The East’s impact on Brooklyn is chronicled in a new film

At 10 Claver Place, sandwiched between a 24-hour parking lot and a beige apartment building, stands a three-story complex that was once the epicenter of pan-Africanism in Brooklyn.

The brick building, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, now houses 10 apartments, but from 1969 it was the headquarters of The East, an organization and meeting place where black people from all walks of life could learn about the African diaspora, its history and its culture, beyond slavery.

The first floor of the building once housed an iconic jazz club where Sun Ra and Gil Scott-Heron played until the wee hours of the morning. Above were workshops on politics and activism for adults, and a state-certified school for children of all ages known as Uhuru Sasa Shule, Swahili for “Freedom School Now.” .

Although its doors closed in 1985, for 16 years The East served as an incubator, stimulating the political awakening and cultural enlightenment of its hundreds of members and giving them a sense of belonging and pride.

A forthcoming documentary titled “The Sun Rises in The East” traces the organization’s founding and its impact, and has renewed interest among Brooklynites.

The documentary, which features a dozen former band members, will premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 24.

The film was directed by husband and wife duo Tayo and Cynthia Giwa, who also run Black-Owned Brooklyn, an Instagram account and website that showcases black businesses and documents enclaves of black culture in the borough. .

The couple’s curiosity about The East was sparked as they penned an Instagram post highlighting the International Festival of African Arts, a four-day celebration of African culture with performances, spoken word events and a Marlet. Ms. Giwa soon learned that the festival was originally born in the Orient.

“We found snippets of information, kind of like these passing references to something that seemed really remarkable, really robust and really groundbreaking,” Ms. Giwa said.

The festival, which began as a fundraiser and graduation celebration for the first class of students in 1971, is the only entity in The East that still exists.

The Giwas said they made the documentary because they wanted to honor the history of the organization and illustrate the magnitude of young black people deciding what freedom from systemic racism would look like and then creating it.

“History is not hidden from the people who lived through it, but they don’t see it anywhere,” Ms Giwa said. “They don’t see it being talked about, recorded or celebrated.”

Blacks made up nearly 75% of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s population in 2000, according to a report by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. By 2019, that number had dropped to around 45%.

The Giwas said that while gentrification continues to reshape the racial makeup of the area, it’s not uncommon to walk down a block in the neighborhood and spot red, black and green flags wrapped around trees.

They hope their film will show people how Brooklyn neighborhoods were — and still are — brimming with black pride.

“Why is downtown Brooklyn so black and cool? The East is an integral part of this story,” Mr. Giwa said.

After opening its jazz club in the winter of 1969, The East expanded, bringing “a bit of Africa” ​​to Brooklyn, as the New York Times wrote in 1975. Members opened several brick-and-mortar businesses on along Fulton Street.

Where a pediatric clinic now stands, once lived a clothing store that sold fashionable dashikis and other African insignia. What is now a boarded up building housed a food co-op and bookstore.

The film chronicles how the New York teachers’ strike of 1968 and the Black Freedom movement of the 1960s and 1970s played a key role in founding The East, and it explores how the organization shaped black culture in Brooklyn.

“The East was a microcosm of the black nation,” Martha Bright, a former member, said in an interview. “We had the culture, the language, the African aesthetic, the politics. We had everything.”

Ms Bright was a student activist who joined The East as a volunteer reporter for its monthly newspaper, Black News.

“We have written about all types of current events, community news, profiles and many about politics,” she said.

The East emerged in the context of the Black Freedom movement, a catch-all term that some historians use to describe the overlapping period in which the modern civil rights movement and the Black Power movement took place.

Meanwhile, local and national organizations with diverse ideologies materialized across the country to amplify the message of black self-determination, which emphasized the importance of black people relying on each other in all aspects of life. life.

“The East was a manifestation of what was happening in all the major black communities in the United States,” said Jeffrey Ogbar, a history professor at the University of Connecticut.

“People say, ‘We need resources, we need funding, we need control over what we teach our children. We need to control all these things,” he said.

In the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, parents and activists, many of them founding members of The East, were pushing for the same control over public school programs that community school boards in white neighborhoods had, said Kwasi Konadu, a historian who appears in the film.

“What they stood for was neither new nor radical,” said Dr. Konadu, who chronicled the period in his book “A View from The East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City.” “It was just that it wasn’t happening in their neighborhoods and in their communities.”

In the spring of 1967, the city granted community control of schools in their district as part of an experiment to decentralize schools and give parents greater influence over their children’s education.

Tensions between the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Community School Board and Albert Shanker, the leader of the United Federation of Teachers, came to a head after the board fired 19 mostly white and Jewish teachers and administrators, Dr Konadu said. .

The layoffs eventually led to a citywide strike in the fall of 1968, when thousands of teachers went off the job and public schools were closed for nearly two months.

The desire to provide a more culturally affirming education led to the opening of Uhuru Sasa Shule School, the beating heart of the Orient, in the spring of 1970.

Although accounts of the number of students attending the school vary, Dr Konadu said that at the height of its popularity, in 1978, over 400 students were enrolled.

In addition to learning the standard curriculum, students learned about African cosmology, African languages, and African value systems. The girls took African dance lessons, while the boys took martial arts lessons. The lessons weren’t always limited to the classroom, either.

“One of my lessons was going to see James Brown at the Apollo,” said Fela Barclift, who taught at the school for the first two years it was open.

“The lesson was not just about seeing James Brown, but learning about black culture and Harlem, a very important place in the black experience in the United States.”

Kweli Campbell, the eldest daughter of Jitu Weusi, the teacher and activist who founded The East and died in 2013, said she was unaware at the time that other black children in her neighborhood were not receiving the same upbringing as she was.

For her, learning everything from an “African point of view” was expected.

“We didn’t start with the oath of allegiance,” she said. “We had songs that were about black positivity.”

As she protested the latest social injustice, Ms Campbell said she and her classmates were on the front line, ‘which was a totally different experience from other people I grew up with.

Former members of The East said the organization’s ethos – one of self-pride and self-determination – is still alive and thriving today.

Ms. Barclift, for example, was unhappy with the lack of black representation in the daycares she was considering for her daughter. So in 1981, she opened Little Sun People, a private preschool that aims to instill black pride in its students.

The school’s approach to teaching draws inspiration from her time at The East, she said.

“I want these kids to know that you fit in everywhere – you belong,” she said. “You know you’re steeped in a history and a culture that’s not only great, but beautiful.”

In another sign of The East’s enduring influence, a plaza in Clinton Hill was renamed in Mr. Weusi’s honor in July. The name change came the very weekend the International Festival of African Arts celebrated its 50th anniversary bringing together black people from around the world.

“Through protests and other avenues of fighting injustice,” Ms. Giwa said, “they also haven’t forgotten to create something beautiful.”

About Mary Moser

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