Our 4th Annual: What Are You? Sparked Dialogue on Identity and Mixed Heritage

On Monday, June 8th, we hosted our 4th Annual: What Are You?, an event initiated by our Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) program. From 2011 to 2014, CBBG collected oral histories of mixed-heritage Brooklynites and created public programs that provided an open space for engaging conversations on the dynamics of race, ethnicity, identity, culture, class, and sexuality.

The What Are You? public program series in particular tackles the question that so often plagues people of mixed heritage – “What are you really?” – and highlights the personal stories and voices of people of color that are oftentimes neglected under the guise of “colorblindness.” CBBG brings together mixed and culturally diverse Brooklynites in this program and encourages discussion and the sharing of personal histories.

Lacey Schwartz and Lise Funderburg engage in conversation on race, family, and truth after a screening of Schwart’z autobiographical documentary, Little White Lie.

For the 4th Annual What Are You? we invited Lacey Schwartz, director and producer of Little White Lie, an autobiographical documentary about uncovering the truth about her heritage as a biracial woman, to sit down with Lise Funderburg, author of the groundbreaking book of mixed race oral histories, Black, White, Other, to discuss questions of identity and mixed-heritage culture as biracial women in America.

The evening began with a screening of Schwartz’s provocative film, which follows her journey from being part of a typical upper class white Jewish family in Woodstock, NY to the eventual discovery that she was indeed biracial and not just taking after her darker-skinned Sicilian grandfather. Not surprisingly, Schwartz had trouble coming to terms with her newfound identity and reconciling the two worlds she inhabited, stating “I was out and about with dealing with my identity one way, and then I’d go home to my family and be a different way.”

The screening was followed by a talkback between Funderburg and Schwartz, during which both women shared their experiences of grappling with questions about having mixed heritage identities and how they managed to deal with the push and pull of two opposing identities. Both Funderburg and Schwartz characterized this clash as integral to their identities. Funderburg asked Schwartz how she identified personally, to which she answered, “I identify as being biracial, and it’s subjective, but to me that’s a category of being black.”

In choosing to embrace her identity as a black woman, Funderburg asked Lacey, “What did you have to let go of?” Lacey responded, “When you are defaulted into the black student union, even though you have black pigment in your skin, there is also a white privilege that you have to let go of. I’m aware of it and I definitely certainly embody it.”

The event concluded with an invitation to audience members to share their own stories, particularly their families’ secrets that they uncovered or have yet to share with family members. Through the film’s website, anyone can share family secrets on the “Share Your Little White Lie” page, and you can read the little white lies that other people have shared, from familial histories of mental illness to unknown adoption stories.

To learn more about Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations, visit our website and browse the collection of oral history interviews. We encourage you to attend future public programs on the questions of mixed heritage and cultural diversity.

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Photo of the Week: Lucille Fornasieri Gold photographs

[Hasidic boys with cotton candy], circa 2003, V2008.013.59Lucille Fornasieri Gold photographs, 2008.013; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Hasidic boys with cotton candy], circa 2003, V2008.013.59Lucille Fornasieri Gold photographs, 2008.013; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Lucille Fornasieri Gold photographs is one of my favorite collections at Brooklyn Historical Society. I love that her photographs almost always have an element of surprise and I think they offer a unique perspective of Brooklyn. The photo of the week is from 2003. It displays young Hasidic boys eating cotton candy on a Brooklyn sidewalk. I find this photograph particularly charming because it is full of so many candid moments.

Lucille was born in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1930. Her father, a professor of architectural studies, first exposed her to photography as a child. She started photographing with a Leica camera in 1968, when her children were at school. She would develop and print her photographs in the kitchen darkroom of her Park Slope apartment. Around 2008, she self-published three collections of her photography: “Old City,” “Young City,” and “Brooklyn Doggie.”

She says of her photography: “There is always a movement, a gesture, an interesting or bizarre juxtaposition, a color or combination of colors that create a renewed impulse to see. I engage the social and moral questions, but I don’t try to answer them. Ultimately there are no answers. When I’m photographing I feel the weight of the antecedents, the spirals of time, the evolution of thought and science.”

