“No silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.” (Cage 1959: 135)
Silence in Black Brooklyn
The virtue of silence is undeniable. An eerie juxtaposition against a world where noise narrates the story of life, silence bears an intrinsic commemorating essence. And yet, it lingers in death and stories of the fallen—“Let’s observe a moment of silence in memory of the dearly departed.” How do we navigate these silences in Brooklyn; the silence that bears the stories that convey more when unspoken? Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn accepts black existence with a bittersweet silence, acknowledging where silences have been produced and how it has narrated generations of black lives. It bottles up the pockets of silence black people experience on the haunting, historical journey through literature and landmarks, astounded and maybe even discontented from rarely happening upon black history in the material environment (statues, monuments, museums, street signs, neighborhood names, plaques, parks, etc.). It elucidates how silence is undoubtedly interconnected with the black experience in the U.S. and our history of movement. It investigates the silence that remains ever-present in the past, present, and future black community of Brooklyn—black women and black children and black men and black families and entire generations of black people who up and moved, yet remain engulfed in silence for what has been lost or what has been gained. It, like traditional and architecturally designed memorial services, invites the companionship of silence by welcoming its overpowering presence and centralizing memory through digital design.1 This silence is riddled in necropolitics and afro-pessimism and yet this project carries people on a journey from oppressive and optional silences, to commemorative ones that emphasize the resurrection of life and its contingency on survival.
Though[ use a bit more key words and content from the readings] this reckoning of silence is novel and seemingly counterintuitive, it is also imaginative and yet to be applied to Black Brooklyn and black history. Silence is not nothingness, and ultimately each source is interwoven with “silence, solitude and contemplation… restoring the realm of personal understanding of the Self and of one’s authentic experience of the Other.”2 This project takes the first and foundational step to representing silence by invoking memory. And in Brooklyn, these sites of memory (as coined by Pierre Nora) are derived from places and groups of people who have been traditionally silenced or have chosen silence for their survival and generations of black people to come. To understand these iterations of silence is to understand the black “Self[ start with mirror stage
some object cathexis stuff in there – much like beloved and Sethe and Denver learning themselves through one another]” through an acknowledgement of the historical black “Other,” and even those who oppressed them. It is to exist within the haunting and heavy feeling very indicative of the black experience in Brooklyn without waving it away.
What are these silences? Where do they lie in Brooklyn’s landscape? How can we access them? The work of Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn marries the scholarship on Brooklyn, history, memory, and silence to create a digital structure conducive to the explicit recovery of silence. It acknowledges where all these studies on silence as a powerful and important mechanism of memory run alongside the generational silence of Black Brooklyn. Where that silence speaks for itself and also transforms a largely underprivileged population into a community with agency. Where that silence does not only signify erasure at its worse, but could be commemorative and immortalizing and its best.
A Thin Line
Black Brooklyn has had an undeniable courtship with silence. To find the nuanced silences that live both in adverse and elevated spaces, this project requires an understanding of silence’s bifurcated relationship with the “defined3.” Haunting and Displacement in African American Literature and Culture by Marisa Parham best describes the intricacies of oppressive and optional silences, and aptly captures the thin division between the two. Stating, “neglected histories may sometimes go untold by[ double check] not only because “history is for winners,” or because history operates in the service of a national political majority, but also because, sometimes, people cannot bear to tell such stories or to re-live such lives.”4 By introducing the reality of neglected histories, Parham acknowledges the silence of unsung narratives. She continues on to diagnose disregarded stories as existence peripheral to those of the ‘winners’ or ‘definers’ and in the same breath, sheds light on an overlooked path that nurses silence: survival. She identifies oppressive and optional silence, respectively. By no means does the silence that enables survival render it inaccessible[ introduce trauma theory – culbertson article]. In fact, “memories are discrete representations stored in a cabinet, the contents of which are generally accurate and accessible at will.”5 However, “remembering is not always a process of summoning representations of what happened.”6 Rather, the choice to hold silence highlights the power of their option not present in oppressive silence.
This centering of the “defined” through their blackness and their silence unfastens a rigid latch of history production and commemoration where ““whiteness” was the epithet with which [white people] defined their material and political goals.”7 This centering stands contrary to the noise of Europeans and their history that have barred similar ambitions, from homeownership to statues and street names, from the black community. This centering defies the standards for immortalization as the acquisition of materials and the planting of landmarks. An examination of this silence centers Black Brooklyn. And though whiteness has undermined the material goals of black people and relegated us to silence, our commitment to silence signifies a warped and active form of freedom. We have chosen to live.
The line between oppressive and optional silence gets thinner as we examine the power dynamic of the defined and the definers. Within the very denotation of the defined is an inextricable tie to oppression and a visual cue of the bottom, or maybe even the underside, of a hierarchy. Therefore, even when the defined generate power (ie. optional silence) it is done in relation to the definers; within a structure that functions off of a cyclical draining of their ability to control and/ or negotiate their lives. And black existence in the midst of both oppressive and optional silences signify the incredible feat of choosing to live.
1 A Space for Silence: Exhibiting and Materializing Silence through Technology
2 A Time for Silence? It’s Possibilities for Dialogue and for Reflective Learning, 399
3 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
5 Silencing the Past 14
6 Silencing the Past 14
7 A Covenant of Color, 67