The New Skool Goes to Bed-Stuyby Brooklyn Rail Staff
edited by Knox Robinson and Meghan McDermott
Neither rain nor sleet nor snow could keep could keep the young writers in the New Skool Journalism Workshop from their beat in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Through a collaboration with Urban Word (formerly Youth Speaks NY) and the Brooklyn Rail, the young journos confronted stereotypes, expectations, and surprises while reporting on community-based arts in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The results bear out the effort, insight, and commitment the crew brought to the series of Saturdays late last fall. Special thanks to Tricia Baird who gracefully endured a bit of rain of her own!
—Knox Robinson and Meghan McDermott
by Russell Castro
"Man, you’re going to Bed-Stuy? Good Luck," said my friends with a certain degree of sarcasm. "I’ve swung by there and it’s mad ghetto. You better hope you don’t get jumped." Their views seemed to reflect those of many others when the area of Bedford Stuyvesant is mentioned. But the idea of finding art there? Amidst all the drug dealing and gun toting violence that mainstream news sources had shown, how could art be associated with that?
I take the A train for the first time in several years. Going into Brooklyn (aside from Coney Island) has been a rarity for me. Taking the train from 14th Street, I casually look around and scribble into my notepad like I usually do, taking in the atmosphere. Usually I’d relax and kick back on a train ride, but since it’s on a train I’m not too familiar with, I decide to observe the people around me. Once we get past Chambers Street, the train becomes packed; people all crammed together creating a fusion of heat, B.O., and the loud bass coming from headphones nearby. Women with shopping bags from Saks Fifth Avenue and Armani Exchange are soon replaced by families with grocery bags, strollers, and infant children crying incessantly. The panhandler I give change to gives me a slight smile, after spying a well-dressed man in a suit who uneasily attempts to avoid eye contact. Bed-Stuy, here I come.
I walk down Fulton Street, with dark clouds, bitter winds and rain coming down, the vision of my glasses is blurred as I walk block after block. Rain dripping down my lenses, I notice churches, oftentimes adjacent to small, dimly lit bodegas and Crown Fried Chicken restaurants. Amid the neon glow of Chinese food take out places with their bulletproof glass windows, are beauty salons with the smell of chemicals being added to yet another hair weave creation and the humming of hair dryers. Empty lots are scattered around the area, with weeds, trash, and deserted car parts, as if something was once there, or could be.
Out of the corner of my eye side street murals stand out, detailing something as simple as a park scene to more complicated visions of a utopian society. There’s complexity in simplicity, the way the mural artist envisions a beautiful, natural background of people returning to simpler lifestyles. It conflicts with the image next to it, a tattered, worn down mural that shows remnants of what once was. Remains of a picturesque view from everyday life painted over by a tribute to those slain. Being exposed to sunlight and the elements, this mural reverberates with the same type of emotion that you’d find in a formal art gallery, but is out there on display for the people.
Bedford Stuyvesant is full of distinctive people, but you wouldn’t know it if you only look at primetime news stories and listen to hip hop artists who tell tales of growing up in the ghetto, hustling to make ends meet amid a climate of gun play, drug dealing, and other crimes. To John Q. Public, Bed-Stuy is an area to be avoided and the last place you’d expect to find artistic beauty. If you look hard enough, you’ll see it. But don’t walk by too quickly or you just might miss it.
by Rashida Adams
Brooklyn has long been nurtured by the African American culture found in Bedford Stuyvesant. We have heard beautiful voices, musicians, artists, athletes, and politicians of African descent rise from this community, their spirits embodied in the cultural and artistic life that breathes here. From the murals that decorate the street to the galleries that exhibit art, Bedford Stuyvesant represents a center of black culture. It has traveled a long way historically from challenge to triumph, from racism and the Underground Railroad through jazz, religion, and art.
