When Kiyanna Stewart and Jannah Handy visit vintage stores, they often don’t see people who look like them or items that reflect their Black history and cultural heritage.
“Going into antique shops and we are the only Black people in the spaces,” Stewart told TODAY. “There's no Black art on the walls. There's barely any Black literature.”
"The people and the stories that are embedded and imbued in those objects are just as important. That's the ethos of our work."
That’s one reason the couple co-founded BLK MKT Vintage, a business dedicated to curating items that honor the richness of Black history in America — everything from rare vintage covers of Jet and Ebony magazines to Black hair product canisters from the early 20th century.
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Vintage pieces like these are not only valuable for their age, but also because they carry an emotional weight and legacy.
For Stewart, 31, and Handy, 34, the items they curate embody the stories of the people who created and used them, connecting them to the wider narrative of Black history and the Black experience in America.
“The material is very important. The people and the stories that are embedded and imbued in those objects are just as important,” Stewart said. “That's the ethos of our work.”
Collecting began as a hobby for Stewart and Handy. They met at Rutgers University, where they were both working in student affairs, and where Stewart was finishing her Master's degree in women's and gender studies.
“I was really intrigued by Jannah when I first met her,” Stewart said. “She's just magnetic. So wildly creative ... I was just really, really drawn to her. And it felt like I had known her, I mean, a lifetime.”
Handy also felt a strong connection to Stewart.
“It's almost like there was a twinkle in her eye that almost I understood what it meant,” she said.
Inspired by Stewart’s longtime interest in vintage pieces and antiques, they began traveling the country together, collecting Black art, Black literature, civil rights memorabilia and other artifacts.
In 2014, they started selling the pieces they'd collected at flea markets and stoop sales. Demand grew and grew over the next few years, and they decided to turn BLK MKT Vintage into a full-time business, opening an online shop and eventually a brick-and-mortar location in Brooklyn, New York, in November 2019.
Their physical location is definitely not a museum-like collection of dusty antiques on shelves; Stewart and Handy have organized the space in a way that brings the pieces to life.
“An important way that we’re different from a museum is that we’re able to contextualize things in a different way,” Handy said. “We create these vignettes ... a kitchen vignette made out of, you know, a GE 1960 (stove) and some hot combs and some clips and Jet magazines.”
These vignettes help create a narrative that ties together the vintage pieces, encouraging visitors to think about the role these items once played in people’s lives at the time and in the wider culture.
“Black artifacts ... tell a story,” said Shantrelle Lewis, a longtime customer of BLK MKT Vintage. “They say that we were here, we lived here, our lives were important. We were names. We were a culture. We were a family.”
That rings true for another loyal customer, photographer Adrian Walker. He appreciates that Stewart and Handy collect vintage photographs of ordinary Black families, which he says are hard to come by in many antique stores.
“When I go out and try to source things myself, I don’t see Black people,” he said. “You know, you see a lot of white individuals, like white families.”
BLK MKT Vintage provides a space for Black people to see items from their own history presented as valuable and worth preserving.
Stewart and Handy say that all too often, Black cultural artifacts end up being thrown away because the gatekeepers of the antique world are often non-Black people who might not understand the significance of certain pieces.
“A really good way to encapsulate that in one object would be a hot comb,” Stewart says, referring to a kind of metal comb that was heated in the oven or on the stove and used to straighten hair.
People unfamiliar with them might think “that these hot combs are just a piece of brass and may just be trashed,” Stewart said. “But to us, you know, seeing this hot comb and the conversations that you're able to have around it, that familial, that communal value … I see it and I say, ‘Wow … I have an emotional connection to this.’ And so then I imbue value into it.”
That sentiment is echoed by one of their celebrity customers and supporters, actress and screenwriter Lena Waithe. She found out about BLK MKT Vintage through friends and she’s now a regular patron herself, with an eye for vintage T-shirts and LGBTQ ephemera.
“The beautiful thing about what they’re doing … they are saying about our magazines, old books, old T-shirts, our tchotchkes, our buttons, that they are worthy of being kept,” Waithe said.
Waithe isn’t the only celebrity fan of BLK MKT’s vintage gear; actress Issa Rae often wears vintage T-shirts sourced by Stewart and Handy in HBO’s “Insecure.”
“Y’all know we’re all about finding ways to insert black vintage into contemporary cultural projects,” read an Instagram post from BLK MKT Vintage after one of their shirts appeared in an episode last year.
Handy and Stewart enjoyed an enormous outpouring of support when they moved into their Brooklyn space in November 2019. Little did they know that the COVID-19 pandemic would hit soon after they opened, forcing them, like so many business owners, to rethink their strategy.
“We were open for about four months before closing for COVID,” Stewart said. “We were adjusting to a new schedule, to new financial obligations.”
They were able to transition back to online sales, fulfilling orders out of their home.
“I'm so grateful that we already had an online community, that we already had the infrastructure … so we could just easily pivot,” Stewart said.
That’s not to say things have been easy over the past year, and Stewart says they still feel they are “still very much so in this really strange, odd, traumatic place.”
However, Handy says that by redirecting their focus to online sales for the time being, they have “been able to adapt and overcome” even as their physical location remains closed.
Whether they are working online or in person, Handy and Stewart remain committed to their mission to curate valuable pieces of Black history — and to honor the people and culture these items represent.
“The legacy that I desire for BLK MKT Vintage would be one that shows that we belong,” Handy said. “We belong, we’ve always belonged, and that we’ve always been here.”