that Willa’s family takes to reach her brings them together and forces them to look at each other and themselves as they really are. Willa Mae’s grave is a site that has the potential to shape her family’s history, present, and future.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston shows the unusual cruelty of White people as they use deceased Black bodies for the aggressive assertion of their right to humanity over Black people. In the midst of a sudden and terrifying hurricane, Janie and Tea Cake flee for safety. to a bridge, “[b]ut it was crowded. White people had preempted that point of elevation and there was no more room” (Hurston 164). Being denied respite and safety, Janie and Tea Cake keep on their feet for miles and miles with no resting place to be found. In their flight, “they passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock, entirely surrounded by wild animals and snakes. Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought conquest over the other” (164). Though the animals on the hummock shared the will to survive together, the White people on the bridge did suppressed that instinct in order to claim the bridge and preserve their own lives.

When the storm finally passes and Janie and Tea Cake find a place to lay, the tragic wreckage of the storm shifts from chaos to contempt. The storm did not discriminate between White and Black; everyone in the region was shaken to their cores with fear and all communities were ravaged by the natural disaster. The damage left Black bodies indiscernible from White bodies at the foot of the grave. During his inspection of the destruction, Tea Cake encounters two White men with rifles who intimidate him into burying bodies killed by the storm. He joins a small army of Black and White men all ordered at gunpoint to inter dozens and dozens of Black and White bodies. Even while sharing this miserable forced labor, the overseeing White men commanded the men digging graves to save the White bodies for cheap pine coffins and deny Black bodies any cover besides quick-lime. When the captive survivors explain the impossibility of discerning the mangled bodies of the dead, the guards retort:

 “Look at they hair, when you cain’t tell no other way.” Though Tea Cake recognizes the insanity of this differentiation, he is still held at gunpoint for many more hours to continue the labor of selecting bodies deemed worthy for a coffin and the bodies deemed worthy of a mass grave. “‘They’s mighty particular how dese dead folks goes duh judgment,’ Tea Cake observed to the man working next to him. ‘Look lak day think God don’t know nothin’ bout de Jim Crow law’” (171). Again, unlike the animals on the hummock surviving together in the face of disaster, the White overseers deem it more important to assert their humanity via their Whiteness than work together to bury all bodies with the equal respect. Not only do the White men dominate by forcing others to do the labor, but they make sure that their racist ideals are upheld through the burial process. In doing so, they contribute to the social death of all Black people in the area, dead or alive, by treating White bodies as corpses and Black bodies as carcasses.

While Parks and Hurston’s novels offer examples of racism reinforced or subverted through the burial of Black people, Zora Neale Hurston’s actual burial echoes these ideas as well. Up until 1975, fifteen years after her death, Hurston’s gravesite was unknown. Alice Walker, an acclaimed Black author who was only sixteen when Hurston passed away, has been deeply moved by Hurston’s life and work. In fact, the cover of my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God displays a quote from Walker saying “There is no book more important to me than this one.” Armed with only herself, a new companion, and a fictional claim of being Hurston’s niece, Walker set out to Florida to find Hurston’s grave. As she sought out the resting place of Hurston, Walker discovered that very few people were familiar with Hurston’s work, even those in her hometown. After repeated encounters with people who had no idea who Hurston was when she was such an important character in Walker’s life, Walker felt “frail and exhausted” (Walker 411).

After days of searching the state of Florida and interrogating locals, Zora was finally directed to a large plot of overgrown land where Hurston’s grave was, but nobody knew the exact location of her body. Walker searched with her companion and eventually resorted to calling out “Zora!” to find her grave, and soon afterwards stepped into a sunken hole where the author lay. Out of her own pocket Walker paid to claim Zora’s space as a resting place of “A Genius of the South.” On the discovery of Hurston’s resting place, Walker says:

“There are times — and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them — when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. it was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. … [T]here is a point at which even grief feels absurd. And at this point, laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity” (411).

For Walker, the invisibility of Hurston’s grave as well as her life’s work touched her deep in her core. How could a woman of such impact be lost in a field of weeds? A quote from Robert Hemenway, who published a biography on Hurston, opens Walker’s essay: “Hurston died without funds to provide for her burial, a resident of St. Lucie County, Florida, Welfare Home. She lies today in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida, a resting place generally symbolic of the black writer’s fate in America” (395).

In Getting Mother’s Body, Willa Mae’s grave is a pivotal location for the Beede family’s understanding of themselves and each other, and helps them grow to love each other and the deceased Willa Mae more truthfully. The grave-digging scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrates a common theme in U.S. history which is the erasure of Black pain and loss in order to bolster White supremacy. And Walker’s story of discovering Hurston’s grave shows the deep impact of literally lost kin. Locating the grave of a loved one can be a monumental act for some, and more importantly it is a purely human act. Being denied access to the grave of one’s kin because they were not paid their proper respects sends a message: your legacy is not worth remembering; your humanity is thus destabilized.