American Black history doesn’t begin and end with enslavement—Black and brown bodies pouring out of ships onto the shores of strange lands, to make the lives of white people easier. Black history in America isn’t the culmination of roles as servants, mammies and mules. Instead, it is about the erection of American values, American economy and essentially American freedom.
Historian and photographer Kamau Ware is challenging the way the world understands American history and the impact people of African descent have had on the country’s development. Through his intense historical walking tours called Black Gotham Experience, Ware unravels the myths and half-truths about Black influence in the early days of America.
Years ago, Ware was a museum docent working at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side when, after taking a group of middle school children on the practiced tour about the early Europeans who settled in New York in the 1900s, a little girl asked where the Black people were at the time. Although he answered as best he could, Ware became challenged with filling that gap in history.
“I was giving a tour called ‘Getting By’ about a family coming from Prussia. They were German-Jewish,” he reflected. “[The girl] was quiet the whole tour. At the end, she raised her hand. I was so glad to get a question from her because she had been staring at me the whole time and never said a word. When I called on her, she was like, ‘Where were the Black people at?’ And she asked it in a way that was a challenge to me.”
As a docent at the museum, Ware was given binders of detailed stories and histories of the German, Jews and Italians in this New York neighborhood, but the Black history was basically nonexistent.
He says while the Tenement Museum does a good job of telling stories of the early Europeans who immigrated here in the 1800s and 1900s, there is a relevant history of the Black people who were here before the U.S. was even established, the people who built Wall Street and Broadway and taverns, those from early New York. He wondered who was telling those stories every day.
Reflecting on his childhood, Ware shared that he chose his name “Kamau” in high school because he wanted to tell stories within African history, not just the story of enslavement. He wanted to tell the stories that are often left untold, to remind people that Black history did not begin with enslavement. Since deciding or rather embracing his purpose, Ware has become fully committed to telling the stories of the Diaspora through historical tours and photography.
Ware’s work is giving new life to and establishing the relevance of the Black legacy in America.
“When early Black people were establishing communities of freedom [in the 1600s], that is the cornerstone of American freedom. Their legacy is the concept of America, of citizenship, of freedom. That’s the legacy of the first Black people who came to New York in the 1600s and built New York up and established freedom for themselves. But that legacy is denied because that story isn’t told.”
Ware is also working on a series of graphic novels that reimagine the lives and stories of Black people in early New York. The goal is to give the world a piece of history that transcends his tours and fills the gaps of our untold history.
“Black Gotham’s purpose is to correct what slavery did, which was to take away our culture and history and strip away who we are and take away our purpose,” he said.
The novels are a step towards rebuilding the Black legacy in America to liberate and empower the community at large.
To learn about the tours, visit BlackGotham.com. Ware and his graphic novel team are also raising money for the project, which is scheduled to be released in the fall.