Just a block from the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, you’ll find an unassuming storefront surrounded by a sea of high-end restaurants and retail. The Black Gotham Experience’s home base may look out-of-place, but it’s actually exactly where it belongs. Black people first arrived via ships docking in the area, were sold on the Wall Street Slave Market a few blocks away, and worked on the ships and built Broadway, Trinity Church, and the original City Hall on Wall Street, among other public works. (What’s now Washington Square was once known as Land of the Blacks.)
Local photographer and Black Gotham founder Kamau Ware first decided to highlight New York’s black history while working as an educator at the Tenement Museum. After leading a school tour one day, a student asked where black people were at the time. Although Ware had a partial answer to her question, he realized that there was a big hole in the history he knew. Since 2010, Black Gotham has attempted to fill the gap with exhibitions, events, historical walking tours led by a range of guides, and even a graphic novel series — a collaboration with designer and illustrator William Ellis, that uses photographs of modern-day New Yorkers portraying historical figures, in an effort to generate new imagery of black history in Lower Manhattan.
Ware embraces his own nerdiness — Black Gotham hosts book events and guest speakers at events called Nerdy Thursdays — and you can tell he’s genuinely excited about the history he’s recounting. His speech is peppered with pop-culture references, and he uses visual projections and hands out “character cards” to encourage tour participants to think about the individuals who experienced history. The tour I attended last fall, Caesar’s Rebellion Part I, was one of five tours covering the period between 1609 and 1883, and it focused on the New York Slave Revolt of 1712. (Caesar’s Rebellion Part 2 covers the New York Conspiracy of 1741.) Ware was my guide.
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Elena Goukassian: When you were beginning the Black Gotham tours, where did you find your research materials? Which archives did you go to? What are the good books?
Kamau Ware: The first thing was just getting the contours. I started getting books right there in the Tenement Museum’s visitor center. They were hiding in plain sight. When I left the tour where the child challenged me, one of the first things I did was pick up Slavery in New York. It was my first set of essays about Black people in New York going back to the 1620s. And then I got Gotham, Jill Lepore’s New York Burning, The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto, Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster.
I was seeing that in 1741, Black people and a handful of Irish and English people wanted to have a revolution and change the political landscape that they lived in — prior to the Founding Fathers organizing. Then I’m hearing about Black people owning land. It began to feel like this epic, unknown narrative. Not one particular set of histories, but this entire universe of information that New York City was at the epicenter of. Black people fought with George Washington. Black folks resisted the British before George Washington was even born. Black folks built the foundations of New York City before there was a New York City. They resisted slavery every moment they possibly could, and that becomes the culture of rebellion in this hemisphere.
I thought of that little girl at the Tenement after reading all those books. Where are the Black people? You can’t see them. They’re in the margins. Even in a book about Black people, like Slavery in New York, you’ll flip through the book and see mostly white people. The pictures of Black folks are so few, especially before 1800. That has to be resolved at some point in time, because 200 years from now, you might say we never existed.
Where are the Black people? We’re here. Let’s be the past. Let’s use design to make it look old and create this graphic novel, these artifacts, these assets that can even live outside the graphic novel, that tell the story. This is part of how we remember.
EG: So your goal for the whole project was to create a visual history that hasn’t existed before, hence the graphic novel. And in order to get there, you’re using the tours?
KW: The tours came first. In 2010, my first three-hour-long tour got broken up into multiple tours, and the goal was the conversations. I wanted to put the conversations first. By doing the research for the walking tours, I began to see that there’s this big black hole where you don’t see Black people at all. And then I began to realize that black hole encompasses even more than Black people. The first century of New York — where is that, as a lived experience? Where do you get a sense of how that looks? That’s a big, gaping hole for New York history, for American history, for everybody that was here.
EG: What’s the significance of the character cards you pass out at the beginning of each tour?
KW: The character cards make it mildly theatrical: everybody is asked to participate, so it’s not all on the tour guide to make everybody see the same range of characters. If you connect with that particular person, and that’s what you remember and hold onto, that is now your ticket to get back to that psychic space to understand the history better. And if you want, you can continue to have a vantage point from that particular person. I love meeting people who say, “I’ve still got my card. I held onto it.”
EG: What kinds of people do you usually get for the tours?
