Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections from a Native Daughter

'have you heard what happened to williamsburgh?' by lab nyc, march 2014

New York is a city of change and there is little room for nostalgia.  Memories often get bulldozed to the ground, with new, seemingly everlasting monuments, rearing its glittering and glitzy head from the concrete up to the skies, for the next fabulous generation to arrogantly pass it by.  There is little space for taking walks down memory lane – often such excursions will merely reveal pathways to the future and recollections with no place to anchor anymore.  If you can’t tolerate change, New York is not for you.  Someone once told me they overheard one tourist remark to the other, “New York will be great when they finish building it.”

New York is the city of eternal change. But there are some things that seem to remain the same, although they too are changing, albeit at a pace tantamount to the birthing of mountains.  You see this change in the neighborhoods of Harlem, where 145th Street and Broadway reveal stretches of asphalt one would expect to find in Beirut.   There has been no visible war here, just the vestiges of the results of lack of access, institutional exclusivity and neglect.  But talking about such things in New York can be a tricky affair.

There is wealth here, just as there is abject poverty.  There are the neighborhoods that remind you that for many, recession is just a perhaps something you read about in biology textbooks (something to do with genes).  There are other New Yorkers, who burst through the grind, on the other end of the gamut, shining through because to have just been able to surface through the pressure means that, by default you are among the best.  You see this in the young boys who get on subways with their speakers and dance elegantly among seemingly disinterested commuters. Nowhere else is talent so disregarded.  In this respect, New York has not changed much.

There is Forte Green, a neighborhood that once boasted a solid Black middle class.  It still exists, but with the exponential growth of Brooklyn rent the neighborhood can’t help but boast a few wine bars, parks full of dogs instead of Project-reared children, and the omnipresence of the invasion of the hipster, sushi bars and all.

Williamsburgh has devolved into another entity unto itself.  Where once cheap rent could be had for the financially creative and lower-middle class families seemed to have a foothold, now it can be said that we merely paved the way to a new kind of conquest that clutter the skies with high-rent buildings for the privilege.  For sure such changes are welcomed by many, but I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness when I wonder, where do the poor go?

You see them, telling their truths, on the streets of Bushwick, where the invasion continues. You see them in BedStuy where, if you do want to own a piece of real estate in Brooklyn the brokers will tell you that it is the new Williamsburgh – the codeword for classy, artsy, and yes, not riddled with poverty.  And have no fear if there is a bit of poverty – it offers that NYC authenticity that the Europeans love to see, and just as they tire of it, the poor here too will be swept off to who knows where? Jails perhaps? Yes, there are a few things that don’t change in New York.
It’s an enigma to be able to say that you are from New York. Or in my case Brooklyn.  The Brooklyn that I know is no longer there.  Instead there are espresso bars and bearded fellows whose look is uncomfortably too close to those who historically never liked us. And by us, I mean those of us whose reflection continues to disappear behind the façade of what it now means to be from New York- a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

There is always a thick sense of melancholy I find myself battling when I return home.  It’s a result of the push and pull between the two extremes I often find myself inhabiting. The lure of the modern conveniences and luxuries that crop up and the general realities that many from my socio-economic background, particularly people of color, seem to be experiencing.   There is the excitement of meeting up with friends for whom the new success has embraced,  and there is a sense of sadness for those who through a variety of variables seem to be confined to a system of very little access and opportunity.   It is the melancholy that springs forth when it is once again realized that for many, change has not truly occurred, and if it did, it has not been for the better.   

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Does Denmark Have a Race Problem by Philip Pfeiffer

'Hitler' by thelab, Berlin, Germany 2010
(I had the pleasure of "teaching" the following writer years ago during my sojourn in Hellerup (that's a book unto itself). I was really proud of him when he sent me the following he recently wrote for his school's (Copenhagen Business School) blog. )

