Positioning and Imaging Caesar: From Margin to Center in the Historiography of Colonial New York City

Article excerpt


In an earlier article I used the metaphor of my grandmother's cedar chest and its contents as a way to talk about the manipulation of history. To view the undisturbed contents was, for the viewer with some attachment to them, a renewal, a reconnecting with a historical past - in essence, a positioning of one in the midst of the stream of humanity. I went on to say in that article that the writing of history, in terms of all that it entails - the rigors of research, analysis, interpretation - should, in the end represent a true historical reflection of a people. As one reads the history, what should become evident is that, like the contents of my grandmother's cedar chest, it is a reconnecting, a renewal with historical roots, and it is a history that positions the reader in the midst of the stream of humanity. 2

In a reaction to a number of fairly recent publications on the history of New York City in the nineteenth century, I put forth, in that same article, some criticism of the books' historical content. I wrote that the books, as reflections of a collective family history, is altered history. What this means is that the positioning of Euro-Americans in that stream is there. For African Americans positioning is almost nonexistent. Unlike my grandmother's cedar chest, the contents of New York City history have been tampered with altered to appear historically what they were not, and even with some items removed to paint a picture of the City and its peoples in "altered states."

What I propose in this paper is to address, in a succinct fashion, this problem of "altered states." I will do this through an examination of the contents of my grandmother's cedar chest (really a metaphor for the historiography of colonial New York City) so as to move Caesar (collective term for the enslaved) from the margins of the city's history to the center -- positioning him in the midst of the stream of humanity.

Much of what I propose to share with you on this point of "altered states" and the positioning of Caesar, is mirrored in a 1984 article by Gary Nash. In Nash's opinion, the lack of a black social history was as a result of historians' overemphasis on the institution of slavery. He wrote that the consequence of such is that we continue to depict "some one million Africans brought to or born in America before the revolution as mindless drones without culture, without realizing that the slaves themselves [were] active participants in a social process." 3 To paraphrase another writer, Douglas Greenberg, slaves were in the history of the colonies without being of that history. 4 "Altered states," though, can be challenged and rectified by creating, what I have argued for earlier in chapter two of my book Long Hammering, a new corpus of scholarship on African American social history. Once this is achieved, then it is incorporated "into an overall analysis of colonial social development." 5

An incipient new corpus of scholarship on the social history of Blacks in colonial New York is already available to challenge "altered states." This scholarship heralds the start of Caesar's trek from the margin to the center of New York City history. Presently the scholarship comprises the work of such writers as Thomas J. Davis, Vivienne Kruger, Sherrill Wilson, Joyce Goodfriend, Thelma Foote, Nan Rothschild, Robert J. Swan, Shane White, and many young hearts at the dissertation level whose research will really begin to anchor Caesar in his rightful place. 6 The work of these scholars can be characterized as on the cutting edge of African American social history because it acknowledges the significant participatory and social role of Caesar in the development of New York City history.

Much of what I argue in this paper with respect to the positioning and imaging of Caesar will pull on the research of some of the above scholars. I will also complement my argument with reference to my own work on the topic for African Americans in the Hudson River Valley during the colonial period. …