Going to Extremes

It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.

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Photo credit unknown — reprinted in Jacobin. Police blocked entry to the school building at one point during the conflict. 

One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.

I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.

My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.

My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.

Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.

One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.

Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.

I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:

‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’

McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.

I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?

It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”

Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head

You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…

            Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you

            But you know that black people were the original Hebrews

            When the UN made Israel a free, independent state

            Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades

            They hated the black Arab with all their might

            And you, Jew boy, said it was alright

            And then you came to America the land of the free

            Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

            Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it

            You had a clean white face colorless and faded.

When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.

Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.

I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way:  if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.

It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).

The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.

There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.

Consequences of Hate

The panel discussion sparked so many questions and reflections. After some preliminary remarks by the moderator, Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Sheepshead Bay, across the borough, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.

She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.

I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over.  Monifa continued, explaining how based on this, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). Radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced.  In the context of the time, I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. She joined the Black Panthers, who became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Hearing the idea that white people were the devil reminded me of another time I heard that sentiment. As I have written before, I facilitate workshops for school boards across New York State. The goal of the sessions is to educate board members about their roles and responsibilities and to do team building. I had worked for the Anti-Defamation League before coming to NYSSBA and been trained to facilitate workshops on multiculturalism. So, when a school board was experiencing conflict due to charges of racism, I was asked to conduct a retreat to help them through it.

The nine-member Board had only one person of color, an African-American woman. As the session progressed, after opening exercises and a discussion of identity, we got to the heart of the matter: the racism allegation. In the course of the dialogue, the African-American woman expressed her frustration that she was not being heard by her fellow board members. She explained that she grew up in a southern state and shared that her grandmother told her white people were the devil – it was a message she heard repeatedly. She wanted us to understand how hard she worked to let go of that thought; she wanted her colleagues to understand how difficult it was for her to trust them.

It took courage and self-awareness for her to admit that. The other board members at the table had not acknowledged any racist impulses or messages that they had grown up with (or may have still held).

As the discussion at that workshop continued, it emerged that all of the first-and second -year Board members (there were three of them, all of them women), shared the feeling of not being heard. It was possible that the source of the problem was in not effectively orienting new members and not explaining how to get items on the agenda, or it could have been sexism (the Board president was male), rather than racism directed at one member.

I left that Board retreat somewhat optimistic that we had made some progress. Maybe they had a better understanding of each other. Perhaps the Board President, having heard the frustration of three of the female new members, would be more inclusive. I was disappointed that the white board members hadn’t acknowledged any stereotypes or preconceived notions they had about African-Americans, but I was hopeful that they had food for thought. Perhaps as they had time to process the session, in the privacy of their own thoughts, they would examine their beliefs.

Sitting in the audience listening to the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.

Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message.  Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took. I wanted to understand more (I plan to return to this subject in my next blog post).

I also wonder how many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized.’

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The largely white teachers’ union thought they were the target of racists. It was a complicated story, with layers of hate and mistrust.

 

Next week: More on the teachers’ strike and the charges of anti-Semitism.

 

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike: What is its legacy?

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A notice (see above) came across my Facebook feed that caught my eye. The Brooklyn Historical Society was hosting a panel discussion about the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers’ Strike (a school district in Brooklyn). Memories were sparked of a very controversial place and time. The topic touched on issues that have interested and motivated me my entire life: education and race relations. To add to my curiosity, the strike touched my family. Though I was a child at the time, I knew my father had been involved, he was an early union organizer for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). I remembered that he walked that picket line. I clicked on the link to look at the details.

The program featured three speakers and a moderator. One was a teacher from the junior high school at the center of the controversy who crossed the picket line, the second was a student who was the valedictorian of that junior high school’s graduating class in 1969, and the final presenter was a scholar who wrote a book that took a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy. The moderator was a current resident and activist in that Brooklyn neighborhood who had family that taught in the district at that time. The teacher, Charles Isaacs, was noted as also having written a book (Inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville: A Teacher’s Education 1968-69). Conspicuously absent was anyone representing the union. Though I was a bit concerned that the presentation might be skewed, I wanted to hear what they had to say.

I bought a ticket. I found a parking spot nearby, no mean feat in downtown Brooklyn. I got there early; the room was already filling up.  One might think that events from 50 years ago might be long forgotten, but clearly others were equally interested in revisiting this time and place. There was a palpable energy in the room. The space wasn’t very large, I think the capacity was 200. Every seat was taken, with some folks standing along the perimeter. The audience was very diverse: young, old and in between; white, black, and brown; men and women. I didn’t know a soul.

