Rough Enough to Break New York from Long Island
— Rakim Allah
Welcome to Long Island — the place where I was called nigger at four years old. Shouts from an old rich white man carpet-bombed my mother’s Buick Regal. We were driving back from the mall through Garden City, an affluent white town that measures lawn height requirements with paper bag tests and real estate steering. It is separated from Black and Latino Hempstead by a strip of car dealerships.
As pulled up to the traffic light, he screamed,
“Nigger bitch! You and your little nigger get out of my town!”
Welcome to 1985.
Welcome to the home of institutionalized racism, the Hamptons, the exuberantly wealthy, the Shinnecock and Poosputuck reservations, Fire Island, Roosevelt Field, and Jones Beach; a flatbed of extreme economic stratification and constantly investigated gang violence.
Welcome to Long Island, where bullets bomb graffiti murals across brick buildings on streets bearing the name of slain Civil Rights leaders; where cats in Gore-Tex and beaters may stick you for your sneakers.
It is the story of Anyhood, USA: all the real gangsters are dead or in jail; and some sixteen-year-old shooter may be more dangerous than a grown man. We fight silently in an arena of social Darwinism where the line between haves and have-nots is decorated by new and used car lots.
At opposite ends of the spectrum are projects and mansions, bus passes and Phantoms, if this kidnapped your perception of soft, affluent, picturesque Long Island I’m glad to hold it ransom.
Pay it in Full.
Word to Rakim.
Rough enough to break NY from Long Island.
When I was 27, poetry became the first conduit through which I attempted to reveal a history and reality that remains concealed. “Word to Rakim” became a manifesto, a three-minute performed answer to every mouth agape that I am a Black man from Long Island, and that I didn’t grow up rich. Ultimately, it is an answer to a prevailing perception in New York’s five boroughs that Long Island is a soft, sprawling suburb of strip malls, postwar houses, old money, drunken hicks, serial killers, and nice beaches.
Since The Great Gatsby, Long Island has captivated the imaginations of Americans and New Yorkers with tales of opulence and wealth. The Hamptons, Fire Island, and the historic Gold Coast — Long Island’s North Shore. It is where Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis began its famed flight, the home of the first planned and mass produced suburb (Levittown), and the location of the Amityville Horror House. What is omitted from popular culture, history texts, and the New York psyche is the story of island’s non-white inhabitants. This history and legacy ranges from the continued existence of several of the tribes indigenous to the island, despite genocide, to the arrival of blacks as slaves on South Shore plantations, the communities of Quakers who used their Meeting Houses as Underground Railroad stops, and the migration of many north after Emancipation. It also includes the countless stories of the servants of the extraordinarily wealthy, and the communities they developed in enclaves eclipsed by history and popular culture.
The history of race relations in Long Island is a window into the fabric of modern American society. Along with pioneering first mass produced postwar suburb in America, Long Island also should be recognized as the most racially segregated suburb in the United States. In an era where racism is insidious, covert, and deemed extinct, the centuries of de-facto segregation, attitudes regarding the proper colors for leadership, power, and servitude, and vast economic and tax disparities, Long Island may be our nation’s Rosetta Stone to decipher the fallacies in the myth that America is in any way post-racial.
Why am I qualified to write this? The African-American bloodline of my mother’s family has lived in Long Island since the mid 1800s, and the Native American bloodlines have for countless generations. This is my first attempt to discuss this experience outside the genre of poetry. The stories told in the following pages are real. Some are the product of research, a life lived, local common knowledge, and my family’s oral and documented history.
- This essay will focus greatly on my mother’s family, as it was through her that I learned much of the racial history of Long Island, via our family’s experiences. Unlike my mother’s family, who arrived in Long Island just after Emancipation, my father’s family arrived during the Great Migration. The reasons they came to Brooklyn, and eventually Nassau County, will be explored in a later essay.
AN EARLY CHILDHOOD IN BLACK AND WHITE
Racial consciousness was never a choice for me. My early years were haunted by childhood questions inspired by my light complexion, and the variations of pigmentation in my immediate family. Both sets of grandparents include one brown-skinned spouse and one extremely light-skinned spouse. My maternal grandparents are among a vast minority of African-Americans to bear the last name Veit. I grew up having to adequately answer questions from strangers, friends, even cousins on who and what we are.
