Historian Diana Ramey Berry praises effort to return the skull of Nat Turner to his family

Historians in the News
tags: Nat Turner



Daina Ramey Berry, an associate professor of history and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of the forthcoming “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation.”

This month, Richard Hatcher, a former mayor of Gary, Ind., delivered what researchers suspect is the skull of Nat Turner, the rebel slave, to Turner’s descendants. The skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years. If DNA tests confirm that the skull is genuine, then Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest.

Many were shocked when National Geographic reported the existence of the skull, the same day that “The Birth of a Nation,” a new movie about Nat Turner, was released. But the traffic and trade in human remains — from the fingers, toes and sexual organs of executed enslaved people, to the hair and nails of the victims of the Holocaust — are part of our history. Some Americans were not surprised at all by the news; they might even have some “family heirlooms” of their own hidden in their homes, waiting to be shared with their children. ...

In 2002, Mr. Hatcher, the former mayor, who had been attempting to found a civil rights museum, received the skull from activists who had gotten it from a family of physicians who had owned it for three generations. Filmmakers who had made a documentary about Nat Turner later connected him to Shanna Batten Aguirre and Shelly Lucas Wood, Turner’s descendants.

We will never know all of the deceased who experienced such “post-mortem consumption,” as I call it. But the phenomenon continues today, even in the form of images of black death that do not involve dismemberment. What else to call the photo of Trayvon Martin’s body that George Zimmerman retweeted after shooting him? Twitter took it down, knowing it was an act of utter disrespect, but not before it had been shared many times.

Such consumption is part of American history. If I can teach a class and have one student with a relic in his family’s possession, I know there are others. Will you not come forward and admit to collecting ghostly relics of the past? I recognize that, at one point, these “trophies” served as evidence that justice had been served, but now it’s time to bring justice to those who were desecrated. Returning these body parts to descendants, or at least granting them a respectful burial, will help our nation heal from the sin of slavery and its ugly afterlife.




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