Photos by D'Angelo Lovell Williams
When I was born here in 1984 in the borough of Brooklyn, I only understood a fraction of your significance to the world. My family was (and is) my everything—a large family led by my grandparents, my maternal family from Grenada and my paternal family from Jamaica. Being a first-generation American born into a Caribbean family is not an uncommon story in the neighborhoods I grew up in, East Flatbush and Flatbush. I had neighbors from Trinidad, Barbados, Haiti, St. Lucia and Guyana; the region is now fittingly nicknamed Little Caribbean, and that, too, is my family.
I had a terrific childhood—not without flaw, but full of love, laughter, culture and community. I cannot count how many cousins and friends I had around me at all times. My memories of growing up here are simple and meaningful. They range from the “adventures” of walking to the corner store with friends from my block to sitting on the stoop cracking jokes way past when the streetlights came on (the indicator that it was late), amusement rides at Coney Island, picnics at Manhattan Beach, learning the latest dance moves out of the islands and, on weekends in the summer, waking up late and digging into bakes and saltfish, a traditional dish my grandmother would make, before a day full of recreation that likely included a water balloon fight.
I had friends of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds. A vast majority of my Black friends were from the Caribbean, with a handful whose families were generations deep right here in the US. It wasn’t until I went to high school in Manhattan that I realized that my NYC experience, which I thought was a universal one, was actually very specific. In Manhattan I was no longer part of the cultural majority, not even among my Black peers. I was connecting with Black people from Harlem and Washington Heights, South Bronx, Wakefield, Rosedale, Southside Jamaica, the Lower East Side, Staten Island and all other parts of Brooklyn—from Gowanus to Sheepshead Bay. They all had their own set of experiences that shaped who they were culturally. I quickly realized that Black people from different neighborhoods and upbringings had distinctive traits—we walked and talked differently, dressed in our own swag and were extremely passionate and opinionated about topics from the best pizza spots to music preferences, especially Jay-Z versus Nas.
I was now exchanging daily with Black South Americans, Afro-Latinos, West Africans and East Africans. There were the artsy and stylish kids who hung out in Soho and the Village, the kids who chased the excitement of Times Square, the kids destined for the C-suite who already had after-school jobs on Wall Street and the kids who hung out more in their respective neighborhoods in the boroughs. This was also the first time that I saw Black people openly identify as LGBTQ+. These were coming-of-age, self-defining times, and they were all different. There was diversity and intersectionality within Blackness on a scale that I had never seen before. We bonded over what we had in common, but we equally celebrated and leaned into our differences. This sparked my fascination with the Black Experience in NYC, what we represented and offered to our City, the US and the world.
When I went away to college and began traveling, I was further exposed to Black culture in different regions of the US and abroad. The experiences were still beautiful, with rich history and tradition, prideful and, in some places, progressive. But I realized that though every city and country had a Black experience worth exploring, a bit of all of those elements were available at home, and I could not guarantee the reverse was true. My journeys cemented that NYC encapsulates and represents all of these Black experiences within the five boroughs. Being among this sea of differences in NYC is what made us all louder and prouder about where we are from, what we stand for and who we are. And this daily, intentional, outward expression actually makes it easier to find your enclave here as a Black person than it does anywhere else. In NYC, Black people have endless ways to connect on a human level, draw close to people who feel like home and find our community to live our best lives with while being unapologetically ourselves.
When I joined the team at NYC & Company in November 2020 as senior director of multicultural content, I knew that one of my many duties was to produce the words, images and videos to best tell the stories that celebrate being Black in NYC. A collaboration among our staff and contributors, this entire project, The Black Experience, is my love letter to NYC—the City that encourages (or even gently nudges) us to be exactly who we are, with layers and nuances within our Blackness, a freedom and privilege that should never be taken for granted. NYC, for that, you will always have my heart.
Rondel Holder is senior director of multicultural content at NYC & Company and founder of Soul Society 101—a content and community platform for Black travelers.