There is often a collective amnesia in the North that suggests slavery was strictly a Southern evil, that the buying and selling of human bodies took place solely in states located on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon. New York City, beacon of liberalism and diversity that it is today, could not have been home to such cruel and brutal injustices. But the ugly, hard-to-swallow truth is that New York — once the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam — was the capital of American slavery for more than 200 years. So deep were the city’s ties to slavery and the South that Mayor Fernando Wood even suggested seceding from the Union at the start of the Civil War.
For the last several years, however, artist Nona Faustine has worked to shine a light on New York City’s buried legacy of slavery in a striking series of self-portraits titled “White Shoes.” The photographs feature Faustine posing before famous New York landmarks and locales: City Hall, the State Supreme Court Building, Wall Street — forgotten marketplaces where African men, women, and children were once bought, sold, and rented into slavery.
Save for the pair of high heels beneath her feet and a piece of broken black chain around her wrist, Faustine is completely nude in the images, a showing of solidarity with the women who stood in her place centuries before.
“The nudity was symbolic of the way black people were put on display and sold,” Faustine tells the Voice. “Black women were put on display on the slave blocks, and I felt a strong [sense of] solidarity with those women.”
Taken in broad daylight, the photos had to be snapped quickly, before drawing too much attention. “Anybody can go to these places fully clothed. But to risk something for your beliefs, your art, to strip yourself of any clothing or protection, it’s a state of vulnerability.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Faustine attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan before earning an M.F.A. from the International Center for Photography at Bard College. “White Shoes” began as a thesis project during her second year of graduate school in 2012, but Faustine has continued to add new images to the collection as she discovers more former slave sites throughout the area.
In addition to the nudity, the images featured in the photographs are steeped in symbolism. The titular shoes represent America’s white patriarchy, and the cardboard cutouts of Faustine — which she bored holes into and placed in Brooklyn’s pre-Revolutionary cemeteries before photographing — symbolize the anonymity of countless enslaved women. The project acts as a bridge between the past and the present, a way of remembering the contributions African Americans have made to this country over the centuries amid today’s wave of racial turmoil.
“Our history has been suppressed. Our contributions to this country have been suppressed,” Faustine explains, adding that she hopes to highlight the contributions people of color have made to the annals of photography as well. “All of the atrocities [are] continuing: black males being killed in the street, high incarceration rates, gentrification — we’re just being uprooted out of neighborhood after neighborhood. And I think people are trying to say, ‘Wait a minute. We have a history here. We have an incredible history here. A history of contribution, of beauty and pain. We are invested, we have been invested, and it’s about time we be acknowledged.’ ”
Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio dedicated a historical marker to the men and women who were sold at the Wall Street slave market, the first official acknowledgement of a site that trafficked human beings, with the approval of city government, from 1711 to 1762. According to the plaque, nearly 50 percent of Manhattan households included at least one slave at that time.
“To build a just future, we must understand the injustices of the past,” de Blasio said during his address. “Although it is not a proud moment in our city’s history, slave labor played a role in New York City’s development, and it must be acknowledged.”
A plaque is a small atonement for generations of state-sanctioned suffering, but an accurate reckoning of New York’s history in the slave trade — as well as an acknowledgement of African Americans’ contributions to this city’s achievements — is perhaps a step in the right direction.
Through Faustine’s work, a powerful image may also help jar New Yorkers into a new level of historical consciousness and understanding.
“This is what’s going to help us to heal. This is what’s going to help us to get out of this mess,” Faustine says. “If I know you and you know me, if you know my history and contributions the way that I know yours — the way I know about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — then hey, maybe you’ll have more respect for me. Maybe we can come to the table, somehow, as equals.”
You can see Faustine’s entire “White Shoes” project here.