This collection contains 93 photographs taken by Fornasieri Gold between 1968 and 2008. To view more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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All the World’s a Stage–Even the Confederacy–for Brooklyn Soldiers Fighting in Civil War

On the back wall of Brooklyn Historical Society’s critically acclaimed Personal Correspondents exhibition, under the heading “Facing Death,” resides a grim and tragic quotation from the letters of James Beith, a private in the 48th regiment, New York Infantry.

There is nothing thought of a poor soldier when he gets killed, only for to dig a hole and throw him into it, then sometimes hardly cover him with enough of dirt.

The quotation is from a letter which Beith wrote to his brother in May of 1864, while his regiment marched north through the brutal and desperate final months of the Civil War in Virginia, angling towards the Confederate capital in Richmond.

Certainly the most gripping of Beith’s letters, his words here touch on the useless horrors of war, and specifically the way “poor soldiers”—privates, infantrymen, usually those from the most modest means—were pawned and dehumanized, bearing a disproportionate brunt of the war’s tragedy.

But research on Beith’s earlier years in the war reveal another, very different reality for the “poor soldiers” of the 48th NY: frustrating inaction, boredom, and a spectacular ability to create diversions and entertainment for themselves. And how do a bunch of city boys from Brooklyn entertain themselves? The theater, of course!

For the first three years of the Civil War, James Beith’s regiment was stationed on the coastal islands and swamps of the Deep South, rotating between Hilton Head, SC, Fort Pulaski, GA, and St. Augustine, FL, waiting for the Union Army in Virginia to make its way southward. Unfortunately, the Union Army in Virginia was doing no such thing, instead finding itself stalemated and pushed back up into Pennsylvania, leaving Beith and the rest of the 48th NY stranded for years, fighting in minor skirmishes to hold their position.

Troops from the 48th Regiment, New York Infantry guard the ramparts of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, one of Georgia’s coastal isles.  Fort Pulaski was the birthplace of the Barton Dramatic Association.  Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

To keep their soldiers happy and diverted, officers allowed for a variety of games and contests, including an “Olympic Games,” animal hunts, military skills competitions, and a company band (of which Beith was a part). Besides these more traditional military-style diversions, several soldiers in the 48th NY also asked to build a stage and to start a theater company. Their officers consented, and The Barton Dramatic Association was born in June of 1962 at Fort Pulaski, GA.

Abraham J. Palmer, a Private in the 48th NY and the author of a “biography” of his regiment, describes the construction of the theater:

Col. Barton gave us permission to use an out-building for the purpose…and in a very short time, considering their facilities, they had erected a very well-equipped and attractive little theatre, with a stage at one end, private boxes, orchestra, side-scenes…and a drop-curtain on which was painted a picture of the bombardment of the fort. They sent to New York for canvas, paint, costumes, lamps, a printing- press, and books of plays, and improvised a chandelier and foot-lights out of old tin-cans.

Indeed, in the midst of America’s most brutal and transformative war, Union soldiers were sending away to New York City for curtains, stage lights, and books of plays, all on the bill of the federal government.

The band of the 48th Regiment, New York Infantry at Fort Pulaski, GA.  James Beith, a member of the band, may be pictured here.  Photo taken 1863. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

As it turned out, the Barton Dramatic Association was a wild popular success, first among the soldiers of the 48th NY, then among the other Union regiments stationed around the Deep South coastal islands, and finally even among the local inhabitants—theoretically their adversaries–who came to see their plays in throngs. The 48th NY uprooted its theater and took it with them when they re-stationed at St. Augustine and then at Hilton Head, establishing a popular following at each location, even as many of the major players lost their lives in between stations.

The officers first allowed the soldiers to put on only farces, comedies, and other “vulgar” plays because they did not consider the low-ranking actors and directors worthy of more substantive material. So when members of the Association asked to put on Othello, the officers initially refused—not due to the possibly transgressive or controversial racial politics of the play, which didn’t even seem to occur to them, but rather because they didn’t want to see a Shakespearean tragedy “murdered” by amateurs.

Contrary to the officers’ assumptions, however, there were several professional actors and a director in the lower ranks.  These theater professionals staged a few acts of Othello and convinced some of the officers to come watch the performance.  The performance “was pronounced a great success” by these officers, and they consented to the theater putting on Othello in its entirety. This performance, according to Abraham Palmer, is what launched the Barton Dramatic Association into local fame. Palmer also reports that “our two leading ladies were said to be the handsomest in the department”—those “ladies” of course being two men in drag, one of them Abraham Palmer himself!

