Oppressive Silence

“Previous dismissal as a ‘tragic’ or ‘peculiar’ aberration was part of the construction of America as an ‘innocent future’ in which ‘the past is absent or… romanticized.’”⁠1 – Nicola King

A large element of oppressive silence is lived and accumulated over time. The silence originates from racist and exclusionary practices. It lingers in the United States’ production and documentation of history,where black people (and of course other marginalized folk) have largely been the defined and white people, the definers; or more directly, where white people have been the storytellers and black people, the told⁠2. This structure has produced what Keith Gilyard has referred to and Parham has referenced as “the devoicing and identity-eradicating imperatives of masters and overseers⁠3.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot breaks down this hegemonic structure through two formulas of silence in history production: formula of erasure and formula of banalization⁠4. Where one is entirely exclusionary, the other is diminutive, but both formulas rest on the Black Brooklyn’s “uneven power in the production of sources, archives, and narratives⁠5.”

This differential exercise of power, specifically wielded in historical production, has real consequences. To understand the gravity of oppressive silence, and how it exists in every layer of being, production, and interpretation is to “suspect that their concreteness hides secrets so deep that no revelation may fully dissipate [them].”⁠6 This oppressive silence, a “bottomless silence” as coined by Trouillot, has resulted in a material environment that does not regard black stories as worthy of being told or commemorated⁠7. I make a prime distinction between history and memory from the very title of my thesis, Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn. It functions off of memory more than it does history because these stories are typically controlled, reduced, and distorted by the definers. Memory of Black Brooklyn is instead left in private spaces like the archives or the census tracts or the immaterial environment, not taking the forms of the boisterous and pronounced historicization stitched into our day-to-day worlds.

The very real examples of oppressive silence include the countless slaveholders commemorated through street names and neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Not mentioned in books that harken back on the history of these people, slaveholding appears detached from wealth acquisition and other accomplishments. It is clear that historians, much like Jennifer Weiss and Leonard Bernardo, employed the formula of banalization when shaping  public knowledge. Full of details of their landownership and their European descent neatly concealed slaveholding as if it had to be silenced to cleanse the legacy of white men. These commemorations are a direct affront to Black Brooklyn, and a particularly sharp insult to those living in predominately black neighborhoods with these names emblazoned across the very blocks they live on. From black residents, property owners, or passerbys exist in the same space that their ancestors [verb] the evils of slavery—stood to be picked up for manual labor The digital representation of an auction block that pops up on a map aside the street or neighborhood named after a slaveholder combats this “overlooking” of these people’s participation in slavery. Slaveholders (and founders of Kings County Banks) commemorated through street signs and neighborhoods names and homes: NAMES NATURALIZED BY COMMEMORATION

  • General Jeremiah Johnson (Brooklyn By Name 22), Meserole family (25), Ten Eyck (29), Henry Pierrepont[ also the street of Brooklyn Historical Society – where they have memorialized Brooklyn’s history through archives, displays, museum exhibits, photo collections, etc. ] (42,49), Captain William Clark (42), Charles Doughty (44) – mention of him having a slave who was 28 y/o names Caesar Foster by way of his involvement with slave abolition, Quaker Thomas Everit (44), judge William and Gabriel Furman (46), John Middagh and Jacob Middagh Hicks (46), wealthy merchant with “extensive landholdings” Joshua Sands (51), Bergen family and Teunis Bergen (59, 141), Simon Boerum (60), Samuel Sackett (70), Wyckoff family (72, 115), Lefferts (74) “this Dutch farmhouse built between 1777 ad 1783 was occupied by four generations of Kings County’s largest slaveholding family’s house” – currently in Prospect Park, Isaac Chauncey (82), Nostrand family (92), Captain John Underhill (96) eleven generations, Drenten, Holland, and Englebart Lott (110, 127) “one of Flatbush’s largest landholding and slaveholding families,” Jan Aertsen Vanderbilt (113), Cornelis Janszen Vanderveer (113), Jan Martens Schenck (130),
  • Leffert[ might just quote the whole table and highlight the names commemorated, p 47] Lefferts, John Vandaveer, John Vanderbilt, Jacob Hicks, John and Jeremiah Lott, John and James Van Nostrand, Norman Van Nostrand, Losee Van Nostrand, Adrian Van Sinderin (president of Brooklyn Savings Bank), Joshua Sands, Charles Doughty, Abraham Vandeveer, Hezekiah Pierrepont, John Schenck, C. Von and George and John Bergen, David Chauncey, William Covert, Garret Bergen, Tunis Bergen, Henry Boerum, Peter and Nicholas Wyckoff, Aaron Underhill, Clarence Sackett, Thomas Everit, Abraham Vandervoort, John DeBevoise, Abraham Beekman, John Furman, FIRST NAME Ten Eyck, William Meserole, A. M. Suydam⁠8, FIRST NAME Clark

