“Many children who go to public school pledge their allegiance to the United States of America,” explains Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele. “We had a different pledge. We committed ourselves to contribute to the Black Liberation Movement, to our freedom.” Uhuru Sasa Shule, which translates to “Freedom Now School” in Kiswahili, was the heartbeat of The East, a Brooklyn-based organization founded in 1969 by Black people committed to self-determination, social justice, and diasporic world-building. The Uhuru Sasa Shule was located on the first floor of a three-story building on 10 Claver Place. In the words of Dwana Smallwood, a former pupil, who went on to become a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it was “a home and a revolution.”
The Sun Rises in the East (2022) premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February with many East members in attendance. Tayo Giwa and Cynthia Gordy Giwa’s first feature documentary film weaves together unaired outtakes of an interview with co-founder and leader of the organization, Jitu Weusi, from an episode of Eyes on the Prize II (1990). It also includes poignant reflections as narrated through photographs and posters by historians, members of The East, and children who grew up in the community. The result is a fifty-eight-minute film that traces the roots of the Uruhu Sasa Shule and the East to the Freedom Day protest of February 3, 1964. Weusi was a Brooklynite and dedicated teacher in Ocean Hill-Brownsville before co-founding the East. “In September of ’68 a number of us at I.S. 271, Junior High School 271, decided to start an evening school to provide classes and instruction for the youth and adults of the community.” Weusi recalls, “this was just an idea we had, and it became a tremendous success.” Despite Weusi’s passing in 2013, the previously unseen footage of him from Eyes on The Prize II explaining his journey from being a teacher to running the East in his own words, both anchors and textures the film with his spirit.
The filmmakers stumbled upon the visual and sonic archive of The East when they were highlighting the annual celebration of the International African Arts Festival on their Instagram. The two operate Black-Owned Brooklyn, a digital platform that highlights Black-owned businesses. The festival, originally called Afrikan Street Carnival, was founded by the organization in 1971 to fundraise for the Uhuru Sasa Shule. It is one of the longest-running festivals of Afro-diasporic culture in the country. “This is not the story of Black capitalism,” Tayo Giwa explained. For him, speaking to local business owners became an opportunity “to understand our collective culture in this pan-African community … you talk to business owners, and you understand all the ways in which we are connected.”
The film asks a provocative question concerning Black history and its archive: how has Black history been told with the specific objective of improving the material conditions of Black people? The East was founded by former members of the African American Student Association and the African American Teachers Association, the latter of which Weusi emerged as a crucial organizer. The documentary traces the roots of the East to the Freedom Day protest of February 3, 1964, through the extensive use of photographs and archival material layered with historical context and personal reflections. The protest was in response to an enduring racial and economic apartheid in the New York City public school system despite the 1954 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. Desegregation, in their view, had institutionalized racial segregation by implementing a busing system that sent Black children outside of their communities to hostile neighborhoods often resisting desegregation. The organizers of the Freedom Day protest demanded quality education under local governance. As a consequence, Central Brooklyn became part of an experiment in community control. For the first time, parents, teachers, and community stakeholders were able to determine what students would learn.
The demand for the community-based and identity-centered education—such as teaching Black history or implementing multilingual schooling—led to staff changes in the district, causing the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) to cast allegations of union-busting, explains Dr. Kwasi Konadu, historian and author of A View From The East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City (2009). In 1968, the UFT staged a strike that lasted for thirty-six days, effectively shutting down the entire New York City public school system. A strength of the film is its ability to convey the stakes of community organizing through charged photographs from the period.“You see their intensity to commit themselves to a strike,” Giwa said, describing one photograph of the UFT moments before the strike was authorized. However, Giwa notes, “There was no reflection of the community they were fighting in the room.” The failed experiment in community control led to the formation of The East. What initially began as a night school blossomed into an incubator of culture and education. The documentary recasts how Black culture and kinship were fomented through intimate photographs of artists, performances, and local businesses run by East members. Performers such as Sun Ra Arkestra, Gil Scott-Heron, Betty Carter, Max Roach, The Last Poets, Pharoah Sanders, and their contemporaries were at the center of Black cultural production in the ensuing decades. One notable photograph shows James Mtume performing in front of a mural that reads Ujima, “collective work and responsibility,” and Umoja, “unity”—both central tenets of the dynamic collective.
Brooklyn remains a major center of the global Black diaspora and a cultural mecca. The Sun Rises In the East cogently brings to light the role cultural communities play in the legacy of Afro-diasporic world-building and creative ways in which self-determination is expressed. Smallwood says it best: “We are the original Wakanda children.” The East predates the creative multi-generational endeavor which has been coined as “Afro-futurism.” Ashley Clark, curatorial director of the Criterion Collection and former director of film programming at BAM, has described Afro-futurism as “alternative and imagined Black presence, realities and alternate realities.” Such a project, per Clark, committed to exploring “the possibility of Black people imaging themselves in a future that has not been imagined,” taking form in the creative sphere of music, art, film, science fiction, and cultural communities. The East’s prolific cultural output serves as a repository of creativity from which future generations might draw inspiration for their own projects of liberation and diasporic world-building. The documentary will be screening at the Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater as a part of the New York African Film Festival on Sunday, May 15 at 2 p.m.