UMass Amherst Jewish Affairs

Jewish Affairs

Bridges and Boundaries exhibition
links Jewish, African American past

By Melody Wilensky
The Jewish Advocate
October 1, 1999

When enslaved African Americans sang freedom songs that connected their experience to that of the ancient Israelites, they forged a link between themselves and American Jews.

That bond was strengthened in the 1930’s and 40’s when each group struggled for worker solidarity, and yet again on the ideological battlefields of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Pieces of the historic Black/Jewish connection were on display at “Bridges and Boundaries Revisited: African Americans and American Jews,” an exhibition at the University of Massachusetts’ University Gallery [from September 11–October 22, 1999].

Curated by The Jewish Museum in New York, in collaboration with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Bridges and Boundaries” is not only a compelling account of the so-called flashpoints in the shared history of Jews and Blacks in America. It is also an interpretive look at history as a multiplicity of diverse ethnic views, constructed and interpreted by the winds of time and change.

With over 100 artifacts, photographs, documents, and paintings, “Bridges and Boundaries” explores the themes of ethnic identity, shared cultural beliefs, experiences of marginality, and visions of social justice.

One such vision, by Sabrina Virgo, a worker for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, emanated from a common perception of social responsibilities. “When I was young I was taught that being Jewish means don’t cross picket lines. You work for peace. You fight for social justice. You never forget the suffering of your people, a link to the suffering of others.”

Through the exhibit’s narrative content, the boundaries between Jews and African Americans are put in broader context. While sharing the struggle for social justice, the interaction between the two groups-from union activities and progressive and radical politics during the 30’s and 40’s, to the freedom marches of the 1950’s and 60’s-has been marked by periods of cooperation as well as conflict.

James Baldwin tried to define the split between the American experiences of Blacks and Jews in “Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism” (1969) when he wrote, “For it is not here and not now that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.”

By exploring the comparisons between lynchings and pogroms (a pair of silver candlestick holders with a bullet hole from a 1903 Russian pogrom is included among the artifacts), the exhibit portrays the poison of hatred. It remembers the freedom fighters and the martyrs of the civil rights movement. Among them are James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner [an African American and two Jews], who were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964 [while participating in a voter registration drive].

According to organizers, the desire to explore these socially and politically charged situations rose out of a desire to understand the roots of the current tension between Jewish and African Americans.

Relaying a story important to all Americans, “Bridges and Boundaries Revisited” reminds viewers to contemplate society’s most enduring dilemmas about how, and to what extent, ethnic groups can co-exist peacefully and prosper in a multicultural nation.

Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Advocate. All rights reserved

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Bridges and Boundaries Exhibition

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