Somewhere between age three and four, my first cousins, who were only a few years older than me, wondered if I was white based on my complexion. Considering they were all brown, the last thing I wanted to be was an outsider. Like any curious child seeking an answer to a confounding question, I found my mother. I asked if I was lack, and if I was, was her father white, and was my paternal grandma white, etc. She crouched to meet me at eye level, and essentially explained the “one-drop rule” to me, explaining that we were all Black and beautiful.
Understanding my family’s history, where we come from, and why we are who we are has been a focal point in my life as far back as I can remember. There are many Blacks that cling to drops of non-Black blood in their veins in a foolish attempt to access the American Dream through blood assimilation, and the renunciation of all things African. Most Blacks would describe such self-deprecating, mentally, spiritually, and socially colonized Blacks Uncle Toms. This is not a story about Uncle Toms. This is a story about a family that seeks to know itself, and through that knowledge of self attain peace, actualization, and an identity shadowed by secrets that span centuries.
This is the story of my mother’s family
it is a story of Black Long Island
My great grandmother
and great aunts
lived in black enclaves
on the famed gold coast
of Long Island’s north shore
in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus
is synonymous with the perception
that only the wealthy reside here
they raised the children of Gatsby millionaires
worn hands scrubbed floors, pots, and backsides
The matriarch of my mother’s maternal line, Minerva “Minnie” Townsend Biddle was born in 1870 in Port Washington, New York. She was born to a woman of mixed African, Matinecock, and Mohawk descent, and to a father unknown. She married William Biddle, a young Black man from North Carolina who migrated north for reasons I do not know, but likely a mixture of economic opportunity and freedom from newly enacted black codes and Jim Crow laws.
Eager to write these essays with facts, passion, and authority, I visited the Port Washington Public Library’s website, and clicked on the link for the hamlet’s Local History Center. The website has a section dedicated to African-American history in Port, and features interview transcripts with several members of my family, including Minnie Biddle. It had been 10 years since I had started to trace my genealogy, and began the emotionally and financially taxing pursuit of birth, marriage, and death records to document my ancestry, and I wanted to brush up. The website was a convenient way of doing so while avoiding my writer’s block.
While clicking away at aged photos and familiar names, I came across something unexpected. I had been to this site before at the behest of my mother’s nagging, however I had not done a Google search on any of the names listed. It was 2am. What the hell. Why not. The result of searching for “Minnie Biddle” through Google yielded a result that shook me to my core. The library posted the audio of my great-grandmother’s interview with local historians from 1964. For the first time in my life, I would hear the voice of the woman that my mother told me about during bedtime recollections of her childhood Sundays spent in Port Washington.
I sat up until 8am listening to interviews of her, and her daughter, my Great-Great Aunt Marjorie. When I became Housekeeping manager at a major hotel chain, I often thought about both of them, and their roles as caretakers for the children of the wealthy in Port Washington. Minnie was a midwife and a healer who used herbs and Native American remedies in her practice. Some of her daughters became nannies and caregivers. Hearing them recount their experiences to strangers, with a mixture of joy, candor, and well-veiled responses to questions regarding how they were treated reminded me of the same bright-eyed silences I saw in the women at the hotel. The interviews, much like the novel/film The Help, give only a fraction of voice to the experience of my ancestors.
Growing up hearing about these experiences continue to place a lot into perspective for me. My great-great-grandfather, William Biddle, never trusted banks. He kept all of the money made from his entrepreneurial efforts in his mattress, and he had a gun. That was his idea of financial security. His family finally convinced him to make a deposit in October of 1929. Less than a week later, the stock market crashed, and the bank folded. He lost his life’s savings. His mental and physical health deteriorated, and he died a year later. His wife and children, some of whom had to drop out of middle and high school, would go on to work in the invisible industry as a result of his passing.
My great uncle once boarded a Port Washington bus.
He was greeted by his mother’s former employer:
“I know that black boy. His mother used to scrub my toilets!”
I imagine Uncle Vernon, driven by the anger and outrage of such taunts into chain smoking and fighting for housing rights. My newlywed parents once sought an apartment in an all-white building in Hempstead.
They were told there were no vacancies the same day that their white friends were offered a lease for the very same apartment and told that they should refer friends to fill the 40% of the building that was empty. It was a well-executed sting
“Rent to my niece and her husband, or they will own this building.”
