for we who have achieved nothing
who have not built
who have forgotten all
and dare to remember
– Edward Braithwaite, Rights of Passage
Van Sicklen. Stuyvesant. Canarsie. Remsen. Bushwick. Flatbush.
The roll call of Brooklyn street names, churches, sports arenas, bridges and neighborhoods recapitulates the borough’s rich history. It memorializes the Native American, Dutch, English, Italian and Jewish settlers who built and lived in Brooklyn. Yet this form of memorialization has been largely absent for the black population—particularly the populations that arrived to Brooklyn in droves as a result of forced removal from their homelands, the First and Second Great Migration, and the Immigration Laws of 1965.
So what form has this immortalization taken for blacks who do not have enough capital or influence to leave a prominent landmark or legacy?
Post-emancipation, when farms of Kings County were converted from an agricultural area to an urban metropolis in the 1890s and the population of non-farmers increased, what of the black slaves?1 What does the record tell us about how the former slaves found work or housing once the farms on which they labored disappeared?
If the “end” of Brooklyn was in 1957 but cityscapes present a surplus of photographs that depict black people in New York City after the 1960s, what represents the thriving lives of the black community?2
As gentrification sweeps African Americans and Caribbean immigrants out of the neighborhoods to which they once were relegated to since they were “limited by discrimination from freely moving to other districts or the suburbs,” what sounds will memorialize their racial and ethnic presence for future Brooklynites?3
The silence is daunting. Yet that silence is what we have left. It is a silence that we can call our own. Although it may not be considered an achievement in the way landmarks or public works materializes, it is ours. This haunting discomfort in the silence dares us to remember the rich history and diversity of black people in Brooklyn. It is an unofficial commemoration that evades the limitations of historiography and stops time to recover memory. For those who have achieved nothing, who have not built, and who have forgotten all, work, dream, dance, and dare to remember.
1 Of Cabbages & Kings County: Agriculture & the Formation of Modern Brooklyn, 125
2 When Brooklyn Was the World; Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images.
3 The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, 42-43