No Respecter of Black Bodies: Neither the Living or the Dead

One of my favorite stories is Homer’s Iliad. Within are stories within a story. One involves the heroes Achilles and Hector.

Both were the alphas of their sides and dedicated to meet on the battlefield. Hector believed he bested Achilles but it was actually Patroclus, Achilles cousin, dressed in Achilles armor that Hector killed. Achilles, by himself, traveled to Troy to fight Hector to avenge the death of his cousin… and he did.

After he killed Hector, he took his remains with him – as insult to injury so that Hector’s family could not give him a proper burial. The lack of closure prompted Hector’s father and king of Troy, Priam, visited Achilles overnight to request that Hector’s remains be given to him to give Hector a proper burial.

Astonished by the risk Priam took to reach him, as well as having compassion in the moment, Achilles granted Priam Hector’s remains and called a cease to fighting so that the nation could mourn their prince.

Every human being deserves a proper burial and every family – whether by blood of by relationship – should be afforded an opportunity to mourn and find closure. That members of the MOVE family has not received that opportunity after 36 years is a disgrace.

In 1985, the city of Philadelphia, under then Mayor Wilson Goode, dropped a bomb on MOVE property that prompted an explosion and the burning of entire city block. Eleven people died as a result, including children. It was state violence against Black people by way of the police, of which the city of Philadelphia has a history of. City Council just last year apologized for the bombing, however, the city isn’t the only group at fault for harms done to members of MOVE.

The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University are culpable in harms done to the MOVE family. Over the 36 year period, both universities have shared occupancy of the remains of two of the children who died due to the bombing.

In 1985, the MOVE commission gave custody of the remains to Drs. Alan Mann and Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania for examination (Monge, not yet a professor, was Mann’s research assistant).

The remains were transferred to Princeton when Mann began working there in 2001. They were returned to Penn for further investigation by Monge from 2016 and then returned back to Princeton in 2019 where they remain. Researchers at Princeton are unaware of where the remains are on their watch.

When asked about the remains of the two children, 14 year old Tree Africa and 12 year old Delisha Africa, Princeton Anthropology Department Chair Carolyn Rouse, who lived in Philadelphia at the time of the MOVE bombing said, “I don’t know exactly what’s in that room… Nobody knows what’s in the lab but them… I’m very aware of the profoundness of the MOVE thing. But nobody has been asking about the MOVE remains… There’s no conspiracy here. … It’s just that this is now just becoming a thing.”

At the University of Pennsylvania under Mann, the remains of two human beings were handled improperly. They weren’t kept in a climate controlled area. They were kept in a box on a museum shelf.

The museum was the Morton Cranial Collection, established by Samuel George Morton, a racist and contributor to racial pseudoscience that contributed to the eugenics movement. He specifically collected the skulls of deceased enslaved persons to show differences in intelligence according to race.

Last summer, student activists at the university found that fifty-three skulls were of enslaved Africans from Havana, Cuba. In February of this year, it was found that fourteen skulls within the collection were that of Black Philadelphians, taken from their graves. As a result, the university museum has announced that the entire collection would be opened up for potential “repatriation or reburial of ancestors,” as a step toward “atonement and repair” for past racist and colonialist practices.

The University of Pennsylvania isn’t the only institution with dirty hands; Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institute, and others have dirty hands as well – intellectual descendants of the racist, Morton himself. By one estimate, the Smithsonian Institution, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Howard University hold the remains of some 2,000 African Americans among them.

This isn’t even a phenomenon generic to the United States.

It’s estimated that 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums, with France alone having of 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its national collections. However, collections in Germany, England and France, include the remains of African people.  

The U.S. Senate passed the African American Burial Grounds Network Act in December 2020. This bill would establish a voluntary network to identify and protect often at-risk African American cemeteries. But even this legislation does not include the remains of Black people in museum collections.

This bill isn’t like the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires museums to return remains to tribes or lineal descendants that request them.

University of Texas Professor Daina Ramey Berry, author of “The Price for their Pound of Flesh,” A Study of the Commodification of Enslaved Bodies from Birth to Death, believes that an African-American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act would be wonderful, saying “We’re finding evidence of enslaved bodies used at medical schools throughout the nation… Some are still on display at universities. They need to be returned.”

On Monday, April 26, members of MOVE including Pam Africa, held a press conference where they shared their anger, frustration and sadness over the desecration and defilement of the remains of their family. I can only imagine the trauma for those being made to relive the violence of 1985 in 2021.

In an online petition, the MOVE organization outlined its demands, including a return of Tree and Delisha Africa’s remains, an apology from the universities, and financial reparations from the university.

These demands should be me – post haste.

These past few weeks are a reminder that Black lives are deemed dispensable and unworthy of protecting by state actors, not that we need a reminder. One guilty conviction in Minnesota doesn’t change that. More Black people were killed immediately after the Chauvin verdict. That public universities hold and parade the remains of Black children is a chilling reminder to some and a revelation to others that Black bodies can’t even rest in peace.

The MOVE family wasn’t even given the decency to lay the remains of their murdered young to rest. Must Black children be disrespected and devalued in life and in death? In life, Black children are criminalized in and out of school. Black children like Anthony Thompson Jr. and Ma’Khia Bryant continue to be subjected to murder in 2021 .

Sadly, for some, simply taking away the lives of Black youth isn’t enough.

In the case of Tree and Delisha Africa, their remains were desecrated and on display for people to study on online teaching platforms. In the case of Black youth murdered by police, it’s often said by complicit media that they were troubled, weed smokers and going down a bad path. In all of these cases, these children are immediately dehumanized upon their deaths so that we are desensitized to the abuse of their memories and physical remains. 

This is why we march and protest; to show that the lives of those taken from this realm mattered. If you wish to show that the lives of Tree and Delisha Africa mattered, you can email the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, following the instructions on how at this link. Unlike Priam, we don’t have to sneak into the night in search of justice; we can stand boldly and demand it.

May our efforts help grant these two children, and their families, the peace the state took away.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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