Mediating race and class through the death experience: power relations and resistance strategies of an African-American community, Dallas, Texas (1869-1907)
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African-Americans in Dallas, Texas of the 19th and early 20th centuries had to mediate such massive societal structures as race and class. Although numerous survival strategies were likely at play within Dallas’s African-American community, the primary framing device of this work is the death experience. In particular, two aspects are examined; economic advancement gauged through consumerism and expressed through elaborate mortuary display (e.g., mass produced coffin hardware) and spirituality, as measured through the retention of community derived “vernacular” belief systems. These aspects of the total burial complex are simultaneously complimentary and opposite, and can be viewed within W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of “double consciousness.” The means by which this analysis is achieved is through the Freedman’s Cemetery Archaeological Project, which was an interdisciplinary study conducted in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1990s. This project was the largest historic cemetery removal project, to be treated archaeologically, ever conducted in the United States. Its focus was Freedman’s Cemetery, the primary place of burial for the African-American community of Dallas between 1869 and 1907. The first measure examined is elaborate mortuary display in the form of coffin hardware, which can be viewed as an expression of the desire for equality. Such behavior is resistant to the dominant ideology (which believed African-Americans to be racially and economically inferior), but it is a resistance that is carried out within the dominant system. The second measure is the vernacular, an alternative set of symbols that stood at times in opposition to the dominant society’s mass produced coffin trimmings and wealth display, and expressed an internal set of beliefs considered to be traditional within African-American society. These vernacular folk traditions involved placing material objects within a coffin or the grave shaft, including plates, bottles (primarily medicinal), spoons, and other objects that potentially would have been handled by the person immediately prior to death. Ultimately what is examined is the push/pull of the African-American community of Dallas, on the one hand fighting against the stereotype applied to them by whites through economic advancement and consumerism, while simultaneously struggling against the loss of a unique cultural identity.