Monday, February 25, 2013

What Lies Beneath: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Cemeteries reveal a lot about the communities in which they are located. Whether unkempt and forlorn or ornate and groomed, the rows of stones and the spaces between them form a sort of parallel to the social dynamics of the city or town; they seem to mirror, from the ground-up, the health of the civilization hustling above. This past week, I had the opportunity to visit Savannah, GA for the first time, attending the American Literature Association Symposium on the Gothic. While I was struck by the sullen beauty of the city, nothing impressed me more than the ruinous cemetery that lies at the center of town.

Guarded by the watchful eyes of the D.A.R., this graveyard, at first glance, appears to be sparsely populated by the dead. A few tombstones huddled together here; a few crypts, their sealed cornices in the ground, there.

Initially, it seemed to me a forlorn, forgotten place, eaten away by time. A melancholic maw, with its few remaining teeth rotting out of its head. On our ghost tour later that evening, however, I learned more about the cemetery's history. According to our guide, much of Sherman's army, after marching into town 70,000 strong, took up residence amongst the tombs. The soldiers, bored young men who had just fought a hard and heavy war, desecrated these Southern graves, knocking over and breaking the gravemarkers, destroying entire crypts stone by stone. As you walk through the cemetery's grounds, you can actually trace with your feet their borders, treading on the houses of the dead. As you skirt the perimeter, you can read the tombstones that have been rearranged on the brick walls, a testament to the fact that the earth here is actually dense with fallen ancestors, some buried in mass graves during the height of the Yellow Fever.

Desecrated seems to me to be the key term here. This ruinous place, its melancholic loveliness deeply rooted in its very ruin, reflects the character of the city. Savannah appears to the Northern outsider to be a town that is both obsessed with and embarrassed by the past. It promotes, on the one hand, a dream vision of itself, one reliant on a sense that the South was affronted by the North, attacked, destroyed by the grubby hands of Northerners that didn't recognize its values, a vision that could lull the tourist with its romantic aura of the underdog. On the other, it ghoulishly buries much of its darker history beneath a shallow surface.

What lies beneath seethes. This city, after all, played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade throughout much of its early history, a trade that turned people into things, humans into profit.

Most of the "heroes" recognized with statues, monuments, and iron plaques around town had a direct hand in human trafficking, little of which is recognized on said statues, monuments, and plaques.

A perfect example of Savannah's "bundle of contradictions"/layering of historical temporalities is the former Savannah Cotton Exchange, now a Masonic Lodge. On the plaque marking the Savannah Cotton Exchange, the slavery system on which this very building depended is but a whisper. 

The traces of a society precariously built on the power of slave labor are palpable, just visible. In the alleyways, behind the pomp and circumstance of the museum houses, some slave quarters are preserved. When I walked into these spaces, the aura I experienced was suffocating. The sadness seemed to reach out through time and lay a finger across my lips.

Exiting this land of the dead, I couldn't help but feel that the desecration of Colonial Park Cemetery was frozen in time in order to record Savannah's anger at a disrupted idyll, as a record of Northern aggression in the "uncivil" "war between the states" (both of these words/phrases were used by our tour guide as we glided through the eerie city that night). The ghosts buried beneath the streets of Savannah, nonetheless, speak loudly in the silences there.  ~Alice
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