BLACK LONG ISLAND
The question formed under the skin
bubbled into an invitation to avoid
awkwardness or to edify the Father
in good Christian charity
or maybe she was a nice white lady
who liked Black folks
enough to invite them to church
in a town
that was still
Just a couple of drops in that pool,
next thing you know
in the congregation
in that town
mirrored the cathedral’s
stained glass windows.
My mother grew up in Hempstead. When her parents moved into Hempstead, they were one of the first Black families to arrive in the neighborhood. 92 Circle Drive is a cape house on a corner plot with a front yard that many middle class suburbanites would covet. With a last name like Veit, and a grandfather who in his youth looked ethnically ambiguous, my grandparents’ front door was greeted by a friendly knock. A welcoming committee from the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany in Hempstead noticed that the Veits had moved to Hempstead. With a surname common to Jews and a handful of Christians in Germany, the Lutheran evangelists took it upon themselves to invite their new neighbors to attend services.
My brown skinned grandmother always recounts this tale with a smirk, and a laugh that masks a level of discomfort that she has rarely allowed herself to admit. She opened the door to find a friendly young white woman asking to speak to the man or lady of the house. When my grandmother indicated that she was Mrs. Veit, the young woman’s complexion reduced a few shades before she gasped, smiled, and still invited the Veits to attend services with an enthusiastically flushed face. During this conversation, my mother and her brother were visibly playing in the living room. And so the Veits became the first Black family to attend the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany, and left their home church 20 miles away in Port Washington for one 10 minutes down the road.
for my mother
she has beautiful
feared her blackness
would rub off
on them like oil
so they refused to hold them
when she was in the water
they wouldn’t swim in the pool
would envelop them
they believed blackness
would infect them
a pestilence with no cure
she cried blue tears
at their red words
wet with the blood
of her self-worth
My mother attended elementary school at Epiphany. Her Kindergarten experience scarred her for life. What white people fail to understand is that when blacks and other people of color discuss racism, its effects, or the legacy of slavery, it is not a litany of innocuous complaints paraded to elicit white guilt. These are lived traumas, often experienced in childhood, that shape how many experience life in this country. My mother attended a private Christian school, and the children in her class on her first day of school refused to hold her hands during prayer because she was black, and therefore dirty. Her palms become sweaty, her body flushed, she found it difficult to breathe, and had to leave the room. For the next forty years of her life, my mother battled panic disorder that was initially induced by her first encounter with racism, an encounter that she blamed her mother for not being able to protect her from. Here she was, left with strangers. What child is not mortified on their first day of school? And most come home with grins, new friends, and playdates. She remained in tears, and dreaded returning. This is not a unique experience for black children who integrate classrooms or communities.
The composition of Hempstead changed as my mother grew older. The phenomenon termed “white flight” picked up momentum, since middle class Blacks were able to afford Long Island real estate. This also occurred despite real estate steering. Hempstead was a white working and middle-class town. Financial interests were less available to bar blacks from moving in. Other villages, Garden City in particular, would remain lily white for another 50 years.
Hempstead remained a balance between Black and white until it reached the tipping point — the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Unbeknownst to many, there were riots in Hempstead. The commercial center known as the Hub, a district that included local outlets of Madison Avenue boutiques, department stores, and the like, burned. White students were assaulted. Independent store-owners lost nearly everything, and as a result moved their residences and businesses to Garden City. White flight indeed. Newly constructed luxury apartments sat vacant, and were rented well below their value to fill them. Some, particularly those on Terrace Avenue, became havens for pimps, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Prior to the emergence of the rock form of cocaine, Terrace Avenue was referred to as “crack alley”. It now exists as a dangerous double entendre.
Hempstead, Uniondale, Roosevelt, Freeport, Brentwood, Wyndanch, Central Islip — all towns with predominantly black populations — are the invisible step children of Long Island’s pristine Pleasantville public image. Also invisible are the smiling faces that slither the word “nigger” through their teeth at children, or those who have become exceptionally adept at treating Blacks like niggers without ever having to say the word.
You are a beautiful black boy, Timothy.
Black is beautiful.
