Nothing is Just...There
Updated: Jun 15
Carter G. Woodson's home. Washington D.C., 2021
Define Enclave: a portion of territory within or surrounded by a more extensive environment whose inhabitants are culturally or ethnically distinct.
This word has me wrapped around its finger.
As I trace the echoes of our ancestors on my historical journeys, I find that despite our attempts to commune, collect, gather, unionize, and establish foundations. These powers be decided repeatedly that we were unincorporated, stateless, and boundless even while bounded.
And so, I cling to the word enclave because collectivism cannot be stripped from us in memory and the present day. We will always echo where we once were, and where we stand, we will continue to be.
I'm from New York:
Land of the Lenape people who were violently pushed out of their foundations.
A place that was once the second-largest port for enslaved people next to Charleston, South Carolina.
The home of the New York Knickerbockers, a basketball team, named for Dutch settlers who "partially freed" those they enslaved and then gave them a patch of land to bury their ancestors, still under a "fashionable" Soho.
I'm from a city that's tried unsuccessfully to bury its Black enclaves to no avail because like Maya--we rise.
Unearthing enclaves is my work.
It is essential and challenging work, but I'd be lying if I said the keys to bringing the stories to the surface are not all around us.
Nothing is just there.
I first said this quote on a call with a publisher who'd go on to reject my work because he felt "fiction was more my forte."
He sat up on the Zoom call, smiled at my then literary agent and me, and asked, "How do you find these things? I've read some of your threads, and you say that often it's just a feeling when we both know it's more of a science."
I smirked back, "We? You mean you. I wholeheartedly mean that. Sometimes it is just a feeling."
He rolled his eyes, forgetting I could see his ass on Zoom, "I mean...what makes you keep moving forward with the search."
"Well, nothing is just...there. Everything has a history."
His smile returned, "Ah yes! That's a great book title. It would be best if you named the book that. I can't wait to hear more."
Plot Twist: He didn't wait to hear more.
I didn't take his advice on naming the book yet, but I knew it would make a damn good blog.
Despite how he felt about how audiences would receive my work *laughs in millions of unique Twitter impressions per month*, I knew I had a tribe that sought to read each journey's trials and triumphs, research alongside me, and resurface the truth.
The truth is that Seneca Village was not the only village eradicated in Central Park when the government and journalists decided that NYC should have an enormous park----like those all the rage in Europe.
Pigtown and York Hill were in "Central Park" too. Pigtown, another integrated community, was evicted at the same time as Seneca Village, alongside several small villages whose names we might never know.
York Hill's Black residents had already moved to Seneca Village years before their second eviction when their space was destroyed for a reservoir.
New York Daily Herald, June 26, 1853
Journalists proclaimed that the city needed lungs.
I imagined the Black people who fled to the grounds between W 82nd and W 89th from Lower Manhattan because they were being discriminated against, tortured, hung, and their properties burned…I imagined, for them, it was hard to breathe.
While many people know of The Draft Riots, where many of the Irish people of New York City terrorized Black Americans almost a decade after Seneca Village, and its contemporaries were dismantled, they have yet to understand that the Draft Riots were a violent intermission during a showcase of generational racism and torture.
Before Seneca Village's existence, founded by Black families seeking refuge on undeveloped land in the 1800s, a glance through New York City's archives will highlight how Black Americans were violently attacked by other communities who feared losing out on jobs if Black folx accepted smaller wages.
While New York had begun gradual emancipation in 1799, Blackbirders from the south crossed state lines and often captured Black people minding their business who'd forgotten their paperwork or identification at home.
Feel familiar? Sound familiar?
The properties willing to rent to Black Americans in Lower Manhattan often placed them on top of one another, making them susceptible to diseases that ravaged entire families.
And then they found a space, away from most of the chaos—surrounded by birchwood and stillness—-where they could cultivate the land, build churches, teach their children, and bury their dead in peace–an area of NYC sparsely populated at this point.
A place where they could breathe.
I was counting breaths before I had to teach a class of over fifty 6th-grade children. Instead, two cohorts–25+ children in each–were merged under the guise of a "humanities class" in the parent newsletter.
The truth was many educators left the school after the first quarter, frustrated at being micromanaged, constantly pushed to overtest, and a lack of reflection on students and themselves within the curriculum.
I had to teach both an English and History class in a teacher's lounge turned into a classroom to accommodate the whole group. The teacher's lounge faced Central Park, and students often asked me questions that were not in the mandated curriculum, "Since you're the history teacher now…tell us what was there before Central Park?"
At that moment, I decided to teach my students about Seneca Village and other nearby Black and integrated enclaves for a few lessons. Damn the mandate. I would do it smack dab in the middle of Ancient Civilizations.
Were these Black enclaves not mini civilizations, sprawling Reconstruction-era Wakandas?
Were we not still learning terminology connected to what the inhabitants lived and endured?
Essential vocabulary like migrate, afterlife, and myths…
Migrate: Were thriving African farmers not asked to evacuate what is now Washington Square Park for a potter's field intended for their bodies? Were Black inhabitants not forced to migrate from Lower Manhattan because they feared for their lives? Did they not relocate to Newtown (now Elmhurst), Black Dublin (now Flushing), Long Island, and upstate because they were evicted from the park? Did they not build foundations wherever they went, watching next generations sprout from their labor…until they were moved again. Is that not migration too?
Afterlife: Did we not believe in a higher power? Did we not thrust ourselves into the ocean, hoping our spirit would find its way home? Did we not build our churches with our hands and welcome all in with the same palms? Did we not place our loved ones in the African Burial Ground with rings, scarves, and coins, hoping our people would have what they needed in the afterlife?
Myths: Had people not treated us like we were one? Like we did not exist everywhere you stepped in this city? Like fragments of our innovations, compassion, and proof of purchase were not buried deep in the archives?
And so, I am here to equip you.
I aim to teach you that you only be armed with foresight and willingness to understand that we've been learning about a country that never existed.
I aim to show you that we have never been solely struggling but that Black folx have been building ourselves back up to the splendor we hailed from on the west coast of The Motherland, time and time again.
I aim to immerse you in the notion that NOTHING is just...there.
This is my objective—word to my educator spirit.
You will learn to spot African Methodist Episcopal Churches in the neighborhood you've been taught has historically been all-white.
In cemeteries with large endowments, you will learn that burial grounds sometimes have hidden and unkempt sectors with names on headstones barely visible.
You will discover these are often the segregated resting places of kin, ancestors, and Civil War soldiers who freed themselves.
You will learn that there are remnants of thriving Black towns in your county's artificial reservoirs.
You will learn that Black folx are nuanced, layered, and complex outside the single stories in which white voices are often centered.
You will learn that every time one of our communities was destroyed, another Black settlement put their arms across the street grids that came to divide us and said, "Come home."
You will learn that our story never started nor ended with enslavement and that we created cities within cities within cities.
Or enclaves, if you will.
I wanted to teach my students about the Black enclaves thriving in New York City and beyond–in the physical and in memory. Still, I had trouble finding much of the information I needed to understand the whole story.
This is what led me to this work—this unearthing.
So join me on my quest to piece our stories together and watch me...
Place them in chronological order.
Underline names and antiquated terms.
Visit the locations mentioned.
Take photos of the now.
Listen in as I speak to descendants.
Pull narratives, hopes, and lineages from census records, receipts, deeds, and birth certificates.
Everything is connected to our story.
Nothing is just...there.