I grew up in the Whiskeybelt, north of Copenhagen. On Friday afternoons in spring, old women in mink coats strolled along the park and Filipino nannies wheeled toddlers around. There was kartoffelsalat,and øllebrød, and Disney Sjov på DR1, and before bed we would steal the salted licorice Mom kept in the cabinet and wonder if she’d ever notice. My childhood could have been a Danish Norman Rockwell painting (Nordmand Stenbrønd?). Except, Norman Rockwell never painted two Asian kids with white parents.
I was adopted from a South Korean town called Masan when I was three months old. I was two when we flew to Seoul to adopt my little sister. That’s the full extent of my Asian heritage, really. I’ve never “felt” Asian (whatever that means). As a kid, my race was a weird concept to wrap my head around: that I was treated as different though I’d never felt that way; that someone could dislike or dismiss me based on something as arbitrary as the shape of my eyes. Particularly in primary school, where kids roam unbridled by political correctness or human decency. Every day was like a fucking chapter of Lord of the Flies. I used to think that if Satan felt like Hell needed a re-brand, Kildegård Privatskole would be the perfect name. I was eight the first time I got beat up. He was a few years older than me, twelve years old, I think. I’d never talked to him before. He slid my face along the asphalt and broke my glasses and asked me how I was gonna see out of my chink eyes now. When my parents informed the administration, they were politely told that racism was not a factor at Kildegård Privatskole, and to please stop pestering them. I was nine when I moved to Copenhagen International School.
And there, I was happy. There were children from America, and China, and Germany, and there were even a few Danish kids, too. My mother told me, on the way to my first day at school, that if anyone tried to bully me because of my race, all the other Asian kids would come to my defense. And though, sadly, I never witnessed a WestSide Story-style racial gang war between toddlers, I was never bullied. I learnt that it was okay to be Asian, to look different. I learnt that being Asian and being Danish were not mutually exclusive. I was happy. I was sheltered.
A few years later, an acquaintance from a nearby Danish gymnasium (high school) assured me that, no, racism didn’t exist at his school: he went on to tell me about the sole black kid in his class, named “The Nigger” by his fellow classmates, and explained very matter-of-factly to me that he was “a person, like anyone else.” The irony, of course, being that people are usually called by their first names, not a racial slur. It made me really sad to think of that kid, having to accept being debased like that on a daily basis. There was no one who could relate to him, no one willing to put their neck out and go against the grain for him. They didn’t see anything wrong with it.They’d told themselves that “Oh, no, he’s one of us, even if he is black,” and felt that was good enough for them to treat him as they pleased.  Maybe he’d even convinced himself of the same. I got sadder just thinking about it.
People of minority descent confront this sentiment daily. If we object, if we ask people not to addressus in a disrespectful manner, we’re told to grow a sense of humor and that we’re being oversensitive. We’re told that political correctness is one of the evils in society, supposedly created by Satan and globalization-crazed Americans to enslave us and rob us of our freedom to insult who we want. We’re told that, since there is no ill intent behind racial comments, it’s our fault if we happen to find them offensive.
In country where 90% of the population is of Danish ancestry, the perspectives of ethnic and racial minorities are largely unheard, and not well understood. The problems that we, the minorities, face are often marginalized or ignored. Our concerns about race are often brushed aside or attributed to oversensitivity on our part. But the fact is that racial minorities do experience life from a different point of view. We are reminded of our “otherness” every time we step into a room. Being different is a decision made by others on our behalf. And there’s a great sense of frustration in being defined and categorized as an “other” when you’re not.
I’ve been told that if I have a problem with race, it’s my own fault, that it’s all in my head. I have been told this exclusively by white people. The reason is obvious, and, at heart, no fault of theirs. They can’t relate to those frustrations, because their race is invisible to them. They’ve never been told they did not belong because of how their eyes looked. They don’t hear racial remarks slung at them on a night out. Discrimination and microaggressions are terms they read about in textbooks, not experience on a day-to-day basis. The alienation and frustration that comes with being non-white in Copenhagen is inaccessible to them. On a rational level, yes, I think most people can understand the pain that casual and overt racism causes. But to empathize is another matter entirely, and the unfortunate fact is that in general the racial majority in Denmark has no way of relating to that kind of pain, nor an inclination to understand it.
The issue is further exacerbated by a cultural acceptance of casual racism. Our culture has never been particularly sensitive to race and is at times downright hostile to the idea of political correctness. We still bemoan the death of our right to call chocolate-coated marshmallow treats “Niggerballs,” as if it were some kind of divine right bestowed upon us by the Goddess of Free Speech. There exists a pervading sense in our culture that if there is no ill intent behind a slur, it cannot be construed as disrespectful: that it is a conscious choice to be offended. It seems to be a memetic thought, contagious because it absolves the hegemony from guilt and responsibility. It is victim-blaming nonsense, and, moreover, a self-righteous and arrogant notion. This kind of willful insensitivity towards minorities allows racism to be tacitly present in our culture.
I would like to close by saying that my intent is not to demonize Danish culture, nor am I trying to victimize myself. These are simply the facts of living as a minority in a historically racially homogeneous society. Part of living as a minority in Copenhagen is learning to accept that I will be subjected to ignorant behavior at times, and that few people will be able to understand why it upsets me. I’ve had to learn not to get jaded, learn to understand and accept where that ignorance comes from, learn to remind myself of the Danes that do understand. Most importantly, I’ve come to realize that ignorance is not always an expression of malicious intent. In fact, the opposite usually seems to be the case. It took me almost a decade to recognize that I could be both Danish and foreign-looking: it would be unfair of me to expect the same of others. But, it sure would be nice.
About the Author : 
Philip is a second-year BSc International Business student, and in his spare time reads stuff written by Hunter S Thompson, Dan Turéll, and Bob Dylan (separately, not co-authored).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