My mother reassured me with words
alien to her childhood years
I was raised to love the blackness
she was never taught to embrace,
the same blackness my father wore unapologetically
with black fist hair pick nestled in George Jackson sized afro.
they say this skin doesn’t exist
that we’re all extinct
that Black bodies can’t house us
names of rich towns, reservations,
and tombstones are our homes now
they say we’re disembodied spirits
consumed in bottles and casinos
worn on sports jerseys
they say we’re not worthy
— From “Black Long Island Native”
(a collaboration with my cousin Cétáh Treadwell)
As I grew up, I learned that things weren’t simply Black and white in my family. My mother would put me to bed with stories of her childhood and our ancestry. I can not remember exactly when my mother told me that we were Native American, but I do know that it was definitely while I was in elementary school — probably third grade. In some Long Island schools, there is an impetus to teach the fabled history of the island’s 13 tribes. In reality, the “13 tribes” theory is a Eurocentric fallacy, like Columbus discovering anything other than how to catch syphilis and effectively commit genocide. My mother’s home teaching of our American Indian ancestry instilled a great sense of pride in me.
A lot of African-Americans claim to be part Native American. Over the centuries, it has been used as a way to claim the origin “good hair” and high cheekbones, an avenue to exoticism and an escape from the negative attributes of Blackness that exist within the community as products of internalized racism and Eurocentrism. When my family discusses our Native American heritage, it is a conversation regarding documented facts. My mother grew up visiting her aunt, uncle, and first cousins residing on Long Island’s two reservations — the Poospatuck and Shinnecock reservations.
When I was 11 years old, my parents took me to pow wow at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, located in Southampton. It was my first visit there, and after growing up hearing stories about my mother’s cousins who lived on the Poospatuck reservation, that she had an uncle who was the chief of the Unkechaug people, and that all the Indians in America were not dead like people say on television. When we arrived, that day I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, ate fry bread, watched ceremonial dances, purchased jewelry, met other Shinnecocks and Unkechaugs, as well as Incas and Aztecs, and spend the evening at a friend’s house on the reservation. In retrospect, I towed the line between cultural tourist and attempting to access my inner Indian.
During my late 20s and early 30s, my involvement in indigenous cultural traditions began to shift. After developing a close relationship with my cousin Cetah Treadwell from the Unkechaug Nation, I began to explore this fractured portion of my heritage through collaborative writing, attending pow wows and ceremonies. I would often visit the Poospatuk reservation to converse with my cousin, who created opportunities for me to reconnect with family on the reservation, and to explain our shared traditions.
As I got older, I learned that displaced Native American identity, particularly on Long Island, was not unique to my immediate family. I had this concept that my Native cousins were woven into a cultural experience to which I was an alien. Little did I know that a mixture of genocide, colonization, and Christianity made the tribal languages of my people extinct. All that are left are nouns and adjectives handed down through generations, and a list of words recorded from Thomas Jefferson’s visit to Long Island. As an African and a Native American, I find myself the descendent of two cultures rendered inaccessible by atrocity, in search of defining who I am by answering the unknown question of where I come from.
Aliyah, my paternal first cousin once removed, granddaughter of my father’s paternal aunt, called me to tell me that she just started a new job. We discussed her first day of work, and the icebreaker used to introduce her to her co-workers. Each new hire was to give a brief history of where their families were from. Many said Brooklyn, or Jamaica, New Jersey — particularly the other black after school educators. One of the young white women stated that her family was descended from settlers who landed in Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower 2. This woman was about to recount her lineage to beyond that voyage, discussing where her family originated in England. Aliyah noted that this woman’s tale left her unsettled. The furthest we can trace our shared lineage back is to North Carolina in the early 1900s.
It is rare that any Black family can trace back its lineage to slavery, let alone to any way of life before it. In fact, my experience growing up as a skinny Black kid from Long Island is a rare occurrence in that my parents, particularly my mother, took it upon herself to educate me about the history of my family and my people. Previous generations kept secrets to hide the shame of children born out of wedlock, estrangements, divorce, and other secrets that would tarnish their reputation, even amongst themselves.
My parents and grandparents laid the groundwork for me to provide my unborn children, my first cousins, and extended family with the answers to who we are and from whence we came. I pray that one day, a child or grandchild of mine can sit in an orientation room and not only discuss what towns, states, tribes, and nations from which our bloodlines originate, but to be able to emphasize the journey taken to find that information. Imagine the power of knowing not only know yourself and your ancestry, but to understand that it took great dedication, perseverance, and effort to produce such facts despite being stripped of culture, language, religion, and tradition from slavery. It is important to know that we were more than slaves, but it is more important to know specifically who our ancestors were as people, what they accomplished, and how they influence who we are in unseen ways.