Blog Archives

The Aesthetics of Bliss and Trauma in Plantation Weddings

The Flossenbürg camp landscape today (click on all images for larger view).

Between 1938 and 1945 the little Bavarian town of Flossenbürg was the home for a Nazi concentration camp that held political prisoners, German criminals, and, near war’s end, Hungarian and Polish Jews. About 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its neighboring subcamps by the time the camp was liberated in April, 1945.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected dimensions of Flossenbürg today is that it is a beautiful little Bavarian town that departs from our imagination of a landscape of genocide. Nestled in the Bavarian forest near the contemporary Czech border, Flossenbürg was a small medieval village that was home to granite quarry laborers by the late 19th century. Atop the village’s highest point sits the picturesque ruins of Flossenbürg Castle, which was built in about 1100 and eventually was burned in 1634 during the Thirty Years War.

The ruins of Flossenbürg Castle viewed from the village (image Nikater).

Many dark tourism sites associated with death, tragedy, and disaster are likewise aesthetically appealing contemporary spaces. Sites like Flossenbürg acknowledge our anxieties about death, violence, and injustice, and interpretation at such sites usually paints a sober if unsettling picture of historical experiences. Nevertheless, many of these preserved places inevitably have been purged of most of the material trappings that made them horrific places, and some of them like Flossenbürg are once more visually appealing spaces despite their heritage.

The American landscape is dotted with places that witnessed enormous tragedies, and much like Flossenbürg they have now been absorbed into the everyday landscape. Unlike Flossenbürg, though, many of these American sites clumsily negotiate their dark heritage or simply ignore it in favor of aesthetically pleasant contemporary landscapes. Some of the most interesting examples are Southern plantations, where surviving buildings, landscapes, and archaeological materiality are the products and expression of captive labor. Yet few if any plantations conceive of themselves as sharing the mission of dark tourist sites whose stories revolve around trauma and tragedy. Some plantations have embraced a critical analysis of the relationship between captives and White slaveholders, but many have not really pushed beyond painting the plantation as a relic of the antebellum South. Read the rest of this entry

Memorializing Uncanny Histories: Materiality and Memory at Pulse

Pulse nightclub August 2016 (click for expanded view; image Walter).

In June, 2016 a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people.  In the aftermath of the murders the club has been routinely invoked in a wide range of political causes, but materially it has become a place that illuminates the depth of homophobia, complicates gun rights, and recognizes domestic terrorism.  Like most dark history, the Pulse nightclub materializes death and profound tragedy, and that makes it an especially productive place to concede anxiety, apprehension, and fascination alike.  Pulse may have become part of an “uncanny” materiality; that is, it is among a host of things and places that provoke uneasiness because, in Freud’s words, it “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (PDF; compare archaeological examples from Gabriel Moshenska, Paul Graves-Brown, and Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini).  People flock to Pulse because it allows us to acknowledge anxieties about hate crimes, terrorism, homophobia, and gun violence and potentially brings them into an open public discussion, a discussion that some people welcome and others want to escape.  That discussion is inevitably challenging: the club may be the proverbial historical “open wound,” confronting us with a recent past so repugnant and unpleasantly contemporaneous that we struggle to acknowledge it or simply ignore it entirely.

Offerings at the Pulse memorial (click for expanded view; image Walter).

After the murders Pulse instantly became a scene of spontaneous memorialization, and it is unlikely to ever again be a more-or-less invisible leisure space in the midst of interchangeable retail outlets.  Within a month of the killings The Orlando Sentinel’s Caitlin Dineen recognized that Pulse “has found its way onto itineraries for tourists from around the world who pay their respects and leave handmade memorials” (cf. The Advocate’s June video of the spontaneous memorial).  As visitors continually flock to the club, various parties have begun to discuss a place-based commemoration, which might involve the preservation of the structure, a radical remodeling, or its complete demolition.  Barbara Poma opened the club in 2004 in memory of her brother who had died of AIDS 13 years before, and in the wake of the murders she almost instantly proposed to re-open the club as a memorial.  In August, 2016 Poma proposed to transform the club into a memorial, and in November she reached a preliminary agreement to sell the club to the city of Orlando.  However, before the City Council could approve the $2.25 million selling price, Poma had a change of heart and decided not to sell the club site. Read the rest of this entry

Abhorrent Bodies: Burying Evil

Rudolf Hess' grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011 .