When I first visited Bedford-Stuyvesant I was oblivious to all the artwork that surrounded me. Who could have known that the community shown by the media would have such an array of culture? I saw murals half washed away and eroded by the rain, but beyond the depleted paint was its essence. Bed-Stuy’s art scene reflects collaboration, creativity, and individualism. Art is used as a tool to enlighten. Whether it is a mural of unsung heroes, pink nail polish with white tips, a museum, a ten dollar painting at the street corner, or a chipped pottery bowl that you made mom for her birthday, art lives.
When I think of art, beauty comes to mind, colors, shapes, ideas, a picture, words, music, but most importantly, a tool to educate and document our history such as the Challenge to Triumph exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). It documents African American struggles through lynching, the civil rights movement, the great depression, and the forty-one shots of Amadou Dialo, and asks, "how has the world changed?" It depicts the success of this nation alongside the detriment of this society and refutes the idea that African American art and imagery are not significant parts of American culture. It challenges negative images associated with the black community and "as a forum to visually express America’s conscience," it can enlighten the community about the times as well as African American art.
by Jeanette Caceres
Drug chemist, thug nigga be named Memphis/ Straight from da borough of dem B.K. niggas/ Where we rob for the fun of it, hustle for the drug of it/ Rap money in rubba-bands, just for the love of it
—Jay-Z "4 Da Fam"
To the average suburbanite Bedford Stuyvesant might well be just another ghetto, another cluster of projects, another part of the soon-to-be forgotten. Brooklyn has long been dubbed the borough of churches, yet most TV audiences would rather focus on the slapdash-lyrics rappers rhyme about to give themselves the rougher thug image of the so-called typical black man that the media profits from.
Bedford Stuyvesant, the city’s most-desirable area in the late 19th century, cages prospects that the average American will never know, such as artists like Sincere—a modern Picasso and unlikely protégé of the hood who’s turned his urban influences into remarkable pieces of art.
In collaboration with "The Artist," Sincere generates vivid portraits and sketches of celebrities like Mary J Blige, Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Aliyah, and Jam Master Jay in their small Buffalo Avenue studio called Master Lee Creations, which they opened in June of 2002 with just $2,500.
In Sincere’s and The Artist’s studio, there is no set canvas. Art goes where it falls: on the floor, on t-shirts, helmets, hats, footwear, and banners. Sincere’s brush is a can of aerosol whose fumes practically land on anything that can be decorated. "Art is about the people," Sincere puffs out with a cigarette dangling between the edges of his mouth, a can of spray paint in his left hand, others spread over the floor along with a blow dryer and scraps of clothes. Instead of tagging up turf on buildings and subway stations, these two talented black men have changed the name of their game by doing something positive with their abilities while also incorporating media influences.
Bedford Stuyvesant is a mix of brownstones, townhouses, coffee shops, poetry spots, and black bookstores. Home of Duke Ellington and Spike Lee, Brooklyn has layers of art and history waiting to be dug up and retold. Works of art like those of Sincere and The Artist are sentences, exhaling and telling the stories of triumph in the hood.
… sometimes I sit back and just reflect/ Watch the world go by and my thought connect/ I think about the time past and the time to come/ Reminisce on Bed-Stuy when I was pride and young/ I used to try and come, to the neighborhood function/ Throw on my Izod, say a little something/ When I was just a youngin, before the days of thuggin
—Mos Def "Brooklyn"
by Nicole Rosado
My first Saturday spent in Bed-Stuy began with a six block hike from the Utica Avenue train station on the A line to a building owned by the Bridge Street Church, followed by a never-ending climb up four flights of stairs to the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporian Art (MoCADA). We arrived with our cameras and notebooks and without enough oxygen, but the unexpected workout was soon forgotten as we feasted our eyes on the images before us and the stories behind each one of them.
What co-curator Melvin Marshall cannot stress enough about the exhibit is this: "This show deserves to be on 60 Minutes. It is that important a show." It takes viewers on a journey through African American history beginning with the freeing of slaves in 1867 and continuing all the way to recent events like the Amadou Diallo shooting. Almost all of the featured artists originate from Bed-Stuy or not too far from it and their work represents the struggle of former slaves, the torment of the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights movement and beyond. What better place could this museum be located than the "cultural Mecca of Brooklyn," which boasts the largest black population in the country?
