The absence of black thought, experience, landmarks, and legacies in historical writing about Brooklyn requires us to reconsider the workings of power and silence. Since “decisions about what to remember and protect involve the grounding of historical scholarship as well as the possibilities of public history,” the gaps in these sources1 grounds equally exclusionary commemorative works in the material environment.2 Many invoke the ‘transgenerational haunting’ of silence or detail the suppression of black existence, livelihood, contributions, and voices while others selectively omit various portions of each3. All are devoid of critical discourse on silence’s gravity within the Brooklyn black community. Furthermore, none offer up this nuanced perspective that prizes Black Brooklyn’s silence as an impalpable legacy nor do they explore its digital commemoration.
Brooklyn is Black?
(Little to no information on black im/migration or contributions, and absent critical discourse on silence)
Historians and scholars have long chronicled the demographic shifts and immigration waves in Brooklyn, NY though all in varying capacities. At the most rudimentary level, many pay attention to European immigration and residency in Brooklyn but completely evade the history of the black community, silencing blacks through their absence from literature. In Brooklyn By Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names, Jennifer Weiss and Leonard Bernardo detail and unveil the history of Brooklyn by way of landmarks such as streets, courts, bridges, neighborhoods, and parks that memorialize everyone from tribes and settlers, to landholders and Civil War commanders. Specific examples on how their names link back to the former inhabitants of Brooklyn include Native Americans as the first inhabitants, communicated through the retention of names such as “Canarsie (originally Canarsee, an Algonquin-speaking tribe), the Dutch as European settlers (Lotts, Remsen, Bergen),” and soon after, the British whose influence on landmarks largely existed as the “linguistic corruption” or anglicization of pre-existing designations.4 This book fails to acknowledge house and farm labor of the African slave population by virtually omitting how the success of white families were reliant on them. Only #[ so far two of which are listed in Table 3.1, page 47 of A Covenant of Color as slaveholding families] of the known # slaveholders or slaveholding families were identified as such. To omit this information in a book dedicated to backstories of street signs, neighborhood names, and other physical, public memorialization is to reduce black contribution to Brooklyn and to silence black people and the history of real events that adversely affected them. Furthermore, it detaches Brooklyn’s “reputation as a major commercial and industrial city” from “its path to wealth [which] tied it to slavery for the rest of that institution’s history in the United States.”5 Likewise, although published after the Great Migration, Second Great Migration, and the Immigration Laws of 1965 that drastically increased the black community, they fail to mention what African Americans and West Indians contributed without explaining the financial and social restrictions that prohibited them from establishing similar material markers6.
Much like Brooklyn By Name, When Brooklyn Was the World chronicles what Willensky considers the pinnacle of Brooklyn and mentions the immigration waves and demographic shifts of the early black community. However, it does not emphasize black existence as a staple of Brooklyn culture during the “golden age” other than their devalued presence in least desirable neighborhoods and “during the Depression and into the forties [when] a “slave market” developed near the Bedford Avenue intersection, where those who could afford household help would drive by to choose among black women who congregated there looking for jobs.”7 A clear minimization of their capabilities and presence given this relegation in the housing and job markets, this book evokes the silencing of the black community by way of diminution. Moreover, Willensky omits one of the main reasons why whites were leaving Brooklyn at this time. In his version, the end of Brooklyn as “the World” coincides with the year the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles. He ends his book with an amusing exchange:
“Me and Francine wanna go out to Levittown to see her cousin. She says it’s terrific out there for the kids, and we wanna see for our ourselves.” …
“Yeah… maybe so… maybe I should.”
And for a lot of us, that’s how Brooklyn ended.8
The ‘us’ here refers to white residents. The town to which they fled is Levittown—one of the first new predominately white suburbs that prohibited black homeownership.9 Like Brooklyn By Name, When Brooklyn Was the World effectively omits traces of black influence on Brooklyn. Because they focus their academic inquiry on white ethnic enclaves, they relegate the back community to silence.
Brooklyn is Black. But How Black?
