What the Dead Can Teach Us About Today’s Politics

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I am the outspoken feminist that Pat Robertson warned you about.

Following the tragic sinking of the Titanic, crews of search and rescue folks went to the scene and attempted to collect the bodies of the victims. There was an overwhelming amount of bodies which left the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, the main recovery ship, wondering how they would accommodate so many with little space and minimal embalming supplies. Hence, the plan was made to haul up a body, check out the clothing and contents of the pockets, and if it was thought that the person was a third class passenger, toss them back in. Because what happens when you’re faced with a choice about how to treat bodies, preference is always given to those with status whether it’s class, race, gender, or what have you, the bodies of the privileged will always be treated better. In life and in death.

A first or second class passenger being embalmed on board the Mackay-Bennett.

There was a recent story that came out of Ireland about the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home which housed women who had become pregnant out of wedlock from 1925 to the 1960s and their children. A mass grave has been found with over 800 bodies of women, fetuses, and children up to three years old. At the time, unwed women were referred to in this part of the world as “Fallen Women”. Their and their children’s deaths were not deemed important enough to do anything with their bodies other than toss them aside like so much garbage. It was later found that a playground and other structures had been built over parts of the mass grave as though it wasn’t even a burial site. Thankfully, there are ongoing efforts today to memorialize the victims and return their remains to their descendants.

The Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home when it was functioning.
New York’s Potter’s Field at Hart Island.

Then there’s the situation with Potter’s Fields. Potter’s Fields are where the unclaimed dead are buried. The unclaimed are usually homeless people, the poor, undocumented immigrants, the mentally ill, or substance users. New York has one of the largest Potter’s Fields on an island off the coast of The Bronx. It’s suspected that one million people are buried on a site that has formerly held such illustrious establishments as a prison, a workhouse, a reformatory, and missile base. Currently prisoners, as part of their requirement to work, are ferried back and forth to the island to bury the dead. The accompanying picture is of older burial areas. The current practice is to bury 150 bodies per mass grave with each stone marking a mass grave.

It should not be surprising that during American slavery, black slaves were unable to mourn their dead or to give them a proper burial. A mortuary in California called the Woods-Valentine Mortuary explains it well on their website:

In America during slavery, it was against the law for blacks to give their loved ones a decent funeral and proper burial. In the early years of slavery, they were prohibited from gathering together in any form.  Slaves could not assemble or meet in a group at all, for fear that they would revolt against their masters. If they broke the law, slaves were beaten or killed. The deceased slave was usually buried without ceremony on non-crop producing land in unmarked graves, sometimes dug by slave children too young to work in the fields.  Therefore, the first African-Americans were denied the opportunity to mourn their loved ones together and were not given a chance to publicly celebrate a life lived.

Marker for a slave burial ground.

There are so many unmarked slave burial grounds, that they are often found when a bulldozer comes by to prepare some land for a new mall or box store. This has prompted historians to come together in an effort at documenting the locations of slave burial grounds in order to preserve history and memorialize the folks buried there.

It would be unrealistic to have any conversation about the disposal of humans in such a callous way without bringing up the holocaust. The holocaust was genocide on such a huge scale that even just a few years ago, new mass graves were still being discovered. In the Ukraine, they expect there may be up to 6,000 mass graves that have yet to be discovered and they are still learning about the atrocities of what really happened.

Since Trump became an actual contender for the United States presidency, many have made comparisons between him and Adolf Hitler due to his fascist dictator like approach to leadership. Many others have objected to the idea of comparing anyone to Hitler because, let’s be honest, it’s motherfucking Hitler. Who can really compare?

Yet there is a comparison to make to the past and today. It’s an important distinction to understand. What’s happening now is literally the same thing that’s always happened: we have never valued the bodies of the marginalized. Literally, no one gave a damn what happened to you. Whether you were an unwed mother, a jewish man, a third class passenger on the Titanic, a slave, or a homeless person who dies on the streets, we would disregard you.  Your remains were treated like trash because we didn’t think much more of you when you were alive.

So do not be surprised that healthcare is on the chopping block for poor folks who cannot afford to get healthcare any other way. When have we ever treated them like their health or welfare was important? Do not be surprised when the people sitting around the table making all the decisions about women’s healthcare are all men. When have women ever really had bodily autonomy? I would bet anything that the people who made the decisions about where a slave burial ground would be or whether or not a woman was being admitted to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home were white men. White men always have and still do control what happens with the bodies of the marginalized.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a direct response to this idea. Black folks have known this forever. Black and brown bodies are not given the same reverence that white bodies are. We saw it with the slave burials and we see it every time a police officer uses excessive or fatal force against a black person who did not pose an actual imminent threat of physical harm to that officer. And then we see the idea reinforced when something so blatantly wrong as Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin’s death happens and there are white folks who cannot see the situation for how blatantly wrong it is. They literally cannot even see what’s wrong with the picture because they are so used to not having to care about the bodies of black and brown folks that they don’t know how to see it objectively.

If people lose their healthcare and their reproductive rights, we are again saying that the bodies of the marginalized don’t matter. The message is the same, the year is different. We’ve been sending the message that the bodies of marginalized people — women, the poor, people of color, non-Christians — don’t matter since the very beginning. If we want to change that message, we have to fight hard and not just for ourselves, for those who have less than us and for those who are silenced.