The Slave Theater Community History Project seeks to create a historical archive of the Slave Theater, the life of Judge John L. Phillips, and the local activism and recent history of the Bedford Stuyvesant Community.

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The Slave Marquee

What attracts me today to the Slave Theater is the same thing that captured my attention over a decade ago, when I first took a walk down Fulton Street, in Bedford Stuyvesant, and read the word SLAVE written across the marquee. It was bold and unabashedly authentic. It was not only a word – it was a statement.

The typographical and semantic interception of the word SLAVE on the marquee of the Slave Theater seemed to defy the aesthetic of corporate America, esp. since the word slave pertains to the person suffering in the middle of slavery. It personified the crime, made it real again.

There’s no doubt a particular place in me that mulls over the word slave; someplace in me that tries to understand the word, the disposition of the word possessing itself (as the position of the dispossessed): the word slave layered with the arrogant divorce of meanings and the undoing of horrific happenings, the word slave as a firm pillar to American history and industry, the word slaveas it pertains to my own foreign ancestry1 (slave stemming from the ethnonymSlav), the word slave as it exists today in emergent forms of political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation, and perhaps most importantly, the word slave as it alludes to words like revolt and emancipation.

The word slave is paradoxical; it plays a doubledouble rolerole. The word slave, framing master while negating master, frames liberty by the negation of liberty. It cuts itself to sharpen the knife. As when, accompanied by 2,000 federal troops, on Juneteenth, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, standing on a balcony in Galveston, Texas read aloud: “…all slaves are free.”

Judge John L. Philipps decided to name the theater Slave No. 1, and to paint, across the face of the marquee, the word SLAVE big and in high black-and-white contrast, so as not to be overlooked.

So what about the vocabulary of urban signage? The serial aesthetic of signage alongside Fulton Street is visibly disturbed by the word SLAVE on the marquee jutting over the sidewalk and entrance to the theater. The insurgenttypeface of the SLAVE marquee challenges the eye of the onlooker to reflect critically, if only for a moment, what country he or she lives in. “Choices are affective decisions which construct and respond to the significances and consequences of things and the human relations with which they are associated.” 2 Judge John L. Philipps understood this and wanted to challenge the narrative of the “machine” and therefore used the marquee as a semanticintervention in the form of pictoral activism on the façade of the theater.

“A lot of people were shocked by the name, Slave Theater, but I had a reason. I named it after me. I got a slave name, my ancestors were slaves, a whole race of people were slaves. Women were raped and men were lynched, all kinds of murders and no one was ever prosecuted. I say it’s the worst crime known to mankind. This is a reminder of that.” Judge John L. Phillips, The New York Times, 2007

When I think of the reason for the word SLAVE on the marquee, I think of the challenge this trace poses on the public, the antagonism it sets into play. You are forced to ask yourself: What caused this trace? What is intended by leaving this trace behind? What sequence of events led up to this trace? What does the word slave essentially mean?

The word slave not only speaks of the person that was, or is, the slave, it connotes a social condition, a pathological nation, a situational relationship, and point of confrontation.

“There is nothing like American chattel slavery…in the past, most people who became slaves became so as a result of war; winners enslave the losers. Sometimes, in the case of Rome, you would have a more dominant country, or place, make war and take the manpower – But Europeans systematically turned the capturing, shipping, and selling of other human beings into a business – a business that would develop into the backbone of an entire economy. That’s different. It differed in the manner in which a person became enslaved; it differed in the length of servitude; it differed in the treatment of enslaved people; and it differed…most of all, in the way they were viewed – which were subhuman. Which means that you would never rise to the level of human, which means that you will forever be a slave.” Dr. Joy DeGruy (Leary)

The marquee of the Slave Theater is by far not a passive sign, nor a mere marquee. It’s the voice of the slave that cries out generations later, restored in the visual make up of the urban skin.

The marquee, as an auto-constructed social structure, signifies the conflict in community sculpting the contour of empire.

The word Slave on the marquee both amplifies and visualizes the subaltern voice of the enslaved, essentially rendered inaudible and invisible, and personalizes a contentious presence so often distorted by “post-racial” mythologies. The Slave marquee is removed from the compartmentalization of remembrance and stands firmly on the sidewalk of a public street for all to see with real eyes. [The eye captured by the inherent slave revolt in the social structure becomes a learned eye. You are standing there, face to face, with an unforgettable history.]

It juts out and strikes an augmented chord in human consciousness. It says SLAVE on all three sides. It says SLAVE with big white block letters on a black background. You can’t miss it. Nor should you.

If we ignore the historical relationship between the economy and race relations, and the byproducts of slavery and its purported abolition, namely, the ensuing disproportionate living conditions between races, and the racial bias of our criminal justice system, how on earth then will we be able to conceive of an economy that does not ground itself in the capture and exploitation of bodies, and the partitioning of social relations, in order to function?

The state of the façade of the theater resembles the state of the interior of the theater: the water-flogged theater, the rainroom, the dim chandeliers, the hole in the ceiling, the dazzle of chipping paint, eroded plaster molding, rotten floors, and heaps of debris bespeak of the general economy of entropy, the deteriorating aesthetic of black history. Is it the sad poetry of the slavery, and of a dream of freedom: the painting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raising his hand to a crowd of people corroding at his sleeve? Take a tour and tell me you too do not see the walls of black history chipping away in the dimness of a theater-house. You then have to ask yourself, why is this not recognized by the city as a historical landmark? Perhaps the falling apartness tempts us to forget the gasping cries of the slave revolt, latent in the mission to save the Slave Theater from evaporating into the cultural amnesia of gentrification.