The empowering thing about history is that it helps us understand how we fit into the complex fabric of humanity and society. But unfortunately, as any person of color will attest, the American history taught in US schools is, in many ways, incomplete, downplayed, and intentionally kept hidden. In order to find a fuller, richer, more complete narrative of African-American heritage, one has to search beyond pop culture and textbooks.
Through their love of vintage and antiques, Jannah Handy and Kiyanna Stewart, founders of BLK MKT Vintage, are on their own journey toward piecing together a more tangible narrative about black life in America. The couple met in college and turned their hobby of vintage collecting into a business. BLK MKT Vintage not only celebrates “black curiosities,” as Handy and Stewart call their wares, but ultimately cultivates an honest, more complete collective black memory.
Founded in 2014, BLK MKT Vintage set up shop at New York City flea markets before expanding to an Etsy store online. This summer, the couple have plans to sell their finds—1970s afro picks, decades-old Etta James vinyl, first edition Dick Gregory books, Black Panther newspapers, and rare slave portraits, among other collectibles—in their first brick and mortar location in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Their hope for this physical space is to not only cultivate tangible black memory but to also celebrate and build black community.
Recently, VICE sat down with Handy and Stewart to talk about cultural preservation, memory, and how their passion for black vintage shapes their lens on being black in America.
VICE: When did you start collecting?
Stewart: I've been collecting for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my mom and I spent weekends going to thrift shops, antique shops, garage sales, and all that stuff. It was beautiful bonding between the both of us. I didn’t realize I was collecting until graduate school. Folks would come into my apartment and were really impressed with the things I had collected over the years. It was other people experiencing my things that made me realize that I was actually collecting.
Handy: My journey into collecting was 100 percent Kiyanna. I started going to flea markets with her, because I wanted to date her. But little did I know that vintage was the fastest way to her heart. She went away for a summer to Ghana with some students. And when she was gone, I realized that I missed her and just started going to thrift stores on my own. By the time she got back, I realized I had my own little collection of stuff that I got from the thrift store.
What was the impetus to start BLK MKT Vintage?
Stewart: In a lot of antique shops, vintage shops or flea markets, there were very few folks who look like us. At certain markets, there were lots of folks of color but for the most part there was a nostalgic dissonance. So we're going into markets looking for black folks, black artwork, black photographs, black records. But you can’t find any because all of the records are white records, all the art features white women running through a landscape somewhere. Nothing looked like us. And the things that were “black” were astronomically priced and very much out of reach.
The black-centric items cost way more than other vintage items?
Handy: Yes. So our origin story starts with wanting to fill that gap of what we didn't see. But also that the items we were looking for were so scarce that we wondered, How did all these things become scarce?
Walking into white-owned vintage shops, it felt so infuriating, at one point, to have a white person selling black items and up-charging us on our own history, and they are the reason why it’s so scarce. We realized dynamics of race in just collecting. Kiyanna would always wonder, How do you have this place that is dedicated to antiquity and we as black people are not in the story?
Now that you have your own business, how does race come into play? What is your experience with white customers?
Handy: We started BLK MKT Vintage four years ago in Hell’s Kitchen and then moved to Brooklyn Flea. Brooklyn Flea was a great platform in terms of, like, getting constant commerce, but we realized that the patrons of Brooklyn Flea weren’t quite our audience.
There was this one experience… we had a little figurine from the 40s—a black football player figurine. I was so happy about it, because it was so hard to find. A white couple comes up and they say, “Oh my God, this hysterical. This will be perfect for a trophy for fantasy football.” I sold it to them, but after that I cried. I asked myself, What are these emotions? And I realized that it felt like our history was a joke. It was that experience that made me realize that I really want the same reaction and appreciation we as collectors have of the work that we do. I want other folks in the community to have that. Not all white folks see our culture as a joke, but that experience was really demonstrative to me that we needed to get in the right lane in intentionally attracting people of color.
Why are black antique items so scarce?