Unmistakably an oppressive silence, the intimacy of slavery can not be neglected in the memorialization of Black Brooklyn. With “more than 60 percent of Brooklyn white families [who] owned slaves” in the 19th century at one point, this system of oppression tied the most renowned Brooklyn residents to violence.”⁠9 Multiple aspects of these two disparate lives were intertwined and close in proximity. “Owners and servants usually slept in the same houses, although neither in the same nor comparable quarters; ate the same food, although not at the same table; and worked side by side, although not for the same reasons.”⁠10 This subaltern existence even when living feet away from one another reinforced the relegation to silence. This belittling reality provided daily reminders that their work would never be considered worthy of reward, nor their noise comparable to white folks.

Oppressive silences do not only come in the form of the harsh repetition of slaveholder names in our lived environment or quite literally the oppressive silence of slavery as a lived experience. They also encompass the remarkable absence of recognition for black people who have contributed to most to Brooklyn’s development. From like the enslaved Africans who did substantial agricultural and domestic work to those formative to the anti-slavery movement and other forms of resistance. Fighting for their own liberties, Reverend Alexander Crummell⁠11, a black refugee who returned during the War on May 23, 1861, was pastor of an abolitionist epicenter, Bridge Street A.M.E. When juxtaposed against his heavily recognized white counterparts (i.e Reverend Henry Ward Beecher) who “viewed abolition as a dialogue between white people, a discourse that objectified and excluded people of color,”⁠12 this silence is loud. Where is the street name for Dr. Philip White, a Brooklyn resident and the first Black appointee to the Brooklyn Board of Education who was trained in pharmacy⁠13? Or Dr. Peter W. Ray who served in the army as a surgeon and “kept a Brooklyn pharmacy for fifty years and was a founder of the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy⁠14?” Or the blind Reverend William F. Johnson “who almost single-handedly established Brooklyn’s Howard Colored Orphan Asylum” to care for African-American children, and at one time, supported more than 50 children without government aid⁠15. If the material environment does not even hold place/ space for “accomplished” black people, everyday black people remain a mystery.

The oppressive silences that cradle and reinforce Black Brooklyn’s absence of material memorialization, has also bared their access to participation in social and political life. A precursor to the heavy emphasis on homeownership during Both entryways for black disenfranchisement, landownership and homeownership had a one-to-one relationship in Brooklyn and the United States at large. The right to vote depended on whether or not you owned $250 worth of land, a precursor to the extensive history of black voter disenfranchisement and prohibitor of wealth.⁠16 Unless black people succeeded exceptionally, their property-owning ambitions were silenced, as were their political voice[ expand to include businesses – what it means to see dreams of property ownership crushed in response to white flight. to see them disappear alongside our actual homes and businesses and places of worship and food centers yet again with rise of gentrification].

“Diverse urban audiences… have accepted conflict and bitterness as part of the story necessary to understand their communities.”⁠17


1 Memory, Narrative, Identity 153

Nicola King references Toni Morrison’s commentary on America’s telling of slavery through a close reading on Beloved

2 This analogy of the “defined” versus the “definers” comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when Sixo, a slave, answers schoolteacher, the person hired by Mrs. Gardner after Mr. Gardner dies to be in charge of the slave plantation, Sweet Home. Asking questions that demanded answers that would have been met violence regardless of their perfection, schoolteacher taunts Sixo with a blatant display of his power. After a slew of questions and answers, Morrison writes, “Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined.” 190

3 Haunting and Displacement in African American Literature and Culture, Parham 76

4 Silencing the Past, 966; formulas of erasure: “formulas that tend to erase directly from the fact”

formulas of banalization: formulas that tend to “empty  number of singular events of their … content so that the entire string of facts, gnawed from all sides, becomes trivialized.”

5 Silencing the Past, 27-28

6 Silencing the Past 30

7 Silencing the Past 30

8 A Covenant of Color 47, Table 3.1: Slaveowning Families Among the Founders of Kings County Banks

9 Black Brooklyn: the Politics of Ethnicity, Class, and Gender

10 A Covenant of Color, 30

11 A Covenant of Color, 96

12 A Covenant of Color, 84 – very brief and doesn’t tell you how but all cited

13 A Covenant of Color, 100;

Black Brooklyn: The Politics of Ethnicity, Class, and Gender

14 http://archive.blackgothamarchive.org/rayobituary,

A Covenant of Color, 103

15 A Covenant of Color, 118

16 Weeksville Tour, [DATE]

17 The Power of Place 228