Carla L. Peterson

Black Gotham

A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City

Yale University Press 2013

New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network January 18, 2013 Sherry Johnson

Digging up our roots seems to be the thing these days.  There are a host of genealogy resources available for anyone who cares to (re)discover...

Digging up our roots seems to be the thing these days.  There are a host of genealogy resources available for anyone who cares to (re)discover their familial past.  Still, in the Americas people of African descent who want to take part in this digging encounter barriers; often there are gaps in the family histories of those whose members were bought and sold on a whim.   As she takes readers on a remarkable historical journey, Carla Peterson, author of Black Gotham:  A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (Yale University Press, 2011), illuminates the challenges of (re)discovering family histories and along the way, readers glean much about US national history.

Armed with determination, patience beyond measure, and with several doses of serendipity, Peterson, Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, takes her desire to return and find elements of her past to the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Her persistence reveals to readers a new view of nineteenth century Gotham, as Washington Irving called the city of New York.  For example, Black Gothamprovides support for social historians who would argue that the New Negro movement–often solely associated with the Harlem Renaissance–began in the ante-bellum era.  And, those interested in the education of free African Americans pre-1865 may find it fascinating that many of the 19th century’s black elite were a part of New York’s African Free School system–the Mulberry Street School, in particular.  Celebrated alumni include James McCune Smith, Alexander Crummell, Henry Highland Garnet, George Downing, the Reason brothers–Charles and Patrick–as well as Peterson’s great-great grandfather, Peter Guignon, and her great-grandfather, Philip White.  As Peterson rediscovers her paternal family’s New York history, she at times laments the obscurity to which the women in her family were relegated; she does her best to remedy this, however, as she uses facts and imagination to piece together their lives.

While the book divulges new perspectives on freedom–or the lack thereof–for black New Yorkers in the nineteenth century, it also is instructive with regards to methods of research for those who seek to dress up the scraps of memory mothers, fathers, grand-aunts or grand-uncles choose to share. Needless to say, the acts of both forgetting and remembering are found not only in personal narratives of history; the journey upon which Peterson embarks also forces readers to consider how and whom institutions choose to forget and/or remember–indeed, how the nation selectively forgets and remembers.

Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol of West Africa’s Akan people that means “to go back and take it.”  It describes one impetus for Dr. Carla Peterson’s journey for she indeed goes back to see; Black Gotham:  A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City attests to the fact that her insistence pays off significantly–both for her personally, and for lovers of history alike.  Read alongside a virtual archive http://archive.blackgothamarchive.org/ wherein one can find documents and images of New York’s black elite of the nineteenth century, the narrative moves one steadily along, inspiring new critical questions and intrigue.

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