Our minimester course – “Post-Racial Freedom: From Abolition to Stop and Frisk” – will explore the rich and complex history in New York City and it’s connection to these questions:
- What role has New York City played in both freedom and oppression?
- How has money been made throughout history and how has “Wall Street” shaped this?
- From Abolition to Stop and Frisk, have we made progress?
We will start with a tour of Plymouth Church, which played a fundamental part in New York City’s underground railroad activity. We’ll then visit the African Burial Ground National Monument where we’ll get an orientation to the exhibits, and have an opportunity for self led exploration of the center’s interactive elements. We’ll also learn about Five Points, the site of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots, and get a comprehensive tour of the New York Stock Exchange at Wall Street, culminating with a discussion with Yusef Salaam of The Central Park Five about the connections of this history to Stop and Frisk and present day.
African Burial Ground National Monument
New York Stock Exchange
FEBRUARY 12, 2014
The title of our mini-mester, Post-Racial Freedom? From Abolition to Stop and Frisk, challenges contemporary dominant modes of thinking about race in our culture. By tracing the continued oppressions of people of color, from the end of the Civil War to policing tactics, we explored how race has salient political meanings that frustrate the ideologies of “colorblindness” or being “beyond race.” The question, “post-racial freedom?” contains within it other questions: What is freedom? What is race? Are racial constructs and freedom mutually exclusive? Does freedom require being “post-racial”?We began the day at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, a stop on the underground railroad, where white woman (and parent of a BFS graduate) guided our tour. She described the work of the abolitionist preacher Henry Beecher, who held mock auctions to stimulate his congregation to buy enslaved people their freedom. She acknowledged that his tactic operated from a racist framework—he used white-looking mixed race enslaved girls because their physical similarity to whiteness enabled his white congregants to identify with them and have empathy for the enslaved. I wondered what makes white people want to work against racism and if the motivations have changed from then until now.We sat in in the pews of the church, where Dr. King in early 1963 gave a speech similar to his famous “I Have A Dream” delivered at the March on Washington. She showed us the basement where runaway enslaved people hid for safety in their journey further north. We had a moment of silence in the space to reflect on their fortitude and bravery, and the role of both white and black abolitionists to work against slavery.Next, we went to the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. A white tour guide, this time a man, explained the under-told history of African people in New York City, including the fact that the first non-indigenous settler of the city was a man of African descent from the Dominican Republic. His narration made very clear the role of black resistance and revolt against slavery, which was legal in New York until 1827. In fact, Brooklyn was the second largest slave-owning city in the colonies at the time. He pointed out that New York had 202 years of slavery, more years than we’ve had of “freedom.” The early African-Americans in New York filed lawsuits against enslavement, resulting in land grants of much of lower Manhattan, hence the development of a large cemetery. When the remains of the African burial ground were discovered during the early 1990s construction of a federal building, it again took a long legal and political battle to get the site declared a national park. Many bodies remain under the buildings of lower Manhattan, a literal symbol of how American wealth is built through and on the stolen bodies of African peoples.With that in mind, it was ironic to me that our next stop was the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. This was the most challenging part of the trip for me. I am critical of the financial system and economic order of neoliberal capitalism, which turns everything and everybody into a profit-making venture. As we passed through the security checkpoint, I noticed a picture of the U.S. Military with the caption “we’re too busy to occupy Wall Street.” Nationalist and militaristic imagery were woven into the fabric of the institution, a symbol of how the U.S. market and military dominance are imbricated. As someone who participated in Occupy Wall Street, I felt like I was walking into the belly of the beast.
