“The forces I will expose are less visible than gunfire, class property, or political crusades. I want to argue that they are no less powerful.”1 – Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn examines the nuances of silence that constitute the legacy of Brooklyn’s black community. I argue that despite the paucity of material markers in the landscape and in the literature, and despite the eerie silence that follows when black people are displaced from neighborhoods, there is a haunting element in that silence that dares us to commemorate the black community’s past, present, and future in Brooklyn. Unlike the very public works that commemorate various ethnic enclaves that have occupied the borough, this silence seizes the air, leaving an often inaudible and hidden trace of the black community. Oftentimes, its unseen and unheard nature gives the impression that this history does not exist. However, this silence “has the power to shake the social and metaphysical forms against which it breaks2,” pronouncing its inability to be forgotten3. Scholars have recognized this silence and its detrimental impression but have not explored the potential of this silence as a valuable mechanism to chronicle the memory of Black Brooklyn.
We need not undermine our past, present, and future presence by considering tangible landmarks and other manifestations of materiality as the only form of legacy. Although these public works provide ease in recalling a history, we should not ignore the haunting feel that accompanies and validates our silence. Therefore, I set myself up not to disprove, but rather extend the common narrative as I place attention on the functionality of silence for Brooklyn’s black community. The very tool history-makers have used to hide our history is the same tool I use to illuminate it—silence. With this unconventional understanding of silence in Brooklyn, this thesis develops as a memory project as opposed to one of history. Silence, the catalyst of Black Brooklyn’s memory, seeps through public works, the pallbearers of history that both exclude black contribution and diminish black existence. These very public, tangible, and official commemorations set forth by dominant cultures that trivialize silence as a private, nonofficial commemoration of the black community is, in fact, selective memory solidified as history. Acknowledging and reconstructing the myths presented through public works, that the history white people commemorate is the only history, “we indicate that we no longer identify fully with its heritage.”4 And so after detecting the shortcomings of “this view of history as a critical method whose purpose is to establish true memory5,” I return to history before it is bureaucratically materialized.
I turn to photographs, manuscripts, census tracts, advertisements, church pamphlets, and even protest posters to map blackness in Brooklyn through the geography of memory. They embody silence and reveal sites of memory that “have no referents in reality; or rather, they are their own referents—pure signs.” 6 Instead of silence immediately signifying death, or public works automatically signifying historical commemoration, the deconstructive power of the methodologies present silence as pure. They do not fit into the traditional mold of American achievement—tangible landmarks or memorials that commemorate one’s presence. Therefore, they break these restrictive bonds between the signifier and its referent and reverses the violent obstruction of our actual knowledge of black people in Brooklyn. Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn takes on the challenge of expanding public imagination. Its methodologies acknowledge how memory erupts from silence as a fundamental element of Brooklyn’s black history. It explores how we memorialize our presence without replicating traditional means of commemoration (museums, street signs, neighborhood names, etc.) typically designated by white peoples; and how we pay respect to silence as an integral piece of black history.
These photographs, manuscripts, census tracts, advertisements, church pamphlets, and protest posters actively formulate the three methodologies of Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn: GIS mapping, a photo series, and virtual reality. They jointly help visualize the presence of Black Brooklyn while deconstructing historiography through a close examination of silence. Specifically, these methodologies, though they help grapple with this silence, do not fit into the traditional mold of American achievement—tangible landmarks or memorials that commemorate one’s presence. As Dolores Hayden states in The Power of Place, “It is not enough to add on a few African American… projects, or a few women’s projects, and assume that preserving urban history is handled well in the United States… Instead, a larger conceptual framework is required to support urban residents’ demands for a far more inclusive “cultural citizenship.”7” And so, these methodologies challenge the typical commemorative framework and introduce a new contextual one to support [whole scale] inclusion. They “encompass larger common themes, such as the migration experience, the breakdown and reformation of families, or the search for a new sense of identity in an urban setting.”8 They work together to display the haunting element in that silence that dares us to commemorate the black community’s past presence and future presence in Brooklyn, jointly bringing forth memory as history’s purest immaterial form.
Dare to Remember: A Digital Memorial of Black Brooklyn re-envisions ways to represent black (American and West Indian) histories. It welcomes everyone to witness the revival of information relegated to the underbelly of history. This underbelly is in the census tracts and in the archives and in the sites of memory. This underbelly may not always be common knowledge and therefore works doubly to shape the collective imagination. This underbelly is silence.
1 Silencing the Past xxiii
2 Memory, Narrative, Identity 150
This quote from Peter Nicholls draws a parallel between haunting and the ghost of Beloved as a violent reckoning with the past
3 This quote was used in reference to the embodiment of Beloved. But whereas “Beloved uses the form of the novel to respect and represent the gaps, silences and dislocations which are the full marks of suffering,” I use a digital memorial, continuously drawing from the literary [examples] throughout the novel1.
1 Memory, Narrative, Identity 153
4 Realms of Memory, 4
5 Realms of Memory, 4
6 Realms of Memory, 19
7 Power of Place 8
8 Power of Place 9