(Information on black im/migration, and their contributions (though minimally and peripherally), yet devoid of conversation on silence)
Other scholars who have contributed to the historical writing about Brooklyn explicitly recognizes the demographic shifts and immigration waves within the black community, and even how other writers have failed to address black history in Brooklyn. Yet, they still minimize the importance of the black community. Therefore, even when included, we do not hear them. In Brooklyn!: An Illustrated History, Snyder-Grenier discusses how large events and cultural staples have created and continue to shape the legacy of Brooklyn but by way of major developments such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn-Queens expressway, and the Verrazano Bridge; all of which were signs of modernity and productivity and provoked public dissatisfaction. Unlike Weiss and Bernardo, and Willensky, Snyder-Grenier explicitly describes[ go back to this book! they address AfAm people and slaves, etc. double check whether they give their contribution ] the Immigration Laws of 1965 and recognizes the way the black, immigrant community built their presence in the neighborhoods they inhabited—a slew of “bakeries, businesses, and vegetable stores bright with island produce” that mirrored their home countries and indicated a switch in ownership of these neighborhoods.10 By recognizing their contributions to Brooklyn in the forms of bakeries and produce shops, he signals the inherent difference between those who either built or denounced the building of major developments and the black community. Black Brooklyn’s contributions, in relation to grandiose structures like the Verrazano Bridge, would be considered minor developments in the neighborhoods they inhabited. Snyder-Grenier’s inclusion of the new black immigrants through passing references to their shops silences the black community by marginalizing it in the formula described by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History: a ‘formula of banalization11.’ He relegates them to the level of the colorful backdrop their “island produce” provides to the political and social lives of the “real” Brooklyn community. Furthermore, he does not acknowledge this diminution as a common thread of the black existence. Therefore, he affirms the shadows the black community has been cast into and a silence with which they have been coerced to keep.
Of Cabbages & Kings County: Agriculture & the Formation of Modern Brooklyn written by Lawrence S. Zacharias also details the black community’s silence but has not identified this silence as a recurring and inseparable element of their history in Brooklyn. Providing a trajectory of Kings County (now considered Brooklyn) from an agricultural capital to an urban metropolis, Zacharias made a conscious effort to incorporate the black community including their earliest existence in Brooklyn and their influence on Brooklyn’s former agrarian culture. “The transition to intensive agriculture in Kings County would have been impossible without the requisite labor force.”12 Yet, he does not provide substantive information of the black community after Brooklyn transforms from this agricultural center to an urban municipality. Unlike the authors who silence the black community through their literature, he does recognize the silence and acknowledges how commonly other writers fail to address the reliance on black slaves to accrue wealth. Undoubtedly, “premodern slave society in Kings County was closely linked to the forces shaping modern Brooklyn.”13 However, by failing to offer information on the black community after Brooklyn transitions from an agrarian capital to an urban metropolis, he effectively silences them through the literature and fails to recognize, much like Snyder-Grenier, the pattern of silencing Brooklyn’s black community through their diminutive relationship with white America. How did the slaves sustain themselves in this transitioning market after landowners deemed their labor they provided on these farms unnecessary? Both Snyder-Grenier and Zacharias make honest efforts to incorporate black narratives but overall, fail to address the complexity of the black communities. Unlike the white enclaves that they make explicit mention of, they overlook the vastness of black communities and how they have been affected by turning points in Brooklyn’s history.
Brooklyn is Black. Since When? And for How Long?
(Brooklyn is black as a result of im/migration and their contributions (whether the length of that is well known or not), but the discussion on silence and how it contains history is minimal)
Scholars have also pointed out the importance of large scale demographic shifts, immigration waves, and the silence of the black community, but fail to recognize this silence as a mechanism of understanding history. In the Battle for Brooklyn, a documentary chronicling the adverse effects of the Barclays Center’s construction, Daniel Goldstein and the directors detail the divide between the protestors and supporters of the Barclays Center along a color line. The developers disillusioned a large portion of the black community with a promise of job opportunities and affordable housing. Since Forest City Ratner has not fulfilled these promises, the adverse effects of the Barclays Center impedes on Black Brooklyn’s future.14 Very unfortunately, “of the 15,000 construction jobs promised, there were 114 people at the site as of March 2011, with 14 of them local residents,” and no building except the arena has gone forward.15 Likewise, gag orders, designed to discourage the voices of people who know crucial information, were issued to former residents and business owners in the way of the proposed project, the Barclays Center. Though Goldstein and the directors recognize the literal silencing of black people through gag orders and disillusionment, and dwell on yet another addition to the material environment that does not take the name or heritage of Brooklyn inhabitants, they fail to recognize the pattern and value of silence in Brooklyn’s black community.