We toured a fancy conference room and the trading floor, clearly still dominated by mostly white men. We had lunch and talked with two African-American people who work on Wall Street in media and human relations (also known as “human capital,” a perverse reflection of the human capital of enslavement). They described some of the prejudices they face and how they arrived at this line of work. I asked about their response to Occupy Wall Street’s protests regarding growing wealth inequality. One rejected the critique that Wall Street is the source of economic problems, a mystifying answer to me since bankers’ goal of profit-making not only lead to the financial speculation and faulty mortgages which cost millions of people their jobs and homes, it also breeds the institutional practices that put profit over people’s needs. While it may be useful for our students to see women and people of color entering a field they’ve long been denied access to, I think we must also be critically questioning of the kinds of power relations our current economic system engenders. There is a direct relationship between poverty, exploitation, the oppression of people of color around the world, and the institution of Wall Street, which many renowned scholars including Cornel West, David Harvey, and others, have clearly documented in their research and scholarship. In my eyes, no amount of gender and racial diversity at that institution undoes the exploitation it foments through putting money and capital ahead of human needs and dignity. As we took photos, we stopped saying freedom and started saying money. I wondered what is the relationship between freedom and money? Does rising to power through acquiring money equate freedom for all, or even freedom for the individual?
We finished the day hearing from Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five convicted for a crime he didn’t commit when he was only sixteen years old. His description of how media sensationalism, racial stereotypes, racist policing and legal prosecution, was painful and still relevant, as media coverage began last week on a trial for another black teenager killed because a white person felt “afraid” (Jordan Davis in Florida). Mr. Salaam’s fortitude in prison was inspiring and I was curious about how his faith functioned to make sense of what happened to him. Most moving to me was when he recited the spoken word poem he read at his sentencing, which angered the judge so much he received a harsher sentence. His beautiful poetry, and his bravery in speaking truth to power, should help all of us find our courageous voices. –Jesse Phillips-Fein
FEBRUARY 12, 2014
As I reflected back on the day and thought about what I wanted to communicate; I saw a collage. This verbal collage, cut and pasted in my mind’s eye: some sections overlapping. I envision it, like a sort of visual jazz piece to be dense and rhythmic in some areas and silent absolutely hair raisingly silent in others. For some things there are no words.
There are no words for hearing a man speak who was wrongfully jailed.
Robbed of innocence, caught in a matrix of racism, in New York in my time.
I remember the news, the horror of a woman raped- Central Park, 1989. The men who were caught. One now sits beside me. Gentle, seemingly un-corrupted. What got him through? Faith? His Muslim Faith? I am a Jewish woman. Listening. He is a black man. It is my generation that imprisoned him. I hear his story. He is speaking to our students. They are the same age as he was- then- they could be him. What has changed?
I stand in my “backyard” and there are no words for knowing that the church I have passed so many times was a hiding place for people, enslaved, running for freedom. That a preacher spoke from the pulpit, risked his life; even at gun-point to speak his mind, while I stay silent sometimes because I don’t want to rock the boat. There is a woman who came back to the church because her life was saved, because she was light skinned and people could relate. They could see her as their daughter. And they cried. And they gave valuables and she was freed. How many homes in my neighborhood hid people? How many homes had bank accounts in banks that owned plantations? What are the students whose skin is brown or black thinking right now? I ask myself feeling my own disequilibrium in this place.
The students- I talk to one young lady at the African burial ground. Her intelligence and sensitivity, delicate and strong; a force. She is in conversation with a woman she doesn’t know. Her generosity in talking to me, telling me things, teaching me. Another, sitting in the seat at the stock exchange- he looks like he is in his element. I see him there some day, but the barriers are many, still. What will they be like then? Will his spirit be broken by “little murders”? Will he break through? Three young woman- all three sitting in the seats of power. They seem shy but they go up, together they are stronger. Yet another, standing in the same spot at the church at the podium where Dr. King spoke. He is a leader. The students asking questions, making comments, poised and confident, thoughtful and reflective. I feel honored to know that they are Brooklyn Friends students and wish I had more opportunity to hear their reflections the next day.
