|Directed by:||Richard Broadman||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||2000||Running Time:||83 mins.|
|More Info:||The Chronicle Review: Ocean Hill-Brownsville, 40 Years Later||Category:||America|
At a time when unabashed racism was widespread in America, Jews and Blacks in one Brooklyn neighborhood bonded together, until socioeconomic changes drove them apart. Brownsville: Black and White traces the history of this poor Brooklyn neighborhood while offering an unsettling look at racism in America.
“We’re different cultures, but the differences were so small. They didn’t mean anything back then,” an old African American man explains, saying that as a boy he would help his Jewish neighbors by lighting their stoves for them on the Sabbath.
Dubbed “the first American ghetto” by press and historians, Brownsville was home to the newly arrived poor in the 1920s and 30s. The community wasn’t without problems, but the immigrants — Jews, Italians, and African Americans — who inhabited the streets stuck together and protected each other. All of that changed, however, when the government got involved, and pent up anger erupted during the age of Civil Rights. The Brownsville community’s sense of unity fell apart, and bitter racism set in as they began to notice the color of each other’s skin.
In the early days, the people of Brownsville knew each other, and neighbors cared about one another. An old man remembers that as a little boy he once kicked over an ash can while walking down the street, and a stranger stopped him, admonishing him, “I know your grandfather from the old country and he would be real upset to know his grandson did what you did.”
But the bond between neighbors reached beyond racial lines when the Brownsville Boys Club, with a mostly Jewish membership, took an unprecedented vote. Like most boys clubs it was formed to keep kids busy playing sports instead of loitering on the streets. But the Brownsville Boys Club became exceptional when its members – led by Jewish boys – voted to invite their African-American neighbors to play on their teams.
When the Brownsville boys traveled to play teams in other neighborhoods they were heckled and threatened for being racially mixed. But, as one former member brags, “We’d turn out to be the best.” As far as the Brownsville boys were concerned, playing ball was more important than race.
But everything changed when the government built public housing in Brownsville that wasn’t integrated. Meant for African-American residents, the buildings weren’t well maintained or policed, so as crime and poverty continued to increase the mostly-white citizens who could afford to leave Brownsville did, leaving behind a predominantly African-American community. After they stopped living side-by-side, the Jews and Blacks of Brownsville lost the bond they once felt.
Leaving political correctness behind, Brownsville: Black and White isn’t afraid to step on a few toes. “The Jewish folks were landlords and the housing stock was dilapidating and you had Jewish teachers and the educational system was going down. And if you just want to blame someone, who you gonna blame?” an African American man asks rhetorically, in an attempt to explain why anti-Semitism had developed in black neighborhoods throughout New York City.
But the film makes clear that there was strife and ugliness coming from both sides. One Jewish leader charges that African-Americans’ anti-Semitism was especially cruel because Jews were very often strong supporters of the civil rights movement.
The racial clash fully erupted in Brownsville when the African-American residents banned together to improve their failing public schools and forced the white teachers, who were predominantly Jewish, out. In a fight to control the public schools, the Teachers’ Union and the African-American parent board both unleashed venomous racist attacks that left some fearing for their lives.
The conflict was ugly, but the legacy it left behind is even more disheartening. Now, even the Brownsville Boys Club has become segregated. When former members, now old men, hold reunions, they do separate events for white and black members. “We’ve drifted apart,” one man says, “it just seemed to be the natural way.”