Before going to the session, I did a little research to remind myself what the issues were that surrounded the strike. I read some New York Times accounts and looked at a summary of the book written by Mr. Isaacs.

The strike was spurred by a decentralization experiment in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district.  In 1967 the New York City Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, authorized the creation of three experimental school districts; one in Harlem, one on the Lower East Side and one in Brooklyn (Ocean Hill-Brownsville). The idea was to give decision-making power (in hiring, firing, budgeting, curriculum approval, etc.) to the local community, rather than the central bureaucracy.  The hope was that, as a result, the staff in the district would begin to look more like the community around it and that parents would be more invested in their children’s education if they had a say in it. Each of the demonstration districts was poor and student achievement was abysmal.

What happened next is a complicated story and depends on which account of events you read. I can’t do justice to all of the details in this space (whole books have been written about it!). The agreed upon facts are these: A new superintendent, Rody McCoy, who was African-American, was brought into the newly created district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville. A locally elected school board was seated. Changes to curriculum and pedagogical approach were instituted. After a year in charge, McCoy believed that the effort to implement change was being stymied by some administrators and teachers. As a result, during the summer of 1968 a letter was sent to 19 staff members advising them that they were terminated, and they should report to the central Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. All 19 were white, many were Jewish (this becomes relevant as events unfold).

The teachers’ union interpreted this personnel action as a threat to their authority and a breach of the contract that they had with the New York City central Board of Education. According to their agreement, termination could only occur after due process, and this action had been taken without the necessary administrative steps. The union, led by its president Al Shanker, protested and called for a strike.

All of this was occurring in the context of heightened racial tension in the country as a whole. Though the civil rights movement had resulted in new laws, poverty, discrimination, police brutality and the perception that the Vietnam War was exacting more pain from African-Americans were still troubling realities. During the summer of 1967, called the ‘long, hot summer’ for a reason, there were multiple riots in urban areas (159 of them). Detroit and Newark experienced some of the worst violence, resulting in 43 and 26 dead in each city respectively. Hundreds of others were injured, and swaths of city blocks were burned. Mixed into this violence was a call for African-Americans to forcefully claim their rights, rather than taking the path of nonviolence charted by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The decentralization of schools in New York City was seen as part of a response to the call for Black Power. The conflict over the termination (which became a subject of dispute because some said it was a reassignment, not a firing) of the teachers/administrators was taking place against this backdrop. It became impossible to disentangle the contractual issues from the racial and power politics of the time. Though I was a child, I was aware of the tension. I was aware of the strain on my father. He supported the union’s position.

I think the most common interpretation of events would suggest that the union ‘won’ and that the decentralization experiment failed. Hearing the panelists, a different picture emerged. Their interpretation emphasized that the 19 teachers/administrators were racists and weren’t actually fired but were to be reassigned; and that children were being harmed in the union’s quest for power. They blamed Al Shanker for stoking racial tensions (alleging that he fueled charges of Black Anti-Semitism) and for letting the strike stretch to 36 days (the longest in American history). They highlighted the successes of the experiment in improved self-esteem among the students and empowerment of parents and community.

While I have no vested interest in Shanker’s legacy, my father did walk that picket line. I was troubled by the allegations because it could implicate my father, a man I admired (and still admire) for his moral compass. I listened to their presentations and wondered what my father would have thought. If only he was still alive, so I could ask him. I would have to do more research to see if I could come to my own conclusions.

Next week: More on the panel discussion and the legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Neighborhoods and Change

When I was in graduate school I lived on 80thand Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980. It was my first exposure to gentrification. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was taking place before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working class people were displaced by wealthier folks. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered and boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I wondered where the displaced people went, but I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer, I could walk comfortably on more blocks. Though the ice cream from the new Haagen Dazs shop may have been expensive, it sure was delicious.

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The Upper West Side today.  Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Time

Some lamented the changes, either because of the injustice to those of lesser means or because of the loss of authenticity (everything new, shiny and expensive was phony) or both. I certainly understood the former. The gap between the haves and the havenots was growing steadily, it was and is unfair. But, longing for the days when New York City was gritty and dirty, was bizarre to me. I didn’t enjoy being afraid. I was unsettled by the strung-out junkies hanging out on the stoops of those brownstones. That era, the 70s and 80s, when the city nearly went bankrupt, and the lack of support showed in crumbling buildings and overflowing garbage, is not romantic to me. (The website Gothamist ran a series of side-by-side photos of Central Park, showing the condition of the park back in the day. Take a look.)

More recently I had reason to think about the changes in the last decades in New York City when Leah and I did the Five Boro Bike Tour (which I wrote about here). We cycled through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the 70s and 80s, I wouldn’t have considered visiting either area, much less ride a bicycle through them. We rode past art galleries and craft beer breweries. Much like the gentrification of the Upper West Side, these areas in Brooklyn were now home to a wealthier professional class.

