Beyond the Grave…

“He passed a small graveyard surrounded by a high iron picket fence. A white graveyard, he thought and snickered bitterly. Lawd Gawd in Heaven, even the dead cant be together!” [1]

In Richard Wright’s novella Fire and Cloud, Reverend Taylor notes the racial divide that crosses the fundamental basis of Christianity as he journeys back from near death.  Perhaps the most steadfast belief that could create a common ground between whites and African Americans is a belief in a higher power and eternal life beyond the grave.  But even in death, racism still exists.  Academic studies of segregated cemeteries are surprisingly limited.  The practice by law should have ended with the 1866 Civil Rights Act which states,

“All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make an enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.” [2]

But Jim Crow laws allowed traditionally white public cemeteries to refuse the sale of burial plots to African Americans.  In the 1950s it was estimated that 90% of public cemeteries nationwide included racially restrictive rules. [3]  It was not until 1969 when a dispute erupted in Birmingham, Alabama over the sale of a burial plot for an African American soldier killed in Vietnam that the courts determined the racial restrictions unconstitutional. [4]

Although the practice of segregated cemeteries has been legally abolished, it was alarming to find that the practice is still being carried out socially even today.  An unidentified female murder victim became the subject of a racially charged situation in rural Texas in 2008, when two judges fought over where and by whom the woman should be buried.  The case was initially handled by DeWayne Charleston, the county’s first black justice of the peace, who stated,

“In my time as J.P., I’ve come to understand that I am to call black funeral homes to pick up black people, white funeral homes to pick up white people…I didn’t want to cross that line when I was dealing with white bodies and the families were grieving, because I didn’t want to make a political point out of a case like that.  But here was a case where the body was unidentified.  I believed this was it, this was the opportunity for the cemeteries to be integrated without offending anyone.” [5]

The county’s top elected official, Judge Owen Ralston, who is white, argued that the funeral for the unidentified women would cost much less when handled by the Canon Funeral Home, traditionally used by whites.  The woman’s body was eventually buried by the Canon Funeral Home, but Judge Charleston noted of the woman and his desire to exhume her body, “…if nothing else, the Lord sent her to be laid to rest in Texas for this purpose, for a milestone…she can help heal the racial divide in our community.” [6]

Was Richard Wright admonishing the act of segregating the dead though the thoughts of Reverend Taylor?  I wonder if Wright would accept the current trend of being buried within a socially constructed segregation based on religious or church affiliations and pre-purchased family plots.  Should cemeteries be forcibly integrated by those who are living?  Does it all boil down to a final personal choice that should remain free of judgment? What happens, as in the case of the unidentified woman in Texas, when the person is unable to express their final wishes?

[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children, (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008), 203.

[2] Find US Law, “Civil Rights Act of 1866 & Civil Rights Act of 1871,” http://finduslaw.com/civil_rights_act_of_1866_civil_rights_act_of_1871_cra_42_u_s_code_21_1981_1981a_1983_1988.

[3] Kitty Rogers, “Integrating the City of the Dead: The Integration of Cemeteries and the Evolution of Property Law, 1900-1969,” Alabama Law Review 56, no. 1153 (2005).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Steve Friess, “Burial Exposes Racial Rift in Texas,” New York Times, July 5, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/05/us/05race.html.

[6] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the Grave…

  1. I wonder if he was looking to point out that injustice more along the lines of one of your first thoughts: “Perhaps the most steadfast belief that could create a common ground between whites and African Americans is a belief in a higher power and eternal life beyond the grave. But even in death, racism still exists.”

    Is this another failing of Christianity for African Americans? Yes, Blacks and Whites all pray to the same God, but segregation still exists in the earthly afterlife. If cemeteries were not integrated, who could say if the afterlife was more of the same?

    Wright could have been using this point to steer African Americans away from the church and toward Leftist organizations. At least the working poor, black or white, could march together and could plan a revolution together. I’m sure the white elites would have had little problem with burying a bunch of trouble-making Reds in unmarked graves, regardless of their skin color.

  2. I have to say the Wright is holding on to his Mamas apron strings throughout his work. I beleive he had a huge problem with the church, but when his writings so mirror the culture he was brought up in, and the ideologies of the faith he rejects… I’m not sure he ever moves past it. And I am fine with that.

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