'From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth' by Nona Faustine
What does a Black person look like today in those places where Africans were once sold a century and a half ago? What is it like to be that naked, that vulnerable, on display to the world? On the slave block, or in the fields. To stand in the exact spot where they sold African men, women, and children 150 years ago? It is a two-lane street now and the original shoreline for which Water St. is named is now extended at least four blocks by landfill. Skyscrapers mark all four corners. I often wondered if it was my own feelings that I brought there that made the experience what it was. I wasn’t able to feel a trace of the sorrow and pain of the activities that once went on there, but I expected to. On Google Maps, the spot looks like a boxed intersection with white grid traffic lines running along the sides. It’s hard to make the connection between the past and the present due to the erasure. There is a colonial-era engraving of a picturesque veranda-type wooden structure with African enslaved people on the block and white people standing in anticipation to bid on them. I tried to connect to those spirits, the essence of a time and place that no longer exist except on old maps of New York City, but despite my efforts I could not feel it.
What I did feel was the energy of New York, and what it felt like to be a free woman of some degree, naked in the world, on display in my city. I felt my fear, fascination. My eyes were wide open, and still I had a sense I was there and not there. It was thirty-five degrees on a Sunday, March, 7 a.m., Daylight Savings Time. The city was still asleep. We had to shoot in between traffic lights. When the lights turned red, Davis would carry the wooden apple box to the spot marked with a gold sticker with my initial N. He then helped me up on the box. I was dressed in only heels, hands shackled and a cape that was open with nothing underneath.
I stood at the canyon of money, the place that not only got its name from the African slaves that built the wall of Wall St., but whose first commodity was those very human beings. Standing before the camera, trying to conjure for myself what that might have felt like. Human beings sold to the highest bidder and knowing that this is not who I am. I am more than what you see. How many great minds were imprisoned, sold, and reduced to the status of a horse, mule, or cow? I thought of the great potential lost in each instance, the great artists, the brilliant scholars, writers, princesses, princes, philosophers, teachers, architects, inventors, and scientists. People who could have contributed to society in a myriad of incredible ways. Praying and reflecting, changed. I was caught standing there, unable to move.
I felt the cars behind me and in front of me go by. I came down to check the cameras. Then the moment came when it was time to take off the cape and be completely nude. We stepped out of the way for traffic to flow. When the lights went red, Davis escorted me out to the intersection with the apple box one last time. A vision I imagined countless times leading up to the shoot. The significance of this moment didn’t escape me. A white man, leading me, a Black woman, out to the site of a former slave market and up to the “block” in shackles and unveiling me to the world. Was this the only time a white man had done this in the 150 years since the last enslaved person was sold there on that spot? The action of him extending his hand and mine taking it as I stepped up to the block.
Did that simple act ever happen? When he removed the cape from my body in this dramatic flourish as if performing a magic trick. I felt no cold in those moments, as I tried to reflect. Again I began to pray and looked towards the water where the sun was rising up over Brooklyn, the place of my birth. I gave the signal to Channon to click the shutter, in that time capturing cars and cabs emerging down Wall St. behind me. I tried to commune with the forces of power and the spirits that I was sure existed, as I stood there naked in shackles in white pumps on a block of wood on Water St. I watched as the people drove past me in their cars as if I, a Black woman, standing naked in the middle of the street, wasn’t even there at all.
Nona Faustine’s text ‘From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth’ from White Shoes (MACK, 2021)
30 x 29cm, 72 pages
€50 £45 $60