I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods and how complicated it all is, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. I did a bit of research, including reading a book, The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration and Ethnic Politics in a Global City (2012), edited by Judith DeSena and Timothy Shortell. The book is comprised of 16 scholarly essays, including one entitled, Revising Canarsie. (Note: I believe that the title was meant to be Revisiting Canarsie, not revising, because the premise of the piece was to take a look at the neighborhood and compare it to an earlier examination by Jonathan Rieder, entitled Canarsie: Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism(1985), a book I also read and found very insightful.)

The book, The World in Brooklyn, in general, makes the case that gentrification is a bad thing for the poor, immigrant communities. It paints a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While I believe there is truth in that picture, I think it oversimplifies things. The books presents the ‘gentry’ as one, monolithic thing – as if it is a homogenous group of rich, white people. The book doesn’t take into account that when demographics are changing, it is a two-way street. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that make true integration across economic classes (not just racial differences) impossible to achieve.

I may be particularly sensitive to this issue of integrating across economic classes because of an experience I had when we moved into our suburban neighborhood, which was a new development (new, developing neighborhood). As may be the case in many suburban neighborhoods, there was a range of economic circumstances. There were those who were barely able to make ends meet to live there, and there were those for whom it was very comfortable, and, of course, families in between. Though Gary and I were in the more comfortable range, we thought of ourselves as more modest people since we had grown up in middle class families. Leah, our daughter became friends with a girl down the block and they often played at the friend’s house. We became friendly with the parents and made numerous overtures to invite them over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments that were made, I came to believe that the mom made certain assumptions about us. Since Gary was (and is) a doctor, we were Jewish, we were from downstate originally, the mom, in particular, was not comfortable socializing with us. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something else at work. As Gary and I became more comfortable economically, I became more aware of how that can create awkwardness, even when trying to be sensitive. It is something that is difficult to talk about. We never did get beyond neighborly friendliness and eventually they moved. The experience, and others like it, made me more aware of economic factors that can create social barriers.

My experience growing up in Canarsie offers another perspective on neighborhood relationships in the midst of change. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification, it would appear to be just the opposite. I have written before about my experience in 1972 with the boycott of schools because of the plan to bus black students from East New York into predominantly white Canarsie schools (here). There was some white flight in response, but the neighborhood remained fairly stable for a number of years (my parents left in 1989 when they retired from teaching). In 1990 Canarsie was less than 20% black; in 2000 it was 60% black (and I use ‘black’ because many of the new residents were immigrants from the Caribbean who may or may not have identified as African-American). By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. Though the racial composition changed, the fact was that the economic status remained stable. The new residents weren’t poor and they weren’t uneducated.

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Typical block in Canarsie – Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians were looking for years before. According to a New York Times article:

‘A house to the Caribbean man is something very important,” Samuel E. Palmer was saying. ”He has to have a house, as opposed to an apartment. Whatever happens, the house comes first, so you can have a family and your friends can meet there. So, when I came here, the desire also was to achieve this house, this houseness.”

Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family. They were loyal to Brooklyn; they had no interest in Queens or Long Island. As Mr. Palmer put it, if you move, you have to build all over again: friends, neighbors, all that.

Canarsie is teeming with new and newly revitalized civic associations these days, many of them headed by newcomers like Mr. Brazela and Mr. Duncan, lobbying and agitating for improved street lighting, road repairs, better drainage.”

THE CENSUS — A Region of Enclaves: Canarsie, Brooklyn; ‘For Sale’ Signs Greet Newcomers – NYT, June 18, 2001

The essay on Canarsie in the book that I cited above, supported this anecdotal account with  research-based findings. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 when there were three bias incidents (against black families/businesses), including the fire-bombing of a real estate agency that was court ordered to show homes in Canarsie to blacks and Hispanic buyers. The neighborhood became homogenous again – now it is over 90% black.

In reading and thinking about the issues raised by changing neighborhoods, I think there are some commonalities. Problems seem to start with assumptions made based on stereotypes or ignorance or both. And, there aren’t mechanisms to get beyond those assumptions. We have no language to talk to each other about these issues. One of the essays in the World in Brooklyn analogizes different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who might play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. There is some learning about each other as groups coexist, but not true integration. Of course, there are exceptions, some individuals have successfully broken down barriers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to whole communities. The question is, how do we integrate across race, economic status, religion? What have we learned from our past experiences that can help us? How can we do better?