I was fortunate to stumble upon Abraham Palmer’s fantastic account of the Barton Dramatic Society (linked here) while digging up biographical information on the private James Beith, information I figured would be primarily of a tragic and violent nature due to the content of Beith’s featured letter. We are greatly indebted to Palmer for his singular “biography” of the 48th NY, an account that contains its share of tragedy and violence, but is most remarkable for how it continuously pivots between drudgery, levity, and brutality, much as the experience of the Civil War must have for soldiers like Beith and Palmer. One can only imagine the emotional heft of theater in the midst of these circumstances: performed by actors who were literally in the process of risking their lives, who may have lost their best friends or fellow actors within days or hours of their performances, to audiences of civilians and soldiers whose physical and emotional foundations were undergoing violent revolution.

For more stories featuring the insatiable human desire for connection in the midst of America’s most bloody and divisive conflict, stop by Brooklyn Historical Society’s Personal Correspondents exhibition. Brooklyn Historical Society is open Wednesday-Sunday, 12-5 P.M.

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Photo of the Week: House Research

[#119 Milton Street ("Blue House").], 10/19/1958, V1974.9.130; John D. Morrell photographs, ARC.005, Brooklyn Historical Society.

[#119 Milton Street (“Blue House”).], 10/19/1958, V1974.9.130; John D. Morrell photographs, ARC.005, Brooklyn Historical Society.

One of the best parts of living in Brooklyn is the history; every spot of property in this borough has a story. Do you know the story behind your Brooklyn home? House history research is one of the most popular research topics at Brooklyn Historical Society. The extensive resources housed in the Othmer Library will help you get familiar with the history of specific homes and neighborhoods. A great way to start your property research and to get acquainted with our collections is to visit the House Research Guide on our website. It explains what resources are available here in our library, and it makes suggestions for additional resources found elsewhere.

The photo of the week comes from the John D. Morrell photographs collection. This collection contains over 2,000 documentary photographs of almost every Brooklyn neighborhood from 1957-1974 in color and black and white. This photograph is titled “Blue House” from 1958. The house is located at 119 Milton Street in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. Personally, I love the surprise element of seeing a blue and white house pop among the (mostly) black and white photographs in this collection. Sadly, a quick Google search revealed that this house is no longer blue! To see more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery. If you’re interested in other property photographs, also check out the Eugene Armbruster and Edna Huntington photograph collections.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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Photo of the Week: Memorial Day Parade

E. Van Altena, Military band marching in the Brooklyn Memorial Day Parade, 1895;  V1972.1.1109 , Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection , ARC.201, Brooklyn Historical Society.

E. Van Altena, Military band marching in the Brooklyn Memorial Day Parade, 1895; V1972.1.1109 , Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection , ARC.201, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Memorial Day is the official kick off of summer with beaches and barbecues, but it is also a time to honor those who served in the country’s armed forces. The earliest known celebrations of Memorial Day date back as far as 1865. New York City hosts parades in every borough to commemorate the day. Brooklyn’s annual Memorial Day Parade is over 148 years old, with its first in 1867. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from May of 1896, describes “Memorial Celebrations” as, “sacred in the calendar of patriotism, which was first called decoration day, but which now, more appropriately and poetically, is named after the memories of those heroes, ‘who died that this nation might live.’”

The photo of the week is a view of the military band marching along Bedford Avenue at Heyward Street, in the Brooklyn Memorial Day Parade in 1895. Traditionally, the parade marched along Bedford Avenue to Eastern Parkway and then to Grand Army Plaza. In the last twenty years, however, the parade has taken place in Bay Ridge. To learn more about the history of the parade, check out this website.

This photograph was taken by E. Van Altena and is part of the Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection. This collection comprises roughly 1,400 photographic prints taken by various photographers from around 1860 to 1920. The majority of the photographs in the collection depict views of Brooklyn and Suffolk County. To see more photographs from this collection, check out this gallery.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here. To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. library@brooklynhistory.org

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