Friday, February 26, 2010

Suzanne E. Smith's "To Serve the Living"

Suzanne E. Smith is Associate Professor of History, George Mason University, and author of To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to the new book and reported the following:
I am happy to report that my new book, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, passed the "Page 99 test" with flying colors. In the book, I argue that funeral directors have been central figures in African American culture from the time of slavery through the present and their efforts to "serve the living" are as important—if not more important—than their work burying dead. As entrepreneurs in a largely segregated trade, they were among the few black individuals in any community who were economically independent and not beholden to the local white power structure. For this reason, they often became important community leaders, politicians, and civil rights activists. During the Jim Crow era, black funeral directors both relied on racial segregation to secure their foothold in America's capitalist marketplace, but also used their funeral homes to fight against racial segregation. They did this by offering their funeral homes as sites for civil rights organizing and also more directly as a refuge from the indignities of racial segregation. This quote from page 99 of my book specifically addresses this phenomenon:
In 1937, Robert A. Cole marked his tenth anniversary as president and owner of MFSA [Metropolitan Funeral System Association] by announcing plans to build a new company headquarters as well as a separate new building for the Metropolitan Funeral Parlors. Cole's vision for this project again reflected the belief that black businesses and funeral homes should serve their communities by offering much-needed space for public gatherings and social events. When it opened in September 1940, the new MFSA headquarters, located at 4455 South Parkway, was described by the black press as "a modern business palace [with] beautifully appointed air conditioned offices." The main floor housed the company's offices while the second floor featured the elegant Parkway Ballroom, which--like Nashville's Greenwood Park--offered black Chicagoans an entertainment venue free from the humiliations of Jim Crow discrimination.
My book also examines how African American funeral directors' skills at embalming and managing funerals could have direct political implications during the civil rights era. Specifically, I analyze famous civil rights funerals including Emmett Till's funeral, Medgar Evers's funeral, and Malcolm X's funeral to illustrate how African American funeral rituals could easily become politically charged events. Finally, the book uses the funerals of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King to give new historic perspective on the election of President Barack Obama.
Read an excerpt from To Serve the Living, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue