“I am the resurrection and the life.” From John 11:25 comes this Bible passage describing Lazarus’s miraculous rise from the death, as he addressed Martha, the sister of Lazarus. For Christians, this lesson is supposed to demonstrate that death is no obstacle to Jesus. This passage figured prominently into Igbo healer Chief Oscar Mokeme’s commemoration of the life of Portsmouth’s Africans, which featured a syncretic blend of Igbo and Christian funeral customs.
Some may find Mokeme’s invocation of this Bible passage strange in a ceremony honoring the reburial of people who have been dead for centuries and whose religious proclivities are unknown. But Mokeme continued, reminding the crowd about the journey taken by the departed, many (if not all) of whom were probably slaves. They were buried in an African burying ground, established on what was once the outskirts of town in 1705. Over time, as the city expanded, the graves were paved over and forgotten until 2003. While undertaking some routine maintenance on a site near State and Chestnut Streets, utility workers discovered what were determined to be human remains. Archeologists and historians later confirmed that the remains belonged to people interred in Portsmouth’s African Burying Ground. Once their identity was confirmed, a group of community activists, scholars, clergy, and city officials decided that something would need to be done to remember and honor the people who had been buried there.
In August of 2014, a celebration was held to consecrate what would eventually become a new African Burying Ground Memorial. The memorial park was completed in November of 2014, and the reburial ceremony held on 23 May 2015. Mokeme’s use of Christian imagery was intended to remind those who gathered to witness the reburial (a 3-day event) that what they were witnessing was a remembrance of the past, and a resurrection of the memory of Portsmouth’s Africans. In many African traditions, death is not the end, but rather “the resurrection of life in another form.”  Upon death, the departed begins a journey where they join the ancestors, who are to watch over and guide the living. Disturbance of the graves was a disturbance of the ancestors. In this context, the ceremony on the 23rd can be understood as a symbolic gesture to allow the deceased to restore them to their rightful place among the ancestors. But more than that, it is a resurrection, or restoration of a forgotten (and some may say discarded) past. Part of Mokeme’s speech incorporated the story of Exodus. Following the Israelites’s flight from Egypt, Joshua’s bones (which had been brought from Egypt) were reburied at Shechem. The Exodus story features prominently in a number of African American Jeremiads, drawing parallels between the Israelite’s flight from slavery, and the theo-political language woven into black nationalism.  In this context, there are obvious reasons for invoking the parallels between Joshua’s reburial, following the freedom of the Israelites, and the reburial of those who were slaves during in life, over a hundred years after the end of slavery here. But additionally, the reburial functioned as a reclamation (or resurrection) of the Portsmouth Africans as “our ancestors,” Mokeme argued. It would allow them to find peace in addition to restoring their dignity. “By witnessing this today,” another speaker noted, “you stand as family. You hold this memory. Place matters and people matter.”
Mokeme reminded observers that the purpose of this exercise was not relive the injustices of slavery, but to celebrate healing in the difficult process of reconciling peace with slavery. Nonetheless, it is impossible to hold such a commemoration without an acknowledgement of historical fact. The monument at the entrance of the park features a figure representing an enslaved man in American, and a woman, representing Mother Africa, on each side of a granite slab. Their hands are an inch apart, never to touch. Meadows explained at the unveiling that it was a decision he had agonized over, but decided that the monument had to acknowledge certain brutal truths about slavery.
The moving ceremony also featured a community sing along, including a number of African-American spirituals. Those familiar with the history of this music will recognize that the religious messages were laden with meanings, including Kumbaya (1920s) and Oh, Freedom! (post Civil War) Both songs were recording during the age of Jim Crow, and are linked with the Civil Rights movement, where African-American churches played a critical role. The past, unsurprisingly, was omnipresent during the ceremony.
The ceremony an opportunity for witnesses to view the vault, into which the nine wooden coffins had been placed. The coffins contained a combination of human remains, and bits of their original coffins. In keeping with African funerary customs, the deceased were carefully wrapped in white cloth by women elders. The coffins were arranged so the etchings on the lid formed a heart, which had been adopted as a symbol of the Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial Park. Dirt, taken from Portsmouth, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe had been used to consecrate them. Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust.
 Kwasi Wiredu, “Death and the Afterlife in African Culture,” (1987). Accessed 25 May 2015.
 See especially Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of Religious Myth (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1993); and Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2014).