Rudolf Hess’ grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011.

The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998.  The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers.  In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino.  The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains.  Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts.  The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death.  Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry

Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage

Lidice today

Lidice today

The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees.  The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape.  Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.

Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space.  Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites.  Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences. Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village.  Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs.  The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses.  Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion.  Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village. Read the rest of this entry

The Archaeology of Race, Shame, and Redemption

The ruins of Rosewood, Florida. First published in Literary Digest magazine on January 20, 1923 (image courtesy wikipedia).

The ruins of Rosewood, Florida. First published in Literary Digest magazine on January 20, 1923 (image courtesy wikipedia).

On New Year’s Day 1923 a crowd of Whites marched on the Black community of Rosewood, Florida seeking retribution for an alleged assault on a White woman by a Rosewood resident.  A group of White men captured an African American, Sam Carter, and shot him and hung his lifeless body, but by January 4th a brewing mob marched on Rosewood, angered by the suggestion Rosewood had provided refuge to Carter.  Two Whites were killed in their initial assault, and by January 6 hundreds of Whites had migrated to Rosewood and set the whole town ablaze, with at least eight people eventually dead in the aftermath and nothing left standing.

Like much of the landscape of racism and extra-legal violence, Rosewood appeared to have been easily submerged in America’s historical amnesia about the depths of racist violence.  Yet increasingly more of these spaces of shame are now being memorialized in a public acknowledgment of a variety of injustices inflicted on ordinary innocent people.  Some of this memorialization involves formal material markers; some involves genuine reparations (e.g., nine of Rosewood’s victims received a financial reparation in 1994); some have been studied anew by the state (e.g., in 2001, Oklahoma conducted an official report on the 1921 Tulsa race riot); and some sites remain largely unacknowledged, submerged in grassroots memory but not yet in something we might circumspectly refer to as “public memory.”

This 2008 image of one of the neighborhood's touched by the 1921 Tulsa  riot was eventually cleared by urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 1970s.  The neighborhood is today part of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park (image courtesy imarcc).

This 2008 image is of one of the neighborhoods touched by the 1921 Tulsa riot. The area was eventually cleared by urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 1970s. The neighborhood is today part of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park (image courtesy imarcc).

Moments like Rosewood are akin to the fanatical Anti-Black anxieties that exploded in Tulsa (1921), East St. Louis (1917), Houston (1917), Elaine (Arkansas 1919), Omaha (1919), Knoxville (1919), and Chicago (1919), where massive race riots exploded taking aim on African-American communities.  Other spaces witnessed the seemingly random, anti-Black terror of public lynchings and mob murders that have now secured some measure of public reflection, and the spaces of public executions, urban displacement, and anti-Black state policies and violence are slowly joining the same discourses.

Many of these moments lost any recognizable footprint on the landscape and were reduced simply to violent aesthetics—images of riot scenes, postcards of lynchings—that appear to contemporary eyes as horrifying but alien experiences of unknown people from a distant moment.  Ken Gonzales-Day’s brilliant project “Erased Lynchings” underscores how mundane the landscape of lynching violence was:  when the corpses of murder victims are removed from period images, the crowds gathered to witness death are absolutely prosaic and the spaces seem utterly commonplace.  Landscapes changed over time, trees were torn down, public spaces took on new shapes, and former prisons were torn down or took on new roles, so much of the visual evidence of riots and lynchings documents spaces that look quite different now.

Tulsa's John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in 2010 (image courtesy imarcc).

Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in 2010 (image courtesy imarcc).

