This design assignment resonated with me. As a Black woman, I am often a double minority in my chosen field of work: cemetery preservation. Many times, the caretakers and groundskeepers for historic cemeteries are white men. It is rare to see a woman, and rarer still, a Black woman. I have learned to carry myself a certain way. In this field, there is no room for womanhood in any of its forms.
Often, the places I work have no accessible bathrooms. If I’m lucky, there is a port-a-potty. This means trips to the woods and major considerations for cleanliness that men don’t have to face. Additionally, there is no “being clean.” I come to work prepared to leave muddy, dusty, scratched, and bruised. Besides the physical inconveniences, there is are the gender and racial slights, bias, and downright rudeness. Even Black people have questioned my presence in cemeteries, holding to some long-forgotten superstitions about evil spirits. There is no safe space for me in such an environment.
Every day, when I go to work, I must be courageous. This job is not one for the faint-hearted. Working in neglected and abandoned minority cemeteries requires me to walk in emotions of sadness, anger, frustration, love, joy. Sometimes all of these feelings flow through me in a single day, a single hour, a single instant. Helping descendants find the final resting places of their loved ones comes with even more pain. In many cases, their loved ones are lost to time, leading to a double injury for the living soul left behind. They have lost their loved ones’ physical presence, and now they have lost their metaphorical presence. The Black people who find their final rest in these cemeteries dealt with racism, bias, neglect, pain, and erasure in their lives. In their deaths, nothing has changed. I must push my own feelings aside to create a space for the living to mourn these injustices, to mourn their ancestors.
It takes courage to hold myself together is such places of pain and greatness. Often, these cemeteries, abandoned by our local and federal governments, are home to great world-movers and history-makers. People who led organizations, fought for justice, created industries, and built cities. But, the value of the people is reflected in the care for the cemeteries. White and confederate cemeteries received federal funding while Black and minority cemeteries lay wasting away. Often, Black cemeteries are uprooted for building projects, highways, public parks, and schools. Daily, I ask myself, why here? Why this place? What is so precious about this piece of land? This piece of land that held no value to you 100 years ago when it was first sold to the city as a paupers’ cemetery, or an enslaved burial ground, or a Black cemetery…why does it suddenly hold value? Why do you not displace the final resting places of your own people? Are they more valuable, even in death?
So, each day, I gather my courage: the mental and moral strength to venture , persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. I gather my courage and speak out against injustice and inequality. I speak out in support of Black and minority cemeteries. I risk not being popular, not being hired, not being liked or supported. I risk anger, hatred, intimidation, physical attack, and public scrutiny. I risk it because the treatment of our cemeteries reflects the treatment of our people. And, the treatment of Black people in this country is evident in the deplorable state of Black cemeteries.