Interpreter of African American History
NYS Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation
Long before Black Lives Matters took to the streets, there was a move to bring the under-told stories of enslaved and free Africans and their descendants to the forefront at museums in New York. Although the desire remains, the present reality reflects a greater silence. Docents and interpretative staff have pushed back, citing ‘it’s not our story’ as the reason. But it is. In fact, it is all of our stories, it is American history, New York’s history.
As I approach the one-year anniversary of my position as the Interpreter of African American history for NYS OPRHP, my awareness of how we approach sharing the presence of the enslaved has shifted. We long for names or ‘hard evidence’ of their presence. Without it, we skip over them. All of us trip on the absence of material culture.
When we do have something to show the public, it generally falls into the range of what we’ve all been bombarded with, the chains, whips, and other instruments of torture. But what if there was more? What if lurking in the collection, forgotten, was a different type of evidence?
One of the thrills I’ve had in this new position is working with curatorial and archeological staffs at Peebles Island, NY State Museum, and other locations as they re-examine artifacts collected years ago that were discounted because they didn’t fit into the European narratives most museums wanted to share. They also were forgotten because those conducting the archaeological digs and parallel areas of research didn’t understand the cultural placement, purpose, or value of the sites and the objects unearthed. Re-examining collections across the region with fresh eyes and a broader understanding has revealed a treasure trove of items linking directly to African cultural and spiritual traditions. Many of these objects have lingered in their neat storage plastic bags since they were first discovered.
Collections I have seen in my brief time at OPRHP include cowrie and other shells (pictured below) not from our region; seed beads (often blue) and other beads; items marked with ‘X’s’ with and without circles, including spoons, pottery and on architectural remains like mantels and doorjambs; pieces of quartz crystals and mica; buried cookware or small barrels that held marked spoons, sharps-bent nails, pins, broken pottery and knives; ax heads that had been buried outside a doorway; a Brazilian coin (pictured left) , buttons, and ‘Sankofa’ marks; and even peanuts buried under hearth stones. The range is amazing. Things that obviously are not from North America, or items that have been purposefully placed together. Things that can’t be completely linked to Indigenous or European cultures may speak to third leg of the stool, that of Africa.
These items generally would have been found during archeological digs or when spaces were being renovated. They show up on the exterior corners of houses or within the structures around hearths, windows, cellars, garrets or places where the enslaved would have lived. I’m on a search to increase the number of locations where these objects and architectural evidence can be found extending across the entire state. Any assistance you can give would be greatly appreciated. I ask you to please go back into your collections with fresh eyes. Africans were here, let’s finally see them, learn to speak of them, with or without names.
Lavada Nahon is the Interpreter of African American History for the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Nahon has interpreted the lives of free and enslaved African Americans across the mid-Atlantic region, with an emphasis on the work of enslaved cooks in the homes of the elite class. Her expertise around cooking and dining spans the 17th to 19th centuries and cuts across cultures, encompassing Dutch, British, French and African traditions.