The now-prosaic landscape risks concealing the horror concealed in many such spaces.  Harvey Young has chronicled how many lynching scenes were instantly dismantled and the bodies of victims themselves were dismembered by souvenir hunters who took trees, rope, clothing, and body parts as mementoes of the experience.  In 1899, for example, after a Maysville, Kentucky lynching the victim was burnt and the newspaper reported that spectators “carried away pieces of flesh and the negro’s teeth.  Others got pieces of fingers and toes and proudly exhibit the ghastly souvenirs to-night.”  In 1901, a Terre Haute, Indiana man who had likewise been hung and then burnt was dismembered and his toes sold at the scene as relics.  When a reporter visited the scene of a 1911 lynching a few weeks after the Coatesville, Pennsylvania event, he found nearly nothing left: grass was burnt away from the blaze in which Zachariah Walker had been burnt alive, neighboring fences were demolished for souvenirs, and all that remained of Walker fit into a small box.  A famous photograph of two men lynched in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 has two women in the foreground holding swatches of fabric that were likely keepsakes torn from the bodies of the victims.  An image of the lynching displayed with a lock of hair and emblazoned “Klan 4th, Joplin MO, 33” is almost certainly hair of the victims that was displayed by the fourth Klan in Joplin.

Ironically, as communities aspired to rationalize an act of mass violence and forget the space in which it occurred, they nonetheless often held onto material trappings that evoked that very event.  Young argues that these human keepsakes were distinctive material things that transformed a human into mere materiality but never fully rid themselves of the shadow of human meaning invested in the dismembered corpse.  For those unable to attend the lynchings and riots, picture postcards were widely distributed: the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas was documented by a series of postcards documenting a grim spectacle taken over several hours in which 10,000 spectators set Washington ablaze, removed his genitalia, cut off his fingers, and removed his bones.

As the landscape was actively dismantled and declined through benign neglect, communities masked histories they hoped to forget even as those events persistently lurked beneath the surface of publicly condoned heritage.  Yet throughout the US and much of the world such traumatic heritage is being placed onto the landscape in concrete forms.  These “dark tourism” sites run a gamut of traumatic histories that reveal the absence of a consensus history; Erika Doss argues that memorialization in these contexts does not resolve shame as much as it sparks discussions that bear witness to the dignity of people who fell victim to racist violence.  At the Art Race Space conference Doss argued that true shame does not lie in acknowledging and discovering shameful histories; instead, genuine shame is an unwillingness to confront such histories.

A modest marker is the sole memorial of the former site of Rosewood (image courtesy Richard Elsey).

A modest marker is the sole memorial of the former site of Rosewood (image courtesy Richard Elzey).

James Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant have contemplated the distinctive quandary of conducting an archaeology of Rosewood in lieu of archaeology at the site itself, whose current owners have denied descendants, scholars, and tourists access to the space, which has remained untouched in the intervening 90 years.  Rosewood’s inaccessibility (despite being a Florida Heritage Landmark) has not prevented Gonzalez-Tennant from producing a “Virtual Rosewood” that connects to survivors’ oral histories, census records, a virtual tour, and videos of Rosewood today.  Nevertheless, it is likely that people aspiring to forget such heritage recognize the power of archaeology to tell an absolutely compelling and challenging story about Rosewood.

Rosewood may be a distinctive event in some ways, but Davidson and Tennant argue that the American landscape includes numerous more racist riots, and violence is impressed into an exceptionally broad range of spaces that have now received community attention.  One such episode came in South Carolina in 1947, when a Greenville taxi driver was robbed and stabbed.  A 24-year-old African American, Willie Earle, was jailed, and a line of cab drivers drove to the Pickens County Jail along with a crowd that seized Earle.  The crowd dragged Earle from the jail, beat him, and eventually shot him and left him on a roadside near a slaughterhouse.  This memorialization process is certainly not without resistance:  A 2010 commemorative marker erected at the site of Earle’s death was stolen in April, 2012 (the Rosewood marker has bullet holes in it); the former jail from which Earle was taken is now a county museum, and Jennie Lightweis-Goff lamented in her 2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus that the museum says nothing about Earle’s murder.

