On a sunny October afternoon in 2021, Washington Square Park was filled with just about everyone in New York City. Among them were around 25 New School students, their professor, and their guide.
Nearly 400 years ago, the area looked very different. Twenty-eight different farmsteads filled that land, all owned by Black individuals — New York City’s first Black neighborhood. Yet the park today bears no record of this history, nor that of the people who lived there.
That erasure, said Kamau Ware, is not accidental. Ware is an artist, historian, and founder of Black Gotham Experience, an organization dedicated to making “the impact of the African Diaspora missing from collective consciousness as well as the public square.” After a brief introduction, Ware handed each New School student a card bearing the name of a Black person, then asked them to focus on one name: Manuel Trumpeter, a Black farmstead owner. What are the kinds of things that might have been on Trumpeter’s mind? What might he have been feeling, frightened of, excited about as a semi-free Black man in 17th-century New York City?
This empathy-based exercise and subsequent in-depth historical tour of Washington Square Park are integral parts of students’ work in either the “Capitalism and the Settler Colonial Present in New York City” graduate course or “Blind Spots of New York City: Capitalism and Exclusion” undergraduate course, both taught by Benoit Challand, Associate Professor of Sociology.
“This is all very practice-oriented,” says Challand. “The goal is to bring students outside of the classroom and academic, book-centered learning experiences.” In addition to tours with Ware of the park and of the Financial District, students have toured Inwood Hill Park with the Lenape Center and discussed the colonial-era fur trade from the perspective of the Mohawk Nation with the North American Indigenous Center of New York for Culture, Equity, and Economic Justice — all spaces of different kinds of exploitation and erasure.
Developing a Civically Engaged Class
“How can you explain what is capitalism from a historical and sociological perspective?”
During Challand’s first year as a Sociology faculty member at The New School in 2015, he developed a Lang first-year seminar that explored this question via two major commodities, cotton and sugar. As he taught the class, he found that issues around settler colonialism — the replacement of an indigenous population with an invasive settler population — in the U.S.; extraction; land dispossession; and racialization of the other continued to crop up, especially in relation to New York City.
“The big discovery [for me] was to find out how the history of the city is connected to those two commodities all the way to recent times without acknowledging its link with slavery until the 1850s,” he says. This led him to dig deeper into the erasure of past slave rebellions in the city, as well as that of the city’s current large Native American population, and to develop the course in new directions to confront the absence of Black and indigenous people’s memory in New York City landscape, architecture and monuments.
After meeting Ware during a tour in 2017, Challand asked him to lead a tour on erasure of the city’s Black history for the Lang seminar. Following positive reviews, Challand brought Ware into the course as a partner via a Lang Civic Liberal Arts grant, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They taught together in 2018 and 2020, and now again in 2021.
New this year is a version of the course at the graduate level at NSSR. While both courses explore the same content and read the same texts, Challand says that undergraduate students are “more creative in terms of how they express knowledge” while graduate students have a “deeper, more robust engagement with literature” in class discussion and in written assignments. The courses are now supported by a Mellon Periclean Faculty Leader grant, which has allowed Challand to bring in the additional indigenous community partners.
Assisting with the graduate course is Emmanuel Guerisoli, a Sociology PhD student who studies settler colonialism in the U.S. from a legal point of view. His Teaching Assistant position is funded by NSSR’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, which supports research on New York City and its transformation over the centuries by migration.
Bridging Sociology and History
At both levels, the courses draw deeply upon both history and sociology. At the graduate level, it is one of several Sociology courses that focus on the struggles of peripheral peoples in countries both of the global core and the periphery (read more about the Critical Perspectives in Democratic Anticolonialism project).
Says Challand, “Both disciplines concur on locating capitalism in Atlantic trade, which includes the slave trade. Mercantilism is replaced by capitalism, a new economic and ideological system rooted in exploitation and destruction of native populations….History means an understanding of historical episodes, a past-dependent development. The landscape of New York City is a byproduct of what colonial New York City was in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is continuity and rupture. And from the sociological perspective, capitalism rebundles social relations.”
Although course material temporally ends in the mid-1800s, course discussions address contemporary topics. “We try to look at the legacies, and how racial capitalism and its hierarchies have evolved and developed with time,” says Guerisoli. “In the final sections of the course, it was impossible to ignore what happened last year [uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by police] and Black Lives Matter, and the effect that it had. This is completely influenced by what happened in colonial times.” Discussion topics include the complicity of academia in erasure, pushback against monuments to colonial leaders, reparations, and the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the U.S.
“I’m very happy to see the students very engaged both academically, theoretically, but also politically,” says Guerisoli, who has been a TA for a previous Sociology class taught by Challand, “and that we’re able to discuss what are very much provocative topics that are not easy to engage with and don’t have any easy answers or simple answers.” He cites a recent debate around the discourse of nativism; that indigenous people might use nativism to counter settler colonial practices, but that white supremacists use the same discourse against migrants.
Melisa Rousseau is a Sociology MA student who registered for the course without much prior academic knowledge of the topics it addresses. But with race as a primary area of focus for her studies, the course seemed like a great fit. “I really didn’t even know about what settler colonialism was,” she says. “I signed up because I had taken Benoit’s class before, and he and Emma together are a really good team, so I knew it would be a good course.”
The course has not only offered her new perspectives on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans; it’s also reframed how she thinks about race, space, and place, and New York City itself.
“The course has significantly changed the way I see New York City,” she says. “I’m not just walking through Washington Square Park anymore, right? It’s got a different meaning now. The same with Wall Street or City Hall. I never realized that interred a block away from City Hall are up to 20,000 skeletons [of Black individuals]. Now when I walk in Lower Manhattan, it has a different meaning.”
And she appreciates the multifaceted aspects of the course. “We’re able to integrate what we’ve learned on the tour with what we’re also learning in the readings,” she says. And on top of that, we’re keeping journals [which integrate] what we’re reading and our experience on the tours.”
Ware’s October tour ends outside a building just east of Washington Square Park where, in 1911, nearly 150 Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A small plaque on the building commemorates the tragedy, one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history and a major turning point in labor history and occupational safety. He notes the differences between the site and the nearby park in terms of public memory and erasure. But one parallel remains: the extra work those “othered” must do — ideally with a wide base of support but often alone — to fight for visible change in a society built on their erasure.
Photo credit: Emmanuel Guerisoli