Brooklyn's Blackness Is Strongest Because of Its Rich Diaspora Influences and Deep History

Celebrants participate in the annual West Indian Day Parade on September 5, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. More than a million people were expected to line the streets for the Labor Day ritual.
Photo: Stephanie Keith (Getty Images)
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.

Black people from Brooklyn are mad proud of where they’re from. Some confuse it for arrogance, but if you grew up here it’s hard to find energy anywhere that can match it. Yes, the borough does boast hip-hop greats and is the setting for cornerstone Spike Lee films. But those aren’t the sole reasons we love this place. There are three even more fascinating elements of blackness in Brooklyn that makes it the home for the greatest happenings of blackness ever.

For one, we have the richest representation of the African diaspora in any major city. African Americans, Haitians, Trinidadians, Jamaican, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are all representing in this melting pot of black culture. Growing up here, your friends were likely from a million different places, so you picked up greetings outside of your own culture pretty easily: “Wha gwan?” “What’s Good” “Que Pasa?” “Sak Pase?”

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The second is the intriguing history of the earliest black communities. Third, blackness in Brooklyn produces some of the biggest, blackest and most creative gatherings in the world.

Yes, the gentrification has given me angst and sometimes I barely recognize the Brooklyn I grew up knowing, but there’s still so much joy here and I’m ready to brag about it. I heard Atlanta, Oakland, Miami, and company think they’re the blackest cities out there. But after this quick tour of Brooklyn’s highlights, the clear winner for this debate will be hometown.

History

Let’s start with the early days. Black history began in Brooklyn over 300 years ago when the borough was made up of Dutch settlements in the New Netherlands colony. The Dutch West India Company brought the first enslaved Africans to the colony around 1626.

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It’s important to note that black people were the core laborers of Brooklyn’s economy from its founding up until slavery was abolished in New York in the 1820s. Basically, we built this city! African slaves cultivated land producing crops like wheat, beans, and tobacco. It’d be great if the black folks who toiled away at these lands were at least acknowledged for their work, but instead, at least 82 streets today in Brooklyn were named after slave-holding families, according to Brooklyn Historical Society. The largest slaveowners were the Lefferts.

Some Africans were allowed to petition for a “half-freedom” status. This meant they were required to pay yearly dues to the Dutch West India Company and their children would remain slaves. Freedom allowed some black people ownership of land. One freed black man, Francisco de Neger of Angolan origin, was one of the founders of Boswyck in 1661. This settlement eventually became Bushwick.

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By 1790, black people were more than 30 percent of the population and mostly enslaved. Slavery was abolished in New York State on July 4, 1827. But there were some areas of rural Flatbush where slaves were held until the 1840s, the Brooklyn Historical Society also reports.

Following emancipation, a free black community called Weeksville was founded by James Weeks, a black longshoreman from Virginia, in 1838. 500 black residents called Weeksville home, including the borough’s first black female physician Susan Smith-McKinney.

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Weeksville was a self-reliant black community boasting its own institutions. This includes the Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church, Colored School o. 2, Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People, and the Freedman’s Torchlight newspaper. Weeksville is mostly history now. But you can still get a taste of its past by visiting the Weeksville Heritage Center in Crown Heights where a few of the historic homes have been preserved.

By 1930, black Southerners and Caribbean immigrants were arriving in significant numbers during the Great Migration, which increased the population of black residents in the borough. By the 1950s, 86 percent of black residents were living in Bedford Stuyvesant, due to redlining. In the subsequent decades, Afro-Latino, Black Americans, Caribbeans and African immigrants moved throughout Bed Stuy, Fort Greene, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Brownsville, Flatbush, Canarsie, Coney Island, and the East New York areas of Brooklyn. Here they established the hotbeds of Black Brooklyn culture that we all love today.

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Music

Before the New York Times wrote op-eds about Brooklyn’s next hot trendy neighborhoods, the borough’s black hip-hop artists used beats and rhymes to capture the borough’s grit and soul.

