The wooden boards of the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art resemble the simplicity of the exterior of an Antebellum slave shack, though slightly more contemporary with the gray coloring of the lumber. The perfectly measured structure embraces the concept of turning nothing into everything, an element of refining historical tribulations.
Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, which opened at the weekend, incorporates elements of what it means to have pride to be Black in America, specifically as a child of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The period room elaborates on Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, a children’s book published in 1985 of African American folktales. The titular story was about a group of oppressed Black people who escaped enslavement by channeling the magical powers of their African ancestors and flying away to freedom.
The story was one that I respected so much as a child. I would look at the illustrated pages at the neighborhood library and daydream about the powers my ancestors possessed, or I would think about all that they had to endure in order for me to exist in my current world. The book mesmerized me in so many ways.
It helped introduce me to a concept that was difficult for a child—but necessary for a child to understand the history. I needed to know at an early age—regardless of generations of people being oppressed who looked like me; regardless of my skin color; regardless if anyone gave me any restraints and used my Blackness as an excuse—there was a book that taught me to think above and beyond what was deemed impossible.
The Afrofuturist period room at the Met based on that life-changing children’s book reimagines Seneca Village, an area in what is now Central Park on the Upper West Side. During the 1850s, a wave of Black families migrated from lower Manhattan to the neighborhood that was farther north on the island. The area was less crowded with healthier living conditions, and it was relatively inexpensive at the time.
With the new property, African Americans, along with a small number of German and Irish families, built churches, which also served as schools for younger children. They maintained their own livestock and kept farms. They were also able to build and own their own homes, which meant that those Black men who owned land had the power to vote within New York state.
Eminent domain led to the demise of Seneca Village in 1857. With the planned construction of what would become Central Park, the neighborhood was destroyed and practically lost to the public until a group of archeologists conducted an excavation project in 2011.
Before knowing the village’s history, the area is one that I’ve probably passed by dozens of times without realizing its significance. Settled in the mix between the Great Lawn and Summit Rock, signs designate where Seneca Village thrived.
Before Yesterday We Could Fly creatively resurrects the community, what it would have become if it survived, and what it could have evolved into in the future. All time periods coexist simultaneously in the exhibit.
To experience this fictionalized time capsule, I was excited to celebrate African American heritage without the chains of enslavement or being stuck during the Civil Rights Movement—periods that the entertainment realm seems to recycle while also delivering an element of tragedy porn. They’re necessary to study, but there are other eras that are important for building the African American legacy.
Navigating through the Met is a difficult assignment on any regular day, but with the opening of a new exhibit it was even more daunting. After walking through the American wing and realizing that I couldn’t access the Afrofuturist room—by what I thought was a shortcut, I had to turn around and start again. I found it ironic that I had to re-route myself to walk deeper through the European wing and artwork in order to locate this room. To find my history as an African American, I first had to travel through Europe.
Before Yesterday We Could Fly circled like a carousel. Moving counterclockwise, viewers start outside of the kitchen. My mind instantly registered the hot comb that sat on a windowsill. I thought back to the Saturday nights I spent with my head leaning over the sink as my mom washed my hair for church the next day. Once my hair was dry, she’d take the hot comb off of one of the eyes on the stove and try to smooth back my edges and ringlets of curls. Every time, I prayed that she would miss my ears. I covered them up with my hands just to be sure. The smell of burning hair let us know that the comb was doing its job.
Shifting to the right around the period room, there was a gorgeous Victorian dress propped up in a chair. A cross hung on the wall to imply that this was a Christian home. A brightly colored radio radiated on a shelf, displaying the significance and evolution of music within the African American community. Medicine bottles lined a top shelf; a butter churn sat in the corner. The presence of the hearth dominated the room as it stood in the center. Images of African Americans were sprinkled throughout, including Harriet Tubman on a vase and Stacey Abrams on a plate.
“I wanted to lead with pride and joy,” lead curator Hannah Beachler said. The Academy Award winner who has worked on the film Black Panther and Beyoncé’s Black Is King says that she uses her projects to uplift and inspire the next generation of Black people. “Traditionally, the first thing you learn as a young Black person is struggle... You learn that you’re less than, and I did not want that in any way, shape, or form.”
Swinging around to the back side of the room, a ceremonial palm wine vessel sat on a window. Not only was this fictionalized setting home to a Christian family, but this family also honored their African ancestors and greeted them to give thanks and honor their memories.
“I hope that people get a sense of the history of Seneca Village,” period room consulting curator Michelle Commander told The Daily Beast. “There’s not one version of history.”
The final room served as a living space, and it was not as cluttered as the last. A five-sided television set was grounded in the center, in which a black-and-white documentary flashed across the screens. A comic sat on a table across from a large portrait of deep-sea diver Andrea Motley Crabtree that hung to the right on the wall outside of the room right before the exit.
