Seven years working in the County of Kings – most recently as a journalist – has solidified a conviction of mine. Knowing the paths we’ve walked sharpens our perspective as we move forward. This blog is about Brooklyn’s African-American journey-in-print. It begins with a book review and concludes with my reflections as a writer, enriched by that history, and compelled to supply journalistic epilogues.
A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn. By Craig Steven Wilder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xii plus 325 pp).
Craig Wilder, native son of Brooklyn, frames three and a half centuries of Brooklyn history in a class-based analysis that demands to be read. He writes on the freedom impulse that secures family, builds community, widens opportunity, and allows us—today—to look back on earlier times from the vantage point of long established local civic clubs, churches, and other institutions. By naming the neighborhoods and historical periods in which barriers were broken, Wilder remaps local territory from Canarsie to Crown Heights in the most alive way. He situates history’s famous Brooklyn names in the context of national movements and economic forces. This is how Covenant with Color acts both as time machine, showing us who we were, as well as mirror to all America. We come to see Brooklyn as a microcosm of the nation in his words.
Place comes alive in these pages. It’s like an index to Black America from Anglo-Dutch colonialism reaching just shy of the millennium (1636-1990). Read for yourself: Abolitionism, African-American leisure activities, Black Reconstruction, Brooklyn Coordinating Committee on Defense Employment (1940s), Citizenship, Congress of Racial Equality, Cotton Industry, Credit unions, Father Divine, Frederick Douglass, Draft Riots (1863), Education, Emancipation, Fugitive Slave Law, William Lloyd Garrison, Great Depression, Greater New York Urban League, Housing, Subway, industry, Irish, Italians, Jim Crow, Labor strikes, Latinos, Liberia, March on Washington, NAACP, National Negro Business League, Native Americans, New Deal, Sugar, Trade organizations, Underground Railroad, United States Justice Department, Urbanization, Voting, Warehouses, West Indian Cricket Club, Women, World War II, YMCA, YWCA, and so much more! I cannot review this biography-of-a-people in the conventional format with catchy quotes and eye-popping details because its greatest value comes in its totality. Every line and chapter acts as a facet to a gem—to truly see it is to read it whole. Wilder’s deep research, penetrating insights, and above-average story telling recommend Covenant more highly than I ever could.
The mid 2000s brought me to Brooklyn as the environmental education coordinator for a Bedford-Stuyvesant junior high school. I wanted to honor my students and their families by becoming more familiar with local culture, landmarks and literature. I bought myself several books and read about my adoptive landscape—I’m a life-long Bronx resident—during train rides. More understanding came in meeting with parents and neighboring school workers. I even walked every block within a half mile radius of my school and made a point of eating at local restaurants where I would have normally brown-bagged lunch. This journey’s most current moments came as I wrote at Our Time Press for a five month contract. I invite you to read my best efforts to capture who we are in 2014 with a view to who we’re becoming.
These are exciting times. Like seeds beneath the snow, something is coming! When Tomorrow Comes (published Jan. 9) profiles five locals who each master and model responses to the emerging global environmental crises across Brooklyn. Stories like NASA at Medgar (Nov. 21) opened a lot of eyes. To a person, everyone I spoke with post-publication was surprised that local multi-cultural students were engaged in top notch science projects with commercial implications. We do that? Yes, Outdoor Afro: a Nation of Environmentalists (Jan.16) had a similar effect as people learned of a vast community of African-American outdoor hobbyists from California to North Carolina…with a Brooklyn Meet-up chapter.
A Nov. 21 editorial Why We Need Outdoor Education More Than Ever was an alarm bell. It says our times call for the enhancement and expansion of the kinds of supervised and thematic however informal multi-sensory education that can restore what high stakes testing often destroys. Meanwhile, Every Garden a Library: Outdoor Education in Brooklyn (Nov. 21, was never digitized) shows how some are making this happen in the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brownsville, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Pondering the urban garden play of middle-age and senior life at public housing developments, we visited Red Hook, Fort Greene, Canarsie, Ocean Hill, and other districts in The People’s Garden: a tour of NYCHA Gardens (Nov. 28).
Finally, on-line versions of the following articles continue to entice the community to tour local treasures: a) Citywide African Burial Grounds Gain Recognition (Oct. 31), b) Biking Brooklyn, an interview with Velo City (Dec. 5), Fulton St. Sculpture Deserves Closer Look (Dec. 19), and Underground Railroad Sites in Brooklyn to See Now (Jan. 23). Truly, Brooklyn’s literature has an answer for every interest in urbanism and American history!