For African Americans, A Path Through Art To Missing Histories

On a gray Saturday afternoon in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Atim Oton drew a map. But instead of landmasses, she wrote capitalized words, connecting them with wiggly arrows. TRINIDAD, YAMS, BLUE, BOYSIE, ANNETTE, she wrote. Separately, the words don’t mean much. But together, they suggest a snapshot of Oton’s family history.

Oton, a curator, designer, and entrepreneur, stood in front of a group of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents gathered at Brooklyn Public Library’s Macon branch on February 8th to map their personal histories and learn about their heritage. They’re calling their efforts the 1619 Community Art Project.

In a world increasingly obsessed with DNA sequences, genes, and ancestry, African Americans with family histories scrambled by slavery often rely on family names, foods, language, religious traditions, and memories to make sense of their interrupted stories. For a people whose heritage has been systematically suppressed, such resources become rich fonts of information. And the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library has been trying to help residents learn how to access such history-building tools.

“I’m a descendant of US slavery and I find that our history is kind of diluted,” said Nailah Manns, president of the Friends of Macon Library, who helped organize the event. “It’s not really understood and the descendants are still here.”

In December of 2019, after the Brooklyn Public Library charged its branches with commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in America, the Macon branch hosted its first 1619 Community Art Project. The result was an elaborate collage that is still displayed in their African-American Heritage Center—the only room of its kind throughout the Brooklyn Public Library system, according to Manns.

Residents use fabric and markers to create a historical collage/Photo by Currie Engel for NYCityLens

Now, during Black History Month, the library is again celebrating the neighborhood’s heritage with another community art project, helping residents reshape and reframe their histories using resources other than DNA tests and official records. (In addition to a lack of documentation of black lives, some African Americans say they are also wary of DNA testing because of historical events like the Tuskegee syphilis study that exploited black bodies for medical research.)

Oton was there to offer an alternative.

Residents arrived laden with books, toys, and memories of their grandparents, responding to the library’s offer to create historical connection through interpretive collages. The event brought together the oldest members of the community and children no older than four. But the lesson was less about art than about the importance of documenting history.

Reneé Williams, 70, has lived in Bed-Stuy her whole life. She knows the neighborhood inside out, having worked and lived here for seven decades. With two great grandsons, it is important to her that this history—her history—is recorded and understood. 

“There are certain words that stay,” Oton told those gathered.  She asked residents to share family stories about food. “What is one story? Is it about baking?” she asked. One woman at the front offered up a memory of cooking sweet potatoes in a pit in the ground with her family. “That’s African!” Oton said, pointing out the similarities between sweet potatoes and the traditional preparation of yams in Africa. “If you want to know what your roots are, you have to know what your family cooked, ate,” she said. “Did anybody ever have anything rolled up in a leaf as a child?” It took the room a few seconds before anyone responded.

Oton passed out large sheets of paper. She encouraged residents to jot down nicknames, family names, towns— anything that came to mind. “It’s important to write that name,” she said. Slowly the white space filled with words: Jackson, New York, Charleston, Durham, Cape Charles. Speedy, Penny, Niecy.

Atim Oton presents her example to residents/Photo by Currie Engel for NYCityLens

As the group bent over their papers, an older woman at the back began to color on a scrap of bright pink fabric. She explained that the electric pink and green colors reminded her of her grandmother’s dress and the roses she grew.

“This is excellent, excellent stuff,” said Reggie Sylvester, a 60-year-old musician who wandered into the room after overhearing the presentation. Sylvester has lived four blocks away from the library his whole life, and remembers being here before he was old enough to go to school. “This is my Grenada stuff,” he said, motioning to the names and arrows on his paper, which referred to his family members and their  geographical roots.

When they finished, Oton presented and then carefully organized each collage on a table, creating a patchwork of marker, paint, and shapes. The more time residents spent in the room, the more stories and memories they shared.

A woman works on her art project depicting important places in her family/Photo by Currie Engel for NYCityLens

Oton organizes the art collages created by residents to make a larger collage/Photo by Currie Engel for NYCityLens

PBS’s History Detectives home page suggests that “the most reliable records for the pre-Civil War era may be oral histories.” It is possible to find some documents related to African American relatives thanks to documentation from the Freedman’s Bureau and the U.S. National Archives, but often, the separation of families and gaps in official documentation leave big holes in family histories.

This past October, while reporting on the descendants of enslaved Americans, USA TODAY reporter Deborah Berry realized she shared family roots with the African-American family she was reporting on. She recognized a connection between her family’s surnames and the general geographic locations of her subject’s family. “The story I stumbled into by pure luck or divine intervention wasn’t just another story, it was connected to my own,” Berry writes. Her extensive research helped her find out about her own family and lineage—all because she paid attention to names.

It doesn’t help African Americans in their search for history that many schools still lack proper curriculums for African American history. In an essay written for The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikita Stewart writes about a 2017 study by Southern Poverty Law Center which found that an alarming number of American students were “illiterate” on the topic of slavery. She also writes that almost 60 percent of teachers thought the discussion of slavery in textbooks was not adequate.

As a little girl, Williams said she was bussed from Bed-Stuy to school in Queens. “You don’t learn your black history,” she said of her school days. “A lot of people don’t like to admit this but I was actually much older learning anything about black history.”

But Williams was there in the library to learn and to celebrate her heritage. And besides, she said, she liked connecting with her neighbors and hearing their stories. Before the event was over, Williams had pulled two drums and an elaborate handmade doll from her bag, passing them around the table for others to see.