Handy: Items before the 1880s are scarce due to migration. We were property, and property can’t own things, so there wasn’t a lineage of things being passed on. Back then, there was likely no perceived value to black items. We see an uptick after Emancipation. But a downtick when it comes to the Great Migration and Jim Crow. As folks were forced to move around, they didn’t have an opportunity to save things to take with them. The impact of domestic terrorism—people were forced to leave at the drop of a hat, and that really impacts what was or wasn’t passed on.
What is the rarest item you've acquired?
Handy: An 1843 fugitive slave notice. It’s a piece of paper on a wooden board, and it talks about a slave named Paul whose master is looking for him. It notes that Paul frequents another plantation to see his family. The description on it: Paul has one ear and considerable lashes on his back. So we know that Paul has been through some harrowing things, but we know that he escaped and is still going back to visit his family. Those are the kinds of things that I want for BLK MKT to help instill and reinforce—that we as black people have been through so much, and we can look back at artifacts and other items and feel empowered by them.
What is the most expensive item you've sold?
Stewart: A 1960s round peacock chair for about $700.
Do you get requests or commissions to search for certain items?
Handy: We offer consultations just to tell you what you have and how much it could potentially be worth. We also take requests and source items as well. If you choose to buy it, we’ll attach a finder’s fee.
Stewart: There are a few folks who—say their grandmother was profiled by Ebony magazine back in the day, and they have access to the digital archives but want the actual publication. We go out and find it for them.
How much stuff do you sell each month?
Handy: We sell about 300 to 400 things a month.
Where do you source the items?
Stewart: We pick from upstate New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts a few times a year. If we travel, we will pick up things. Most recently, we did that in Cuba, and the farthest we’ve picked was Thailand. Sometimes items come from estate sales, from the side of the road, or people come to us with items that they don’t want to hold onto that other folks can benefit from. We talk to other collectors. It takes time. It can be intensive, which is also why we wanted to do this—so others wouldn’t have to exert so much labor trying to find things that were representative of their history.
What are your goals for your business?
Stewart: Our goal is to have a physical store—an intentional space that pays homage, one that preserves our heritage. We are looking to do this in the next few months. There are items that we still buy and sell that aren’t considered race-specific, but they are cool décor pieces and cool things folks would want to have which are a little difficult to sell online.
What do you make of being black in America based on your experience as vintage collectors?
Handy: Recently I read The Sellout by Paul Beatty while also reading Die Nigger Die! by H. Rap Brown. What I found is that being black in America now is the same thing as back then when these books were published. Now, as compared to back then, we talk about it in different ways, we code in different ways. Both books were about what it means to be black, what it means to be a nigger and what it means to be a negro. Are there differences? And how do we identify as black people?
Die Nigger Die! was published in 1969, and The Sellout was published in 2015. Being black in America, for me, means now is the time to actually do something about the things that affect our community so that in ten, 20, or 30 years, we don’t have the same books about the same issues that we still haven’t figured out. In the context of the work we do, I always find the fortitude and strength and power in some of the documents that we have. But I’ve also realized that it will always be a cycle until it’s not—until someone makes sure it’s not.
Stewart: I think being black in America, for me, I can use the items we source as a metaphor. They’ve survived. They’ve survived Jim Crow and the Great Migration. They survived folks having to move around, all kinds of stuff. Yet they exist. They persist. I don’t just want us, as black people, to make it. I want us to be able to thrive as a community. And we do that in a number of different ways despite the shit. I think these items are beautiful, because they remind me that we have always existed and persisted despite white supremacy. It's been really beautiful to find my identity in these things.
Why is preserving culture in this way important?
Stewart: I collect black women's poetry. I'm always fascinated by how black women used language and continue to use language to inform their community, to shape their community, to teach others, to describe themselves, to articulate their sexualities, their politics, and their identities. It's been really beautiful to find my identity in these things. And so those are always my favorite things to hold onto. So this work is personal. I'm inspired by this stuff. And it is a promise that we will continue to persist.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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