When the making of Brooklyn’s cultural district is complete, MoCADA will be the first building created. For now the museum, which deserves much more recognition than it has received these past three years, is located in a small office building with no outdoor sign announcing its presence. Similarly, the valuable meaning of the artwork is sometimes lost due to actions that defeat the achievements gained by African Americans throughout history. At one point during the tour, Marshall focused on a piece entitled "Vote Victim." Here, a black man lies in a pool of blood shed while fighting for a right so many of us take for granted today. Marshall fervently explained that every time someone doesn’t exercise their right to vote and whenever black men refer to each other with the word "nigga," the people who sacrificed their lives for equality are "rolling over in their graves." The purpose of the art found in the MoCADA is not to entertain, but to educate.
Some might argue that the museum would be more useful in a place like Times Square, where it could be explored by a greater number of people from various backgrounds. But being in a predominantly black neighborhood like Bed-Stuy has its benefits, unless you consider boosting cultural pride and awareness a drawback.
What does he suggest should be done to make the people of Bed-Stuy more aware of the importance of art in their community? "It is time for our generation to take over and that’s what it’s about. It’s time to make a statement about who we are and stop waiting for other people to do it."
As I descend the four flights of stairs and stroll down those long blocks, I come across a thought-provoking scene: two completely different murals on either side of the street. One mural, in mint condition, depicts the artist’s colorful fantasy world and attracts the most attention from passersby. The other, what is left of it, tells the true story of a little boy who was, as the giant bold letters spell out, "murdered." I wonder how many people realize that the mural they are turning their backs on, like the art in the MoCADA, is truly artistic because it has deeper meaning. I wonder if they know that art isn’t about bright colors and pretty pictures; it’s about the lessons we learn about life and ourselves.
The Blunted Art Will Make You Cry
by Ronald Jay
Maybe yesterday will make you cry about the blunted art. As each sculpture captures a moment in time, different works of art hold yesterday. Wander and place your eyes on another captured on paper. What if you couldn’t capture it? Will moments only be thoughts that fade like a blunt as a person exhales the smoke? What the hell will be ART? Art, the epic moment of one’s thought, explained in color and in many different directions, is like a blunt— both are created slowly. "Art is living"— some words quoted from a Bed-Stuy resident. But will it be the environment I walk in, the poor streets, the crying of children, the struggling, the overcoming, and the strength of mothers? If art is living, and poverty is living, does that mean poverty is art because art is a part of life, and poverty is a part of living?
Do the buildings pass as art, the Brooklyn brownstones and the concrete, the denizens that walk in it, the movements they make, the realistic moving sculpture of art? In Bed-Stuy yesterday holds each person’s thoughts from today. If each person that lives in Bed-Stuy takes a moment and looks at a piece of art, then they could see how precious each line and color of the work is, how it tells a story about yesterday. It may also tell tomorrow’s story, the crawling of babies, the strength of women and the emotion of men paints a picture thus far blunted. The slowly idea of art, slowly the mind, the sculpture, the building structure, the subway platform, my eyes and nose... blunts. Art is like a blunt slowly exceeding the colors, falling on paper telling a black and white story of anything, but only blunted.
by Nicoletta Bumbac
If you define art through museums, theatre, and cultural centers, then it thrives in Bed-Stuy. If art is the work of graffiti, rap and musical artists, or even a comfortable setting at a local coffee shop, then art is a prominent factor of life here, too. Even though art can be found almost everywhere, Bed-Stuy’s art scene is yet to break through but it is quickly learning from neighbors like Fort Greene that art is a contagious cycle and an inevitable phase. Just as Fort Greene’s facelift made it ideal bait for real estate agencies to profit from over the past decade, the "rebirth" of a once overly stereotyped area is catching on.