Alongside the documentary film, Battle for Brooklyn, which provides a close view of the Barclays Center from the very moment Ratner announced the project, “Haunts; What Does the Brooklyn of the New Barclays Center Have to Do with the Brooklyns That Came Before It? A Native Son Walks among the Ghosts” comes the closest to understanding this silence. “Haunts,” an anecdotal article written by Mark Jacobson details immigration waves and demographic shifts, explicitly acknowledging race and culture while highlighting the pattern of “demographic upheaval”: “the arrival of the New has been a vexing constant since members of the Canarsee tribe quinted up from the Flatlands to see strangers on the horizon.”16 Jacobson also provides other meaningful quotes that serve as contextual evidence about the instrumental figures who spearheaded the establishment of the Barclays Center. He quotes Bruce Ratner who states, “You might be dead, but your buildings live on after you17.” This quote displays the problematic pattern of legacy, particularly for the material environment. The construction of the Barclays Center, which disillusioned and displaced so many people, now immortalizes someone who did not grow up in Brooklyn, who only thought of the “big box stuff,” and who now owns majority of the Barclays Center[ still true?]. It provides an interesting addition to Brooklyn legacies and landmarks, further immortalizing the contributions of European descendants and perpetuating the silence of Black Brooklyn. Bearing the name of a British bank, owned by a Russian tycoon, and initiated by a white American real estate developer, the Barclays Center does not reflect those who built it. The Barclays Center does not reflect those silenced by it.
The same reigns true for Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images. This book emphasizes the memorializing essence of photography and explicitly mentions three very important things—one, the “many New York cities,” implicitly recognizing the variety of population enclaves within the five boroughs; two, the enduring presence of black people in Brooklyn’s history; and three, the editors’ effort to incorporate “as much of the new scholarship as feasible, paying attention to issues of race, gender, and sexuality.”18 However, the three are not inextricably bounded together. Put simply, black life and black history interwoven in the written narrative (slavery, African American artisanship and employment, protests, housing, race riots, etc.) were not reflected in the photos beyond the 1980s in the same way photographs reflected written stories for other ethnic enclaves. The lack of photography to document this in the same way it was done for Europeans and their descendants placed black existence on the periphery. For example, the statistic presented in the section “Immigrant Metropolis: 1885-1939” stated that black women worked for wages at twice the rate of white women.19 Yet out of all the photos of the workers, none were black women. This snapshot is characteristic of majority of the book20. This silence becomes particularly sharp as I hone in on Brooklyn, which lacks both historical information and photographs illustrating black communities’ socioeconomic diversity, arts and cultures, academic opportunities, and more21. As a whole, these sources do not go beyond that moment of recognition—what it would mean to represent and value this silence as an inextricable insignia of Brooklyn’s black community.
Brooklyn is Black and Silent.
(Black people and their contributions to Brooklyn unmistakably apparent. Silence detailed alongside varying attempts at filling it, differing from the recovery and valuing of silence.)
The work of my contemporaries showcase the same phenomenon of silence in black history. Though many of their foci do not include Brooklyn, they all do significant work to address and actively fill the silence of black communities. This includes Kamau Ware’s Black Gotham[ pull notes on Black Gotham from green book; citing a multimedia project: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch14/ch14_sec280.html?sessionId=b3753126-e406-4871-8226-1b6b7e44e125 ] Experience, an immersive multimedia project and public experience (graphic novels, reenactments, and tours through Manhattan’s Financial District) which recovers black voices suppressed by ‘official histories’ of Dutch New Netherland and British New York. It also includes The Huffington Post article “Brooklyn’s African American History Remains Largely Forgotten and Unmarked” written by Alan Singer detailing efforts to erect highly visible historical markers. This article harkens back on enslaved African Americans as one third of Brooklyn’s population at the time of the American Revolution and “their contributions to clearing the forests, dredging the harbors, and building the infrastructure of Brooklyn [that have] largely been erased from history22.” By providing context for their forced migration, their contributions, and deficiency of public commemoration, both Ware and Singer detail the silence of Black Brooklyn and intentions to fill it with landmarks that help narrate a comprehensive history to the public.
