Preserving Black History with BLK MKT Vintage
BLK MKT Vintage founders Kiyanna Stewart and Jannah Handy preserve black history through their collection of ephemera, photographs, accessories, and other materials that represent the African diaspora.
The Brooklyn natives both have a childhood relationship with antiques and thrift shopping. Kiyanna reintroduced Jannah to what was then a hobby after they met in their college years. Throughout their journeys in antique, thrift, and consignment shops, the couple found a dearth of items that reflect their experiences. BLK MKT Vintage was created to fill that void and to make history more accessible. In many ways, this digital and retail experience removes the barriers to holding and understanding one’s history, barriers often associated with institutions that are gatekeepers of similar materials.
As educators, Kiyanna and Jannah are committed to building a space where people can spend time exploring and learning from their archive and through programming that activates the personal histories and intimate conversations that are at the core of their work.
The couple views their work as expanding narratives preserved and presented in the canon. “We aren’t in the business of deciding who represents history,” Kiyanna says. Aware that the recollection of black history is often paired with the politics of respectability, BLK MKT Vintage reflects all walks of life.
For BLK MKT Vintage, it is not just about celebrating the glorious moments of our history, often encapsulated under the idea of “Black Joy.” Their collection reflects the complexities of the black experience, which can include moments of grief, pain, and resilience. In its contribution to Radical Reading Room, BLK MKT Vintage has shared magazines with iconic images, articles, and covers that illuminate many facets of black life in America. For Radical Reading Room, The Studio Museum in Harlem has invited more than forty artists, writers, publishers, and community organizations to share works—their own or those they admire— that engage with the history of black printed matter and the discourse surrounding its circulation.
On their experience participating in the exhibition, the couple says, collectively, “We’re honored to be participating in what we see as a transformative reimagining of a community archive. It’s moving to see so many works pulled together in celebration of the Studio Museum’s anniversary, together representing a full picture of black cultural production. We’re in the business of preserving vintage/antique materials, so it was fitting that we contribute the 1940s– 1960s library-bound editions of some of our most coveted black publications. Tan, Sepia, Ebony, and Black World. As millennial-adjacent New Yorkers, we spent so much of our formative years learning about Harlem’s contributions to the culture. As a business, we can now say that we’ve partnered with the Schomburg Center and the Studio Museum to find new ways to build community, give access, and exercise partnership and collaboration. This work is more about community than it is about physical things.”
Harlem holds a special place in African-American history, shaping artistic, intellectual, and political movements. Kiyanna and Jannah realize that for many African Americans, particularly those whose lineage is informed by the Great Migration, heirlooms are scarce. Many possessions did not make this great trek north, so many ancestral histories exist only through oral transmission. This retail experience shares histories that may not be readily accessible but are intimately relatable. The brick-and-mortar store expands the work accomplished by their online and social presence and will roll out programming and provide a contemplative space for scholars and creators. They hope that the venue will give birth to fruitful conversations and be a resource for black creatives.
—Maleke Glee and Jennifer Harley