History of Slavery in New York City

from sovereign beings to shackled souls back to sovereign beings, Marie D. Brown artifacts, Harlem, NYC 2014

Slavery in New York began when the Dutch West India Company imported 11 African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626, with the first slave auction being held in New Amsterdam in 1655. The British expanded the use of slavery, and in 1703, more than 42 percent of New York City households held slaves, often as domestic servants and laborers. Others worked as artisans or in shipping and various trades in the city. Slaves were also used in farming on Long Island and in other locations of the state.
During the American Revolutionary War, the British troops occupied New York City in 1776. The Crownpromised freedom to slaves who left rebel masters and thousands moved to the city for refuge with the British. By 1780, 10,000 blacks lived in New York. Many were slaves who had escaped there from slaveholders in North and South.
After the American Revolution, the New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785 to work for the abolition of slavery and for aid to free blacks. The state passed a 1799 law for gradual abolition; after that date, children born to slave mothers were free but required to work an extended period as indentured servants into their twenties. Existing slaves kept their status. All remaining slaves were finally freed on July 4, 1827.
Chattel slavery in the geographical area of the present-day U.S. state of New York began in 1626, when a shipment of 11 Africans was unloaded into New Amsterdam harbor from a ship of the Dutch West India Company. Before this time, the company had tried to encourage Dutch agricultural laborers to immigrate to and populate New Netherlands. This experiment was unsuccessful, as most immigrants wanted to accrue greater income in the lucrative fur trade and return to their home country in luxury.
The company turned to slavery, which was already well established in the Dutch colonies in the CaribbeanSoutheast Asia, and Southern Africa. For more than two decades after the first shipment, the Dutch West India Company was dominant in the importation of slaves from the coasts of West and Central Africa. While the majority of slaves were sent to the sugar plantations of the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, a number of slaves were imported directly from the company's stations in Angola to New Netherlands. They were used to clear forests, lay roads, and provide other heavy work and public services to the colony.
The lack of workers in the colony led to the company's over-reliance on African slaves. While the slaves laid the foundations of the future New York, they were described by the Dutch as "proud and treacherous", a stereotype for African-born slaves.[1] The Dutch West India Company relaxed its monopoly and allowed New Netherlanders to ship slaves back to Angola. They began to import more numerous "seasoned" African slaves from the sugar colonies of the Caribbean.
By 1644, some slaves had earned a half-freedom in New Amsterdam and were able to earn wages.[2] According to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem adopted from southern colonies, the children born to enslaved women were considered born into slavery, regardless of the ethnicity or status of the father.[1]

English rule[edit]

In 1664, the English took over New Amsterdam and the colony. They continued to import slaves to support the work needed. Enslaved Africans performed a wide variety of skilled and unskilled jobs, mostly in the burgeoning port city and surrounding agricultural areas. In 1703 more than 42% ofNew York City's households held slaves, a percentage higher than in the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, and second only to Charleston in the South.[3]
As in other slaveholding societies, the city was swept by periodic fears of slave revolt. Incidents were misinterpreted under such conditions. In what was called the New York Conspiracy of 1741, city officials believed a revolt had started. Over weeks, they arrested more than 150 slaves and 20 white men, trying and executing several, in the belief they had planned a revolt. Historian Jill Lepore believes whites unjustly accused and executed many blacks in this event.[4]
In 1991, the remains of 400 Africans from the colonial era were uncovered during excavation for the Foley Square Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Construction was delayed so the site and some of the remains could be appropriately evaluated by archeologists and anthropologists. Scholars have estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans were buried during the 17th and 18th centuries in the cemetery in lower Manhattan, making it the largest colonial cemetery for Africans in North America.
This discovery demonstrated the large-scale importance of slavery and African Americans to New York and national history and economy. The African Burial Ground has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and a National Monument for its significance. A memorial and interpretive center for the African Burial Ground have been created to honor those buried and to explore the many contributions of African Americans and their descendants to New York and the nation.[5] These sites opened in 2007, followed by a Visitor Center in 2010.