Public historian Cynthia Copeland acknowledged the importance of the exhibit’s private opening on Nov. 1—All Saints’ Day—and how she felt it resonated with honoring African American ancestors.
“You can’t tell me the ancestors didn’t have anything to do with this,” she said. “They want to fly, they want to soar. I can’t imagine that they are not.”
The historian has worked for years uncovering the truth of Seneca Village. She said several pieces in the period room stood out to her: the bottle-tree chandelier hanging in the kitchen, a wooden chair sitting in the living area that was designed like a pick comb, and a “cabinet full of curiosities.”
“What I liked about it,” she said, “there is this intense effort to connect the past to the present to the future. It speaks to people of African heritage as being phantasmagorical, having to deal with a whole lot of everything and trying to make sense of what you got.”
Though Before Yesterday We Could Fly was supposed to serve as a period room, it lacked some substantive historical significance to Seneca Village. Instead, it adopted more a fictionalized narrative than resurrecting the full truth of an African American settlement that had been largely forgotten.
“I felt that the room was not historical but it was artistic,” historical archeologist Dr. Nan Rothschild said. “It was an artistic interpretation.”
Rothschild was a member of the excavation team in 2011. During her research, she found traces of a child’s shoe and plenty of cookware. Fireplaces were on the edge of the home foundations she discovered rather than placed in the center of the room like the exhibit at the Met. She also would have preferred if the exhibit focused a little more on education.
“To me,” she said of the period room, “it was too pristine and exotic. I would’ve liked to have seen schoolbooks or some kinds of tools or something relating to work. Who are the people living here and how are they living? Our interpretation of the materials on the site and also from historical records, we refer to this as a middle class community. The occupations were not typically what you’d think of as middle class. A lot of them were laborers, sailors, bootblacks.”
Copeland ultimately agreed with Rothschild. She said the period room could be confusing without any prior knowledge. Otherwise, the experience was truly up for interpretation.
“It’s what you make of it, what you want it to be,” she said. “There’s something for everyone—from what I could see. It was joyful, whimsical, bright, Black joy. Black joy in a discordant kind of way. It was jazz.”
Both Copeland and Rothschild admitted that they would have to visit the exhibit multiple times to get a chance to see everything. The period room was small, and the walkway around it was narrow. Time seemed limited to view Before Yesterday We Could Fly, especially in such a tight area during the age of COVID.
After all that I found about Seneca Village, I also felt underwhelmed and wished that clues of the past were somehow incorporated a little more accurately into the exhibit. I wanted to understand what this family did on a daily basis, I wanted to know their relationships with their neighbors, I wanted to understand the oppression they felt as African Americans when racial tension in the city was at a crescendo.
If the village had survived, who would these people have become? Would Seneca Village have transformed into the Black Mecca of New York City, or would it have slowly erased due to gentrification and migration? How would this have affected the evolution of music, of the hip hop scene that emerged in the 1980s? If the village thrived present-day, would the trajectory of African Americans in business and politics have been different? How would the arts have changed?
It’s hard to imagine an entire community gone—but it’s not as unsurprising considering the community was predominantly African American. Prior to the land being developed by colonizers, it was home to the Lenape Indigenous Americans who were also forced out of the area before Seneca Village was even a concept.
There were a couple of artifacts in the period room designating that the land once belonged to the Lenape, but not enough to bridge the shared experiences felt between them and African Americans during the early days of New York City. It was an effort that I felt presented itself nearly like an afterthought.
Overall, I did enjoy the experience; though I felt it needed more to give an extra punch. More importantly, it brought recognition to a community that had been seemingly forgotten.
“I do think the exhibit is resurrecting [the] legacy [of Seneca Village] because it’s bringing it to public attention, and that’s what we care about,” Rothschild said. “This exhibit definitely changes the trajectory of the Met. It’s specifically oriented towards an African American community of viewers.”
Copeland, who was initially skeptical of the project, said, “I was a little bit conflicted because the sudden interest in Black history came as a result of the catalyst of the police murders. We’ve been screaming and yelling for so long, ‘Black lives matter!’ I was a little bit suspect about how and why it came about. But...with younger voices coming out and Afro-futurism becoming so much a part of the fray...this kind of dives into the appreciation—not so much by white folks but by Black folks just saying, ‘You know what? We have arrived. We are here, and we’re not going back.’ And it really is coming from the younger activists who are out there. I got really excited about it.”
Copeland continued, “There are Seneca Villages all over the country and all over the globe—communities that were established and were taken away out of eminent domain for purposes of something greater happening that would be for the greater good except for the people who lost their homes.
“It’s a grounding,” she said of Before Yesterday We Could Fly. “It’s a way to center the stories that have been denied for so long. Now, we have the opportunity to do this work, to give voice to the people who did not get to speak at the time but who left bread crumbs and traces behind for us to do that work.”