Finally, I am home and I wonder why there were no white students on this trip today. I wonder about some of questions we have at Brooklyn Friends. About white guilt, about why we should spend so much time and resources on diversity and anti racist work. Today is the answer. What do want our world to be? Who do we want at our table? Whose stories do we want to hear? I want to walk in Brooklyn Heights or on Wall St and know there is a history. I want to live in a world where my friends have different experiences than my own and I want to hear their story. I can know my privilege as a white woman, that my jewish identity, my Israeli, Middle Eastern identity, my identity as a woman, a mother, are all part of me but that in that in my backyard a man can still be wrongfully convicted and have his life stolen, my children’s black friends will still be in the vast minority on Wall Street, and my friends raising their children of color think about things I never have to. So I am white and I am a white educator and I am a white administrator and I have the power to work with others to continue to fight racism as those before me have done. I want to know who those people are and I want to teach white children; the students in my care and my own children, that we still have work to do and we are not done. And I will tell them, it’s not about guilt but about making a difference. And I believe they can. – Maura Eden
FEBRUARY 12, 2014
Post-Racial Freedom: From Abolition to Stop and Frisk
Wednesday, February 5, 2014 is a day that will remain etched in my memory for many years to come. This day long event was such an empowering, enlightening and reaffirming experience from beginning to end! Our first stop along our journey was Plymouth Church. As we settled into the space and our tour began, I was able to feel the presence of “the ancestors”. Those who led the way for the freedom of enslaved Africans as well as those who were pioneers in the Civil Rights moment. Knowing that we were in a space that Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. visited was indeed encapsulating. Toward the end of our tour, we were led to the basement of the church that served as a stop for enslaved Africans as they attempted to escape slavery in search of their freedom. We stood on the dirt where they once stood and paused for a moment of silence as we honored their strength, courage and bravery. The emotions that I felt in that moment, can not be translated into words.
We continued on our journey to the African Burial Ground. We learned about this historic site in Manhattan that provides information about the enslaved Africans that are part on New York City’s history. As we traveled, I watched our US students and listened to the questions that they asked our tour guides. I was able to feel their thirst for knowledge through this experience which could not be received through a textbook! Our next and final stop on our journey was the NYSE. As we toured the floor of the exchange with Ms. Drunia Duvivier and her colleagues, we learned about stocks and trading. We were able to learn through the tour guide’s stories, what led them to the NYSE. The conversation was rich and thorough!
Our culminating activity consisted of lunch with our tour guides, Ms. Duvivier and the amazing opportunity to meet and talk with Yusef Salaam. Yusef Salaam shared his experience as one of the Central Park five. He spoke about his experience as a 15 year old boy, accused of a crime that he did not commit and spending time in prison. One of the things that he talked about was that an essential part of his childhood was taken away never to be returned to him. Some of the things that many of us take for granted like dating or going to the prom are things that he never had the chance to experience.
We started out on our day’s journey with the questions:
Post-Racial Freedom – From Abolition to Stop and Frisk – How much progress has been made?? Are things different now??
The only answer that comes to mind is:
The system may have changed shape yet the old practices are still in use, manifesting in a different form. – Orinthia Swindell
Another Black – AmeriKKKlan Experience…
FEBRUARY 5, 2014
Wow, what an experience for me….. my goodness, how can people not see?
It’s absolutely a clearer, more complex, strong, and blurry message of three…
(1) Black: Powerful. Survivor. Fighter. Forgiver. Intellectual. Money Maker. Risk Taker. An Earth-Quaker.
(2) American: We are the original founding mothers, fathers, pioneers and builders of this great nation.
How many know?
How many care?
Just thankful for the 28 days we can share!
(3) KKKlan had/has a plan. They were/are deter-maned… to destroy these humans.Too many participated, too many never hesitated, too many have benefitted since they originated. KKKlan is stronger and more covert today. They still snatching folks innocence away. You tell me, how do you survive? How do you thrive? How do you stay? Excuse me why I pray! Almighty… will they ever pay, i mean today, …them Brothas their time back? Another Black! – AmeriKKKlan Experience! Now Breath. Now Silence. Now Action! – Dr. Eddie Moore Jr.