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There were the pioneers like Big Daddy Kane and MC Lyte in the 1980s. By the 1990s, Biggie had everyone around the world proclaiming, “Spread love. It’s the Brooklyn way.” Jay-Z’s storytelling about his Marcy Projects captured enough intrigue to make the housing project a tourist attraction *side eye*.

The list goes on. Ali Shaheed Mohammad, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Fabolous, Bobby Smurda, Joey Badass, Young M.A. and Flipp Dinero. And let’s not forget 2 Milly, a Brooklyn rapper, contributed the infamous Milly Rock dance (tsk tsk Fortnite for co-opting it), which is still having a pretty strong run at black parties five years after he dropped it.

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The South Bronx will always get props for creating hip-hop. And as the movement spread throughout the city, each borough became known for its distinct class of rappers. The Brooklyn energy has consistently brought the global appeal.

Cuisine

There are so many new black-owned takeout spots, restaurants, cafe’s and bakeries in Brooklyn right now, that it’s hard to keep up. But that’s what makes Brooklyn the best at this. I appreciate the variety of cultural offerings I can still find on almost any major Brooklyn strip.

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I can get my soul food at Bed Stuy Fish Fry (expect long waits); wings from Brooklyn Wing House; Jamaican food from my spot around the way, a name I won’t disclose; roti from Ali’s Roti Shop, brick oven pizza topped with jerk chicken at Zuri Lee; dinner and drinks with friends at Brooklyn Moon; a meeting over smoothies at the Haitian-inspired Lakou Cafe; and quick breakfast biscuits from Brown Butter NYC, all while supporting black owners who also have pretty great customer service.

If I’m feeling for plant-based, there’s Sol Sips and Greedi Vegan. On the weekends, it seems like everyone is offering a sit-down brunch. My favorite spot to grab mimosa’s and steak and eggs closed up years ago, but I’ve been hitting up SoCo’s brunch since then and haven’t been disappointed yet.

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When I’m bored with my options, the Instagram guide Black-Owned Brooklyn—yaasss efficiency—is helping me discover what else is out there.

Notable figures

When I think of Black Brooklyn icons, I love to remind folks that we’ve had some of the most influential beings ever to grace this planet come out of or live in our hoods.

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Take the illustrious Lena Horne, the powerhouse singer, actress, and civil rights activist.

Jackie Robinson, although he wasn’t a Brooklyn native, made Bedford Stuyvesant his home after he broke the color barrier in major league baseball by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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There was the “unbought and unbossed” Shirley Chisholm, the first black women in a major political party to run for president.

And last but not least, we’ve got the Oscar-winning film director Spike Lee, the creator of classic Brooklyn-centric films Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn and She’s Got to Have It.

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Cultural touchstones

The cultural touchstone that makes this city stand out is our plethora of festivals that celebrate every part of the diaspora. My earliest memories of this phenomenon were the annual African Street Festivals (now the International African Arts Festival) held every year at the field in Boys in Girls High School in Bed Stuy, every Fourth of July.

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By mid-summer, there were the block parties. Everybody on the block was grilling, jumping double dutch and playing tag in the streets. The speakers rattled with disco, reggae, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel.

Then there was the West Indian Day Parade on Eastern Parkway. Witnessing the elaborate mas costumes and sounds of calypso, reggae, and soca, allowed me to connect and be proud of the Caribbean side of my heritage.

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In adulthood, I saw these safe spaces evolve into new exciting events like Afropunk, which evolved into festivals in other cities, Soul Summit, Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, Spike Lee’s annual Michael Jackson and Prince Day parties, Curl Fest, Afro-Latino Festival and Kwanzaa Crawl. Overall, these gatherings are a reminder that blackness in Brooklyn is still strong and not going anywhere. There are still spaces here to be as black as you want to be and for that I’m grateful.

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