American Revolution[edit]

Runaway slave advertisement (1778).
African Americans fought on both sides in the American Revolution. Many slaves chose to fight for the British, as they were promised freedom by General Carleton in exchange for their service. After the British occupied New York City in 1776, slaves escaped to their lines for freedom. The black population in New York grew to 10,000 by 1780, and the city became a center of free blacks in North America.[2] The fugitives included Deborah Squash and her husband Harvey, slaves of George Washington, who escaped from his plantation in Virginia and reached freedom in New York.[2]
In 1781 the state of New York offered slaveholders a financial incentive to assign their slaves to the military, with the promise of freedom at war's end for the slaves. In 1783, black men made up one-quarter of the rebel militia in White Plains, who were to march to Yorktown, Virginia for the last engagements.[2]
By the Treaty of Paris (1783), the United States required that all American property, including slaves, be left in place, but General Guy Carleton followed through on his commitment to the freedmen. When the British evacuated from New York, they took 3,000 freedmen with them for resettlement, mostly in Nova Scotia and other colonies.[2] A joint board of enquiry atFraunces Tavern failed to find evidence of enslavement for most of the Negroes who had fought in the King's cause.[citation needed]
The Book of Negroes lists the 3,000 Black Loyalists who left with the British in 1783 to resettle in Nova Scotia (now Maritime Canada), England, and other parts of the British Empire. With British support, in 1793 a large group of these Black Britons moved on from Nova Scotia to create an independent colony in Sierra Leone to escape discrimination and other conditions in Canada. They were the ancestors of the Krios, Sierra Leone Creole people.


In the aftermath of the Revolution, men assessed slavery against the revolutionary ideals and many, in the North especially, increased their support for abolitionism. In 1781, the state legislature voted to free those slaves who had fought with the rebels during the Revolution. Abolition was not achieved for several years, but the legislature passed a law making the process of manumission easier, and numerous slaveholders individually freed their slaves.
The New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785, and worked to prohibit the international slave trade and to achieve abolition. It established theAfrican Free School in New York City, the first formal educational institution for blacks in North America. It served both free blacks and the children of slaves. The school expanded to seven locations and produced some brilliant alumni, who advanced to higher education and prominent careers. These included James McCune Smith, who gained his medical degree with honors at the University of Glasgow after being denied admittance to two New York colleges. He returned to practice in New York and also published numerous articles in medical and other journals.[2]
By 1790 one in three blacks in New York state was free. Especially in areas of concentrated population, such as New York City, they organized as an independent community, with their own churches, benevolent and civic organizations, and businesses that catered to their interests.[2]
Steps toward abolition of slavery accumulated, but the legislature also took steps back. Slavery was important economically, both in New York City and in agricultural areas. In 1799, the legislature passed a law for gradual abolition. It declared children of slaves born after July 4, 1799 to be legally free, but the children had to serve an extended period of indentured servitude: to the age of 28 for males and to 25 for females. Slaves born before that date were redefined as indentured servants but essentially continued as slaves for life.[6]
African Americans' participation as soldiers in defending the state during the War of 1812 added to public support for their full rights to freedom. In 1817, the state freed all slaves born before July 4, 1799 (the date of the gradual abolition law), to be effective in 1827. It continued with the indenture of children born to slave mothers until their 20s, as noted above.[6] On July 4, 1827, the African-American community celebrated final emancipation in the state with a long parade through New York City.
New York residents were less willing to give blacks equal voting rights. By the constitution of 1777, voting was restricted to free men who could satisfy certain property requirements for value of real estate. This property requirement disfranchised poor men among both blacks and whites. The reformed Constitution of 1821 conditioned suffrage for black men by maintaining the property requirement, which most could not meet, so effectively disfranchised them. The same constitution eliminated the property requirement for white men and expanded their franchise.[6] No women yet had the vote in New York. "As late as 1869, a majority of the state's voters cast ballots in favor of retaining property qualifications that kept New York's polls closed to many blacks. African-American men did not obtain equal voting rights in New York until ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870."[6]

Civil War[edit]

According to the 1860 census, on the verge of the American Civil War, 49,005 free colored lived in New York state, out of a total population of 3,880,735. The state's population had been transformed from the 1840s by extensive immigration particularly from Ireland, England and Germany. Shortly before the Civil War, 25 percent of New York City's population was born in Germany.
The 1863 New York Draft Riots were caused chiefly by Irish immigrants and their descendants, who attacked African Americans and their property in New York City, as well as the residences and businesses of known white abolitionists. The Irish resented being drafted for the American Civil War when wealthier men could pay for substitutes. They resented having to fight, as they saw it, on behalf of people with whom they competed daily for wages in low-skilled jobs. In the riot, the mostly Irish mobs killed 100 blacks and burned many buildings to the ground, including the Colored Orphans Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. The children escaped harm, aided by Union troops in the city. Many African Americans from New York City enlisted to serve with the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy.
By 1870, the African-American population in New York had increased slightly, to 52,081. The state's population had grown markedly to 4,382,759, of which more than one million, nearly one quarter, were foreign born. Many of the new immigrants settled in and around New York City, their port of entry and a place with a variety of jobs.


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