Calling on Canarsiens

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I’m not sure what people from Canarsie call themselves – Canarsiens? Canarsie-ites? Either way, I’m asking for your input.

I started this blog with the hope of painting a picture of my life in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the mid 1960s through early ‘70s. It was a time not unlike today, in some ways. It felt fraught, dangerous even. So much was changing and violence, in the form of urban riots and crime, was lurking. I grew up acutely aware of those crosscurrents.

Others growing up in Canarsie at the same time had different perceptions. I deduce this from conversations I have had with friends and from comments posted on the Internet. This isn’t surprising, of course, one would expect different experiences. But some have described an idyllic childhood in which neighbors looked out for each other and children played together in harmony (mostly). Which made me wonder: was my experience the exception?

I want to explore that question. If you (and please feel free to pass this request on) grew up in Canarsie and graduated from either Canarsie High School or South Shore from about 1973-1977 and would like to share your memories, I would like to interview you. Please send me an email at LBakst.Canarsie@gmail.com and I will follow up.

The three major topics I am interested in exploring are: family life, ethnicity/race relations, and perceptions of safety. I am particularly interested in memories of the boycott of schools in response to the busing plan in Canarsie in 1972-73.

This is not going to be a scientific study by any means, but interviews can yield important perspectives. I am hopeful that I will gain more insight into a broader range of experience and then I can share those insights on my blog, either as part of my stories or separately. I will keep the information anonymous, unless you are willing to speak for attribution.

Aside from satisfying my personal curiosity, I’m hoping it will help paint a more detailed picture of that time and place, which in turn should lead to a better understanding of who we are now. I hope the conversation will be interesting to you, too! I hope to hear from you.

Reflections on Newport

Note:  I know I said I was taking the week off, but then I felt like I needed to write this and share it. So, it’s Tuesday. It is my blog and I make the rules 🙂

Newport, Rhode Island encapsulates much that is great about our country and, at the very same time, much that isn’t. The duality that defines our history plays out there.

Today: Newport is beautiful. The views of the ocean, with ships of every size and shape dotting the water, are spectacular. Families enjoy themselves at the beach or strolling the streets, looking at the over-abundance of charming shops and restaurants. Old and young amble the cobblestone streets. A surprising number of folks speaking languages other than English. Though predominantly white, there were many people of color.

Today: As we walked by, a homeless man was sweeping the sidewalk that he claimed as his own. He had his meager things set up against the low decorative wall that separated the park from the street. It is hard to miss the income inequality so evident in Newport. The huge mansions, the extraordinary wealth of some – how much is enough? The conspicuous consumption, in contrast to those sleeping on a bench.

We took a trolley tour of Newport. The tour guide did not ignore the fact that the original wealth of Newport was built, at least in part, on the slave trade. She also acknowledged the role of Native Americans in assisting the colonists. It is a complicated history, filled with the duality that is our country’s history. Rhode Island was also the colony founded on religious freedom, but it profited from the slave trade and from piracy. These contradictory strands are not easy to reconcile.

We took a tour of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest temple in the United States (though I would’ve sworn that they said the same of the synagogue in Savannah). The synagogue’s founders were descendants of those who had escaped the Inquisition. I had not remembered a pretty significant event associated with the Touro Synagogue (Gary recalled learning about it, though I’m not sure if it was in Hebrew school or in American History), but learning of it made quite an impression on me, so I would like to recount it here (the photos below are of the exterior and interior of the synagogue).

 

After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790, George Washington came to visit. He stopped in Newport before heading on to Providence and was greeted very enthusiastically. The leader of the synagogue, Moses Seixas, presented him with a letter. Here is the letter (I know it is written in a style that is difficult, but I think it is worth the effort):

Sir:

Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits – and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days – those days of difficulty, and danger when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword, – shielded Your head in the day of battle: – and we rejoice to think that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate of these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: – deeming every one, of which Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine: – This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. 

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under and equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men – beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: – And, when like Joshua full of days, and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

We visited the synagogue just two days after the 227th anniversary of the letter. George Washington was quite moved by this expression of support and wrote a letter in response:

Gentlemen:

While I receive with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

George Washington

I think that the two letters are pretty damn impressive.  In Newport, they read Washington’s letter publicly every year on its anniversary. Though we did not attend, it was read on Sunday, August 20th outside on the grounds of the synagogue.

I recognize that Washington may not have been including women, African-Americans or Native Americans when he used the term ‘people;’ he was, after all, a man of his time. I am also not a believer in God as credited in these letters. But the ideas, of moving beyond tolerance and allowing all citizens the freedom of their conscience are still revolutionary and the letters remind me of that. These ideas are still relevant and timely in 2017.

