A Family History of African-Americans in 19th Century New York City
by Carla L. Peterson
Yale University Pres
Hardcover, $ 32.00
458 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“This book is… not exactly a family memoir, but neither is it traditional social history. It is a narrative that lies somewhere in between. It records my search to find my father’s New York family; my success in uncovering many documents [which] serve as a pathway to a larger public history: the history of social movements, political events, and cultural influences…
I’ve written Black Gotham out of a sense of obligation to the dead, to give a face to those left faceless by acts of trauma and erasure. I also feel I owe something to my family and my community… Black Gotham is meant to be an act of reparation, an act to repair the tears of memory—tears in the sense of both sorrow and rupture.”
-- Excerpted from the Introduction (pgs. 6, 30 & 31)
Before undertaking this daunting project, Carla Peterson was aware of precious little about her roots. In fact, although she’s African-American, the only 19th Century ancestor she really knew anything about was a Caucasian great-grandfather from Haiti named Philip Augustus White (1823-1891).
But despite that lack of genealogical information, Peterson, a Professor of English at the University of Maryland, embarked on a fruitful quest which began in the manuscript room at the famed Schomburg Center for Research. And the upshot of her tireless efforts is Black Gotham: A Family History of African-Americans in 19th Century New York City.
Among the surprising data unearthed by the author in the course of her study was that she had descended from New York City’s black upper class, a cosmopolitan community comprised not only of doctors, businessmen and other professionals but of writers, artists and musicians, too. This information flies in the face of the conventional wisdom which would suggest that the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s represented the first flowering of black culture in the city.
While Professor’s Peterson’s family tree certainly proves fascinating, what makes her seminal opus so significant is how she painstakingly reconstructs her forefathers’ past in light of the overall African-American struggle for emancipation and equality in the 1800s. Thus, we learn here about the collective, New York City black lobby for everything from abolition to quality education to the right to vote to the protection of fugitive slaves.
Such demands for dignity in the face of virulent racism and constant threats of violence often came at a great cost, given that back then the Dred Scott decision was still the law of the land. For in issuing that landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court had deemed blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.“
A shameful legacy which makes Carla Peterson’s overdue tribute to her intrepid ancestors an invaluable addition to the annals of African-American literature.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011