Erica Caple James, MIT associate professor of medical anthropology and urban studies, discussed the importance of historical preservation of monuments and sites and their implications in modern society in to more than 50 students and faculty Monday afternoon in a talk titled “The Matter of Black Lives: Hauntology, Infrastructure, and the Necropolitics of History in the American South.”

James’s talk is part of a larger series led by the Science, Technology, Medicine and Society Colloquium Series at the University of Michigan.

Rackham student Vicky Koski-Karell, an event facilitator, introduced James as well as the series and its mission for students.

“This is basically an opportunity to bring faculty from across the country and also from within the University that are doing work related to the study of science, technology and society and just highlight their research, have a space to try out new ideas, and really provide an interdisciplinary space where we can engage in the advancement of knowledge,” Koski-Karell said.

James began her talk with a brief summary of the theory surrounding historical monuments and sites, discussing interconnectedness of race, land and infrastructure development. She described the concept of necropolitics and hauntology, ideas that, according to James, explain the power of death and its impact on society.

James specifically cited the example of contentious proposals to remove a memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, the infamous site of white supremacist rallies last summer. She said infrastructure in cities convey values of a society, both symbolically and materially.

“Infrastructure projects, whether public or private, often reveal the social and political values of a society, and are addressed to the public in ways that can manifest the power of the state, and shape the subjectivity of those that design, fabricate, test, and ultimately use such systems,” James said.

James continued by describing her personal mission in discovering her ancestry to Jesse Scott Sammons, a public figure in Charlottesville, Va. towards the end of the 19th century. His previous familial homestead and cemetery were in danger of being paved over by a highway plan initiated by the Virginia Department of Transportation under the principle of eminent domain. She was asked by local historians to participate in the battle to preserve the land and its historical sites.

She described her initial reluctance in becoming involved with the project, not knowing exactly what obligations she owed the Sammons homestead, or how culturally significant this battle truly was.

“Taking on the fight meant embracing kinship with, and connections to, persons and troubling histories that have haunted my family, Virginia, and the United States, for more than two centuries,” James said.

James revealed after a lengthy struggle with legality and questionable legitimacy of the historical site, the battle ended in her favor, the team of historians and other ancestors of the Sammons family. The debate was reviewed by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in the National Park Service, which deemed not only the Sammons cemetery and homestead were historically relevant, but also the remaining 27 acres were eligible to receive federal protections.

Despite this success, James questioned the overall accomplishment of the preservation and respect of the history of people of color and the losing battles in many other Southern states.

“Whose history is deemed important and what are the criteria?” James said.  

Rackham student Kathryn Berringer expressed her excitement for future talks within the STeMS series and said the opportunity to be a part of this STS collaboration can widen the scope of the concentration and bring the dialogue to other parts of campus.

“The series and the program itself provides a chance to bring together faculty, graduate students and undergrad from around the University campus, to then engage with the speakers who are coming in and speaking to questions relevant to STS from many different fields,” Berringer said.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article contained factual errors

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