The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie memorial in Duluth (image courtesy artstuffmatters).

The Clayton-Jackson-McGhie memorial in Duluth (image courtesy artstuffmatters).

Other communities have more successfully confronted their histories.  In June, 1920 the circus passed through Duluth, Minnesota and a young man charged that his girlfriend had been sexually assaulted by several Black men working with the circus.  The police chief lined the laborers along the train tracks the next morning and arrested six of them.  A crowd of between 5000 and 10,000 people gathered at the jail and eventually stormed it, dragging out three men– Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie—and hanging them in the street before posing for pictures with the victims’ bodies.

The unmarked graves of the three men were located and markers were placed at the graves in 1991.  In June, 2000 the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial committee was formed to acknowledge the lynching, construct a memorial, and use the discussion as a springboard for anti-racist community activism (e.g., see the Memorial Discussion Guide)  In October, 2003 the Duluth Memorial was unveiled at the site of the lynching with the figures of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie as part of a memorial including the Edmund Burke quote “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”

In 2006 the Duluth New Tribune editor expressed mixed feelings about memorializing lynchings, arguing that “there were 4,743 documented lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968, almost 3,500 of them black men. Even if memorials are done with decorum, as in Duluth, I don’t know if there should be a marker at every site. Four thousand, seven hundred forty-three memorials in town squares and highway rest stops would be a gruesome reminder across America.”  It may indeed inspire apprehension among some people eager to cast racist violence as the products of other communities in distant places, but such a maneuver awkwardly dodges complicity in violence.  Many more sites of comparable trauma certainly remain remembered but unmarked; many spaces like riot sites certainly contain concrete archaeological evidence, but in places like Rosewood the threat of that material history provokes apprehension for both undoing racist caricatures and sparking conversations about the impression of such violence on contemporary social life.  Many of these landscapes witnessed brief events lynchings that left little material evidence, yet marking such spaces and telling these stories is certainly well within archaeological method.  The challenge is less techniques of placing such heritage on the contemporary landscape as it is a challenge to overcome anxiety over the discussions that may follow.  Yet the tenor of such discussions in many communities suggests that efforts to conceal such a heritage are always losing battles.


Dora Apel
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob.  Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.

Manfred Berg
2011 Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America.  Ivan R. Dee, Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania.

Roy L. Brooks
2004 Atonement and Forgiveness : A New Model for Black Reparations.  University of California Press, Berkeley.

Alfred L. Brophy
2003 Reconstructing the Dreamland : The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation.  Oxford University Press, New York.

James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant
2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a TragedyThe SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.

Dennis B. Downey and Raymond M. Hyser
2011 Coatesville and the Lynching of Zachariah Walker: Death in a Pennsylvania Steel Town.  The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.

R. Thomas Dye
1996 Rosewood, Florida: The Destruction of an African-American CommunityThe Public Historian 58(3):605-622.

Maxine D. Jones, Larry E. Rivers, David R. Colburn, R. Tom Dye, and William W. Rogers
1993 Documented History of the Incident which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923.  Report submitted to the Florida Board of Regents.

Jennie Lightweis-Goff
2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus.  SUNY Press, Albany, New York.

Jacqueline Goldsby

2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Charles Lumpkins
2008 American Pogrom : The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics.  Ohio University Press, Athens.

Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
2001 Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  Report submitted to the State of Oklahoma.

Paul Ortiz
2005 Emancipation Betrayed : The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.  University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kerry Segrave
2010 Lynchings of Women in the United States: The Recorded Cases, 1851-1946. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.

Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck
1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930.  University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

Kidada E. Williams
2012 They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.  New York University Press, New York.

Harvey Young
2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American LynchingTheatre Journal 57:639–657.


Carter-Jackson-McGhie Memorial image courtesy artstuffmatters

Rosewood ruins image courtesy wikipedia

Rosewood sign image courtesy Richard Elzey

Tulsa Memorial Site image and Reconciliation Park image courtesy imarcc