Others like The West Indian Americans and A Covenant of Color narrates contributions english-speaking West Indians and the general black population, respectively, have made to develop Brooklyn upon their im/migration to the borough. All acknowledge the scarcity of information chronicling these groups and make deliberately clear “the mark” they have left on U.S. history and culture23. From significant involvement in the economy and housing, to literature and legislation, The West Indian Americans infuses the lives of these silenced populations into the dominant narrative. Filling the silence through literature, a prominent form of public commemoration, A Covenant of Color by Craig Steven Wilder skillfully address the effects of bondage, discrimination, and exclusion of black people in Brooklyn history. His willful acknowledgment of how “loudly” Brooklyn fell echoes Willensky’s When Brooklyn Was the World24. However, his skillful composition of black history in Brooklyn and housing, schooling, and employment discrimination against black people provides a lengthy analysis of urban decline and unpacks the symbology of the Brooklyn Dodgers departure. This directly opposes Willensky’s naive, veiled, one-dimensional, and curt answer of the Brooklyn Dodgers leaving. A Covenant of Color, when placed in conversation with other books, aptly shows rather than tells how this silence is perpetuated for black people in Brooklyn.
Despite the importance of filling the void that silence may leave, a reverence of that silence should be had. This particular silence has erased black history in Brooklyn and often promoted the notion of black inferiority. Without underwriting that element, we also can acknowledge its converse. Black silence tells the story of white supremacy, of how black people and their contributions have been suppressed in larger historical records and public commemoration. It provides a layer of accountability for white people through authentication and display. Likewise, it introduces how black people negotiated their own voice and silence for their survival. And unfortunately, filling the silence can be a form of erasure, as it does not account for a multifaceted unit, or allow everyone an opportunity to grapple with it directly. Therefore, contemporary scholars and creatives do a phenomenal job of reclaiming history and centralizing black presence and contribution but do not air the silence as an element of investigation itself.
1 popular writings and textbooks on history
2 The Power of Place 13
3 Memory, Narrative, Identity 15
4 Brooklyn By Name, 3
The Covenant of Color, 6 “Breuckelen” “Midwout” “Boswyck”
5 A Covenant of Color, 45
6 “Caribbean Migrations and Diasporas.” The Caribbean A History of the Region and Its People.
7 When Brooklyn Was the World, 55-56, 62
8 When Brooklyn Was the World, 231
9 “Levittown: The Imperfect Rise of the American Suburbs.”
10 Brooklyn!: An Illustrated History, 108-109
11 to “sweeten the horror or banalize the uniqueness of a situation by focusing on details” Silencing the Past, 97
12 Of Cabbages & Kings County: Agriculture & the Formation of Modern Brooklyn, 79
13 Of Cabbages & Kings County: Agriculture & the Formation of Modern Brooklyn, 79
14 Upon completing the thesis, I’d have to check whether there has been movements towards building affordable housing—“affordable housing has not been fulfilled as of yet”—before publishing.
15 Battle for Brooklyn – also double check upon completion
16 Mark Jacobson. “Haunts; What Does the Brooklyn of the New Barclays Center Have to Do with the Brooklyns That Came before It? A Native Son Walks among the Ghosts.”
17 “Haunts; What Does the Brooklyn of the New Barclays Center Have to Do with the Brooklyns That Came Before It? A Native Son Walks among the Ghosts”
18 Cityscape: A History of New York in Images, xi
19 Cityscape: A History of New York in Images, 226
20 Needless to say, any conversation spouting from photographs of black owned businesses (as thoroughly detailed in A Covenant of Color, Table 7.2, 146) are completely nonexistent.
21 It is almost as if Brooklyn did not have thriving black life (although significantly less than Harlem) or did not become an epicenter for black life once black people fled from Manhattan during the race riots. Recognizing silence includes recognizing the erasure of black people who lived whole lives right over the East River.
22 “Brooklyn’s African American Remains Largely Forgotten and Unmarked”
“On the top of my list are Schenck Park in the East New York section of Brooklyn and the former Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, now the admissions building for the Polytechnic Institute of New York University at the Metro Tech Center in Downtown Brooklyn… The former African cemetery in the Kings County town of New Lots is now a playground between Schenck, New Lots, and Livonia Avenues and Barbey Street under the IRT #3 line “El.” It is next to the New Lots branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.”
23 The West Indian Americans, xviii
A Covenant of Color
24 A Covenant of Color, 213