Ivette Iefield, who’s been living her entire life in Brooklyn says Bed-Stuy is a "changing neighborhood." She believes businesses are what people make of it, referring to the café where she decorates, brews and cooks her form of art. She believes art is "living." Hip hop, poetry, sitting with senior citizens is art. So is being with your people, disregarding race or religion.
While some practice art because they love it and do it for themselves, others use art as a powerful influence to convey a message, like Project Re-Generation. Founded by Marvin "Barnabus Shakur" Scarborough in 2001, it aims to help Bed-Stuy in all aspects by keeping it clean, hosting a place for teenagers to volunteer and develop work experiences, and making Bed-Stuy an appreciated community. Or there’s the Restoration Plaza at 1368 Fulton St., which offers theatre, art exhibits, and a neighborhood-friendly place to get involved.
You might define art as any form of expression deriving from the truth in yourself. Art can be fashion, words, pictures, movements, or a way of living. The experience of going to Bed-Stuy made me realize art is in between the pages of words, and comes from the person holding the pen and writing or the person trying to make a difference in their community. Most importantly, experiencing Bed-Stuy firsthand left a lasting impression on where it stands as a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy isn’t the shadow of New York, but has a light of its own. Bed-Stuy is home to art of all forms.
Excerpts from "Bed-Stuy is IT"
by Kari Chrichlow
I enter MoCADA. I tried to get one of my girlfriends to come but they got a crazier schedule than mine. Besides, it’s my day off. I step in and of course, that "Big Daddy" Ronnie runs right over to me. He shows me around, and I suddenly stop when I see this image called "Stars and Stripes" by Emma Amos. It’s an American flag, which supposingly represents democracy, but it doesn’t. Within the stripes is this big fat bloody X, right dead smack in the center. The red stripes are the blood that black people shed on account of the white stripes— White supremist tormentors. The sides of the flag, where the 50 stars are supposed to be, are replaced by this piercing image of immense suffering; a group of black kids who are stricken with poverty as they walk on their bare feet to school. Tell me… Is that what a democracy is supposed to be? No, I don’t think so. I turn around suddenly and I see…
Her. Her intense concentration appears as mesmerizing as she looks.
"Deep shit, ain’t it?"
"Mmhmm," she murmurs.
"That Amos is a realist right there."
Why’s Ron glaring down across the room at me for?
"Did you see Ernest Crichlow’s display yet? That black woman sittin’ on that KKK member’s lap was a scandalous sight."
I nod knowingly at what she said.
After feeling the whole place out, we find ourselves walking out. I wave to Ron, who’s consumed with some young lady that had walked in.
"You didn’t tell me your name," I say to the one I just met.
"I’m Donovan, pleased to meet you. You live around here?"
And we converse all the way to Decatur Street, where the Mirror Mirror Bakery stands in front of us. We enter.
I order my favorite, a thick slice of red velvet cake, and a cup of mandarin orange tea. Don orders a mushroom wrap and sweet, homemade hot chocolate. He covered the tab as soon as I offer Ivette a twenty for giving me a slice of heaven. We sit in the comfortable booth in the back. Mmm… I savor that first bite of my cake. He spots the grin on my face, reaches over and holds my hand across the table.
"You know what," he asks.
"I think Bed-Stuy is it."
"Yea this is da place to be."
"And you know what else?"
"What," I ask.
"I think THIS is IT."
And I knew exactly what he means, ‘cuz this moment alone is IT.
"What is Art?"
by Gia Shakur
What is art? The American Heritage Dictionary defines art as being "1. Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or counteract the work of nature." "2. A manner that affects beauty, specifically the production of a graphic or plastic medium." What is this?
What about the preacher who steps to the pulpit and spits the "truth" to the parishioners? He is the tribe’s historian, so to speak. He explains why we are cruel and mean to each other. Why we love each other. They jump up and scream, "Hallelujah" and "Amen." Isn’t that art? The way a gold digger gives head, is that art? Is the Kama Sutra art? The way Bush wants to jump the gun and go to war, can it be compared to The Art of War by Sun Tzu?
