Anjali Patel

writer & software engineer

Our Bones Were The Mortar

The first thing I do after I wake up is walk Romeo, and then I come home and write. Sometimes as we walk, I imagine myself moving through the story I’m focused on from the main character’s point of view. I ask myself: What are they seeing, smelling, hearing? What are they feeling?

I had a story come out last week in khōréō magazine. Everyone who gave me feedback on this story — from my most trusted crit partners to its editor, the wonderful and empathetic Ola Hill — handled it with such attentiveness and care. And despite the support I had in writing it, walking through this story first thing in the morning always, without fail, ruined my day.

Spoilers from this point onward

I don’t remember when or how I learned that the Financial District sits on top of an African burial ground, but through writing “Our Bones Were The Mortar” I’ve learned this: There are upwards of 15,000 bodies interred beneath lower Manhattan in the largest African gravesite in North America. Some of the bodies were buried with West African jewelry such as glass shells and cowrie waist beads, indicating that they were likely first-generation enslaved. Of the graves that were excavated, nearly half belonged to children. And we only know any of this because in 1991, the burial ground was discovered when construction began on a new office tower.

There is an African Burial Ground National Monument. I have only seen it in pictures, and would have made more of an effort to view it, touch it, breathe it in had I started this piece in pre-pandemic times. I want to make this very clear: I am glad this monument exists. I appreciate the effort that went into getting it erected.

A single monument is a paltry acknowledgment.

My ancestors formed the foundation of this country’s wealth by the labor they were forced to provide. Now they form the bedrock of this country — arguably, the world’s — financial capital with their very bones. When I commuted to the Financial District knowing this, each step felt like a knife to the spirit. People rushed by at that signature self-possessed New York City clip and I could not help but think: How can you not feel this? How do you not care? How are you not absolutely gutted?

And that has become a refrain these past few years, as Black pain and Black death pull me deeper and deeper underwater. All too often, someone or something pushes me in a little farther and I am left thinking once again: How can you not feel this? How do you not care? How are you not absolutely gutted?

I don’t know if this story does what I’ve felt these past few years any justice. I worry that I should have waited, that I should have been a much better writer before tackling something with so much weight. But the question kept rattling and demanded to be let out: What would it take for this country to atone?

This is my answer.

“Our Bones Were The Mortar” is available in the second issue of khōréō, an online speculative fiction magazine centering immigrant and diaspora authors.