Black History, Film, and Community: A CBFS Interview

International African Arts Festival, by Arielle Kandel, New Women New Yorkers (NWNY), June 5, 2014 (Flickr)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of our first ever discussion focused on documentary films scheduled for June 2nd, we are highlighting the work of the directors of these “Films of Black Struggle.”

Cynthia Gordy Giwa and Tayo Giwa are the team behind Black-Owned Brooklyn. Cynthia is a marketing executive and former journalist who has written extensively about issues at the intersection of race, culture, and policy. She is co-executive producer of the documentary, The Sun Rises in the East. Tayo is a media and technology lawyer and photographer. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and is the director of the documentary, The Sun Rises in the East.

Emma Francis-Snyder is a New York-based activist and documentary filmmaker. Her latest film is Takeover!, a chronicle of the historic occupation of Lincoln Hospital by members of the Young Lords Party. She is a 2020 Ford Foundation: Just Films grantee. She is the associate producer for Yoruba Richen’s award-winning I Rise series. In 2012 she was awarded the Rosen Fellowship which allowed her and co-director Sara Beth Curtis to document the student movement in Santiago, Chile, creating the documentary Greve to En Toma

CBFS: Can you tell us how you came to this topic for your film?

Tayo and Cynthia: The Sun Rises in the East is an extension of what we’ve been doing for the past four years with Black-Owned Brooklyn. A big part of our work is documenting local Black history and culture, to help ensure that these contributions are understood, celebrated and ultimately preserved. 

We first learned about The East in 2019 while researching a writeup on the International African Arts Festival, which started in 1971 as a fundraiser for the organization’s African-centered school, Uhuru Sasa Shule. From there, we found fragments of The East’s story in disparate corners of the internet, and the story just stuck with us. It was wild to us that, for everything that The East created, and despite the role they played in the Black Power Movement nationally and globally, and despite all the ways they’ve influenced the culture of Black Brooklyn to this day, their story isn’t widely known. 

So, we wanted to tie together many different pieces of The East story — the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community control experiment and New York City teachers strike that preceded its founding, the Uhuru Sasa Shule, their electrifying jazz scene, all the businesses and institutions they built, The East’s position in the broader Black Liberation movement, and their ongoing legacy in Brooklyn. And we wanted to tell the story primarily in the voices of people who actually lived it. It’s our hope that the documentary will help this history become more a part of the mainstream understanding of that era. 

Emma: I came to Takeover through my own exploration into the history of activism and successful modes of direct action. While attending Brooklyn College in 2011 I became very involved in the student movement, actively participating in the Brooklyn College Student Union. It was there that I really tried to find my place within the larger social justice and racial equity movement in the United States; this led me to filmmaking. I wanted to document what we were doing while supporting and uplifting the voices of my comrades who were disproportionately impacted by the tuition increases that were ultimately implemented in 2012. At the same time, I began thinking about the real impact media has and how it can be used as a tool for effecting change.

We, the Brooklyn College Student Union, attempted to occupy the president’s office. We were not successful and were met with an incredibly strong police response that resulted in a physical confrontation and the arrest of two students. I realized I had to learn more from the successful grassroots movements in history. I did an independent study on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and that is where I learned about the Young Lords and their work in the world of public health. I was blown away by their genius, ingenuity, and success. It was during that class that I wrote a paper about the work they had done, which ultimately became the foundational research for Takeover.

CBFS: Can you share the story of a particular figure or event from your work that our readers might not be familiar with?

Tayo and Cynthia: The East is a little-known story overall, so there are many ways to answer this question. But one aspect of the organization that’s particularly little-known is the role they played not only in Brooklyn, but in the national and global Black Liberation Movement. The East intentionally did not attach itself to any particular ideology, so whether you were a cultural nationalist or a revolutionary nationalist, or a Black Panther from Oakland or a South African dissident, it was a place for everybody to come. With its massive location at the Marcus Garvey Armory (formerly known as the Sumner Avenue Armory, where it relocated in the mid-1970s), The East became a central meeting point for people from different factions of the liberation movement from across the country and world. 

Uhuru Sasa Shule was the flagship institution of not only The East; it was the flagship school of the entire Black Independent School Movement. Their farm in Guyana not only supplied produce for their food co-op in Central Brooklyn (one of the city’s first food cooperatives), but it was also a way to foster a relationship of mutual development and growth with another nation that shared its ideals. They were very much connected to comrades from across the Black world.