KW: Mostly New Yorkers, but also people who are familiar with walking tours. I’m just beginning to get people who have never gone on a walking tour. Early on, I really had a hard time getting Black people on the tour, because they didn’t understand what it was. Obama just got elected, and everything was fixed, right? I’m excited that it’s gotten more diverse. The tours have definitely gotten more brown, rainbow. We’re getting good texture.
EG: Do you get a lot of school groups for the Black Gotham tours?
KW: All the time. I think that talking to school groups is really critical, especially from a cultural standpoint, a political standpoint. They’re the ones who need to understand what has been suppressed, because they’re the ones who are not going to shy away from it. Which is why that child asked me that question: Where are the Black people? For her, it was obvious, but I didn’t see it. Because I’m so used to Black people’s stories not being told.
EG: Why are you so fascinated by the Ceasar’s Rebellion story?
KW: The Caesar story is so rich. It’s not fair. You’ve got a Black man named Caesar enslaved in British New York, planning slave rebellions, with compatriots that range from free Blacks to enslaved Blacks to usually some type of white accomplice. And this happens twice.
Caesar is like that Black person who just won’t go away. There are Black Caesars in the late 1600s, early 1700s, mid-1700s. At one point in time, that was one of the most popular names of Black men walking the streets of New York. But at the same time, they’re usually given these kinds of names — Caesar is classical, not an indigenous African name. So, a Black man in New York, plotting, rebelling, playing cards, shooting dice, perhaps sneaking into church: It’s so epic, easily made into a play, movie, or TV show.
EG: You like to point out that New York has a lot of historical continuities.
KW: The first time I described how New York was, I wasn’t thinking about how it looks now.
Imagine people who are a little better off than other people like them, who are working at the epicenter of an empire’s financial institutions. They dress nice, might be bilingual. They’re a little bit better off than the average person, and they know it. They’re comfortable, so they don’t want to rebel.
It’s one of those things that, once you say it, you stop and think what you said. There’s continuity.
EG: You’re talking about history, but you’re also describing the present.
KW: You’re talking about Black people who work in the Financial District right now. That’s why the history is so important to grapple with and grasp.
EG: Why is this particular time period in New York history so important?
KW: Imagine you’re working down here in Lower Manhattan, and you’re enslaved for life. Then there are people that come to town, and they are free and have property. There are free and enslaved Black people fighting together on the same side.
I think this history is actually more relevant than the Pilgrims. We claim that’s where we come from, but we don’t come from them. What did they do that was so culturally American? They left Holland, because it was too tolerant. They left England, because it was not tolerant enough. They get over to Massachusetts, they’re about to die of starvation, and Massasoit saves them. A generation later, they cut his son’s head off and parade it around town, because he wasn’t Christian. And they didn’t call themselves Pilgrims. That was projected on them as a brand a hundred years later.
But the Land of the Blacks, that is a true, concrete American story of people that were forced into slavery, captured by pirates at sea — epic! — came to the island under circumstances that are bewildering, learned new languages, freed themselves from the company, and become landowners and created a community that abolishes slavery and welcomes Dutch people to live with them as well. That’s the essence of what America is.
Black is a political situation. It’s not just skin color; it’s the people that came from the Diaspora and have these things in common. I didn’t get that from the melting pot; I got that from circumstances that I did not create. And so it’s real. It’s not a brand; it’s a political reality. Blackness is created by whiteness. But whiteness was created for commerce and to differentiate during the agrarian revolution, AKA slavery. Whiteness is a brand that has held.
EG: But it’s not going to hold on much longer?
KW: The president is a profoundly obvious white supremacist. It’s quintessential whitethink, which is, “we’re white Americans, this is our country.” But if you begin to look at it historically, you realize that America is trying to create an ethnicity that doesn’t exist. They’re trying to build off of these mythologies of the past. It’s damaging to act like this country belongs to one group more than another group.
EG: Are you looking to create international connections, too?
KW: I have a friend in London, and we’ve been putting together an itinerary to create new conversations with people in London about the connection between the Black experience on this side of the pond and over there. I’m doing the same thing with Kévi Donat, who has a Black Paris tour. To reconnect with the people that are all part of the same slave trade, but ending up in different parts of the world. Let’s lower our flags for a minute. Let’s connect and create culture and resiliency and just enjoy each other. And share information to become smarter, more dynamic people.
The Black Gotham Experience is located at 192 Front Street. Public tours start back up in April, but in the meantime, you can book a private tour or pre-order the first installment of the graphic novel series here.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better describe the geography of New York City.