Some people (they can be called "critics") may say things are arty. The American Heritage Dictionary also defines "arty" as being ostentatious, often a cheap attempt at being art. Was arty the mural of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant shit? How a pimp perms, presses, and curls his hair, then matches his hat with his pants and those fresh gators? Is arty the chicken head in Bed-Stuy who has elaborate three inch nails adorned with intricate designs and patterns? No, it’s not.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke said, "All critical intention is too far from me." Some people can learn something from that. Back in the day when hip hop came out, critics said that it was a passing phase. Today, hip hop is a billion dollar industry. Critics said that Tupac Amaru Shakur was a misogynist, womanizer, and a criminal. In this year, there are more than 200 English and Sociology professors in Ivy League colleges that teach Pac’s lyrics.
So what is art?
Art is what you bring to the table. What you feel makes you. What you think holds value. Art is when you go inside and search for yourself. Art is when you find yourself questioning. What is produced from the heart and nothing half-assed and trying to conform to what other people’s definition of art is.
So when it comes down to it, don’t ask, "What is art?" Ask, "Who am I?"
History Lesson: From Shackles and Chains to Freedom
by Lakeisha Mayfield
A timeline was revived when 49 artists illustrated creative imagery and abstract expressionist paintings.
Framed with intentions to enlighten, for those who are ignorant,
an exhibit of vivid pictures of Afro-American descendants.
A showcase of Black History and the culture’s triumphant legacy.
The artwork recaptured scenery from the 19th century,
the 1860s to the 21st century. Etched sketches revealed
desperation, segregation, oppression, depression,
slavery, inferiority, white supremacy.
Blacks deprived of freedom and self-esteem.
Auctioned off slaves, sold then branded and given a name,
cotton pickers and share croppers sang old Negro spirituals
in the fields and in church on Sunday.
Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Quakers, and abolitionists
rescued enslaved men, women, and children.
On the trail up north runaways got guidance from the North Star.
Lincoln signed important documentation
The 13th, 14th, 15th amendments’ ratification
Abolition, equal citizenship, and voting rights were given.
Ineffective constitutional amendments provoked civil right cases.
Supreme Court justices authorized a separate-but-equal doctrine
Plessy vs. Ferguson.
But Jim Crow was outlawed when Brown versed the Board.
1960s political regeneration influenced the nation.
Desegregation, Black political parties, civil rights marches and movements,
NAACP, Jesse Jackson and the National Rainbow coalition
sit-ins and boycotting buses, demonstrators and spectators tried to convince legislators.
Religious leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X used mass media
to preach and give speeches,
influenced public opinion and exercised the right to assemble and petition.
Leaders who took a stand paid a deadly consequence.
Birmingham crooked cops attacked people of color with billy clubs and police dogs.
Victims of circumstance
The impact of high-pressured fire hoses ripped through their clothes.
Authority abused power in the sixties.
Militant leaders, political prisoners, and black members
FBI classified them as public enemy No# 1,
Indictment due to false accusation,
President Kennedy, Malcolm and Martin assassinations
The public was wretched with frustration and hatred.
Police brutality evolved from southern style lynching to gunpowder and bullets today
"Cops Fired 41 Shots" Daily News front page.
Afrocentricity, Afros with radiant glows,
"I’m Black and I’m proud" an inspirational quote
Uplifting gatherings, protest rallies,
affirmative action, second civil rights act ratification.
Political and social awareness escalated and continued to elevate.
Barrels were broken and new laws were ratified
The images portrayed within the frames took a trip down memory lane.
It’s equal opportunity for any race, gender, or creed.
This workshop series was funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc. through a grant it has received from The New York State Council on the Arts.
For more about Urban Word, visit: www.urbanwordnyc.org
ContributorBrooklyn Rail Staff