When I was a child we learned American history in public school. I remember learning how different groups contributed to the founding of our country. A prominent person from each group (Crispus Attucks – African-Americans, Haym Solomon – Jewish-American, Baron Von Steuben – Prussian-American, Lafayette – French-American, Tadeusz Kosciuszko – Polish-American) was studied to show that the success of the Revolution was based on the contributions of many different groups. I felt proud of that history. I believed in the ideals of the Revolution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. My understanding of ‘all’ was more inclusive than our forefathers (and my understanding continued to expand as I became more educated), but I loved the idea of America. I felt pride when the national anthem was played, especially during the Olympic Games!

Something changed as I grew older. The pride I felt was tempered by the realization that we were not fulfilling our ideals, we were falling short of our promise. I have been especially discouraged since the election of Trump. Reading these letters, though, even in the context of their time and understanding the limitations, reminded me of our potential. They remind me of the ideals at the heart of our country. This is something to be proud of and to aspire to fulfill.

While I don’t subscribe to American exceptionalism (because it implies superiority), I do believe in our potential. Perhaps there is a parallel between Jews being the ‘chosen people’ and American exceptionalism. I was always uncomfortable with being labeled chosen, that idea could be translated as arrogance or supremacy. Instead, maybe being ‘chosen’ or ‘exceptional’ can be thought of as a responsibility to fulfill, not as a birthright; an ideal to work towards, not an entitlement.

I come back from Newport reminded of the roots of our country, both good and bad. I hope we all can agree on the merit and meaning of the values that were at the heart of our founding. I hope we find our way forward with a shared understanding of the potential of this country.

 

There Are No Sides

I cannot be silent. The president’s response to the tragedy in Charlottesville is not acceptable. He started off okay, but then went off track:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides…”

“…on many sides” What is he talking about? There are no sides when it comes to torch-bearing, Hitler-esque saluting men marching through the University of Virginia campus in support of white nationalism. Is there a side I am missing?

In the late 1990s, when I served on the school board in Guilderland, we reviewed a policy entitled ‘Teaching Controversial Issues.’ One of my colleagues on the Board wanted to include language that said that both sides of an issue would be represented in these situations. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable request. But, when you look more closely, it isn’t so simple.

The first problem is in defining controversial topics. To me, evolution is not controversial (just as being against racism isn’t debatable). A biology teacher is not obligated to present ‘another side.’ There is no other scientific side and schools (certainly public ones) should be teaching science.  In fact, the teacher would be doing a disservice to give class time to intelligent design. There is a small, but vocal, minority who are still arguing the validity of evolution. I think it is wise for a teacher, who knows or suspects that there are students whose religious faith may conflict with evolution, to note that their views will be tolerated (I am using that word purposely), but the information presented in class will be based on science.

The second problem is that there can be many more than two sides to a ‘controversial’ issue. Everything doesn’t break down into pro and con. As much as we might like to set up issues debate-style, for and against, most subjects are more nuanced.

The third problem is that all ‘sides’ are not equal. Do all views need to be given equal time? When we study American history there are interpretations on the far right and far left that are distorted. The curriculum and materials used should represent the consensus of historians, relying as much as possible on facts and original source documents. Teachers should encourage students to think critically about the material, ask questions and facilitate discussion. But, again, ‘all sides’ aren’t legitimate and don’t deserve attention.

Sometimes there is a right side of history. The Confederacy lost the war, thankfully. While it is useful, actually critical, to understand the issues that led to the Civil War and what the South was fighting for, that is not the same thing as endorsing its mission. There is no defense for slavery. We can understand its economic role, we can understand its historical roots, but that can’t be confused with sanctioning it in any way, shape or form.

One of the elements that led to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville was the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the removal of Confederate statues in his city in a powerful speech that was articulate, eloquent and right on point. In sum, he said that those statues belonged in history museums not city squares. (Please watch the speech! It didn’t get nearly enough national attention. Here is the link). We can’t and shouldn’t erase history, but monuments to individuals are meant to celebrate accomplishments and contributions, to remind us of our better angels. Robert E. Lee may have been a great general militarily, but he does not merit celebration.

When my well-meaning colleague raised the question of adopting a policy on teaching controversial issues, the Board decided it was better to remain silent on the subject. We had a healthy discussion and debated the various implications, but concluded that it was best to leave the issue in the hands of educators.

Interestingly, the impetus for her recommendation was her perception that the Vietnam War had been taught in a one-sided manner when her oldest children went to Guilderland High School in the 1980s. When we were having this policy discussion, it was the late 1990s and Vietnam was no longer controversial. I long for a day when the same can be said of the Civil War.