Additionally, while our film explores the many businesses and institutions that The East created (which laid the ground for a thriving Black business community that continues to this day in Central Brooklyn), it’s important to understand the philosophy and mental impact of this work. In everything they did, The East was concerned with tackling white supremacy at its psychological root. They were thinking about things like, how do you shape Black minds? How do you shape Black aspiration and belief in self? What role can education and culture play in our liberation? They were experimenting and taking risks, and they made some mistakes as well, but they ultimately did transformative work for Black people.

Emma: The Young Lords were originally a street gang in Chicago that became politicized in 1968, with inspiration from the Black Panthers and the student movement in Puerto Rico. In 1969 the organization expanded to the east coast, establishing a chapter in New York City. The Young Lords stood for self-determination for Puerto Rico and all Latinos, community control of institutions and land, equality for women, an end to racism, and ultimately a socialist society. They focused on education and organizing their community. They used the tactics of direct action, primarily occupations, to provide solutions to the problems their communities were facing. 

The Young Lords knew their community was plagued by unacceptable, and often deadly, “healthcare.” Lincoln Hospital was (and is still) the primary source of healthcare for the largely Puerto Rican community located in the South Bronx. One member of the Lords described Lincoln Hospital as “a butcher shop that kills patients, and frustrates workers from serving these patients.” Lincoln Hospital was built in the 1800s and had not been renovated or updated since the 1930s. In 1969 Lincoln Hospital became a hotbed of activity. The Young Lords formed the Think Lincoln Committee with the support of hospital residents, workers, and community members, setting up a 24/7 complaint table in the emergency room. This was the first step in their campaign for a new hospital and universal healthcare.

Takeover explores the twelve historic hours on July 14, 1970, in which fifty members of the Young Lords Party stormed the dilapidated Lincoln Hospital, drove out their administrative staff, barricaded entrances and windows, and made their cries for accessible, quality, and free healthcare known to the world. They raised the Puerto Rican flag atop the building, as well as a banner reading “The People’s Hospital” – a nom de guerre still used today.

CBFS: Considering the current movement for Black lives, how does knowledge of this history help us understand and even act in our current world?

Tayo and Cynthia: Our shorthand for the film is “The Birth, Rise, and Legacy of Brooklyn’s Black Nation.” Because that’s really what they created. The East showed how young people can decide for themselves what Black liberation looks like, educate their own, build their own institutions, and center their own culture free of the anti-blackness that existed elsewhere — and do it successfully. 

Through founding not only its own school but more than a dozen institutions and businesses, including a food co-op, newspaper, publishing company, jazz cultural center, restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, and even a farm in Guyana, The East showed what self-determination in action looks like. This work was being engineered by very young people in their late teens to late 20s, and more than 50 years later much of that work continues to reverberate.

As leaders in the present-day movement for racial justice think about ways to advance their cause, The East provides an inspiring model for how ordinary people working together can build longstanding institutions and communities for themselves. Their story shows just how much is possible.

Emma: Takeover gives us a look into the reality of what community-led collective action looks like. It sheds light on a tiny piece of the long fight for health equity and racial justice in the United States – the why and the how. As a young activist, I was grasping for stories that not only showed a collective action that won but also showed how they did it. Takeover breaks down the steps, beat by beat, of exactly how they managed to pull this off. Takeover also gives us insight into how far we have come, and where we need to go. At the end of the film, Cleo Silvers and Iris Morales list a few of the demands that were not included in the Patient Bill of Rights; daycare, door-to-door testing, and free healthcare. The Lords and the generations before us have laid the groundwork. Those needs have not changed, nor have they been met.

People have been fighting for their right to equitable treatment in the United States since its inception, and those most impacted by the conditions of capitalism know the issues they face intimately. If empowered, they can provide solutions that have the potential to create real structural equitable change. Ultimately the fight for Black lives benefits us all as a society. The patient bill of rights was created as a result of the work the Young Lords (and many other organizations) did at the time. We as an entire nation (including white people) benefited from this work. That is one of the many reasons why it would behoove us as a nation to act toward the true equality of Black lives.

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Erik Wallenberg

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in the History Program at CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught courses in history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and currently teaches global history and American environmental history at Brooklyn College. He is a Presidential Research Fellow working with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His research is on radical theatre and environmental movements, politics, and ideas