Noah Schuettge is a recent transplant to Birmingham, AL and is serving as an AmeriCorps member in the Social Justice department at the YWCA Central Alabama.
In 1991, the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn broke out into three days of violence. The factual causes of the “Crown Heights Riot” are still disputed but on August 19, a car driven by a Jewish member of the head Rabbi’s motorcade struck and killed a 7-year-old Caribbean-American boy named Gavin Cato. The following day, a young Jewish Rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum was beaten to death, apparently in retaliation for Gavin Cato’s death. At the time, Crown Heights was predominantly black and Jewish and the social and political implications of the unrest are as confusing and complicated as the causes.
Last summer I led a group of Jewish teenagers on a summer of community service as part of an organization called the American Jewish Society for Service. During our six weeks of living and volunteering in Birmingham, we explored the history of the area and heard much of the cooperation of Jews and African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. The history of Jewish and black collaboration is a long and interesting one, but I also wanted to convey to each participant how volatile cross-cultural relationships can be when they are not cultivated. I had each of my students act out excerpts from Anna Deveare Smith’s Fire in the Mirrors, a collection of interviews from those involved – either directly or indirectly – with the Brooklyn riots of 1991. Through these emotional testimonials, Smith attempts to illustrate the social and cultural walls which separated two groups of people living so close together.
This month, the Birmingham Museum of Art hosted the YWCA’s second PEACE Birmingham meeting for this year. PEACE, started in 1996 by Temple Emanu-El, sought to create connections between African-American and Jewish teenagers in Birmingham who wouldn’t normally meet. In 2007, the program opened to include teenagers from all multi-cultural backgrounds and this year the YWCA is ecstatic to welcome PEACE as one of its social justice programs. Creating and cultivating connections between cultures living side by side without communicating is as vital now as much as ever. The Crown Heights Riot is a severe reminder of what can happen when communication between people of different cultures breaks down or is never attempted at all.
In Birmingham students have a unique opportunity as part of a multi-cultural city, but unfortunately, young people are told they live in a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society, and racial and cultural differences are taboo topics in which we are discouraged to engage. These philosophies not only ignore systemic and institutionalized racism and discrimination in our country but also minimize the importance of discussing these issues in public discourse, which we have seen has damaging and even violent implications. In a city where schools with a 99 percent African-American student population are next to schools with 99 percent white students, PEACE Birmingham attempts to bring students from all backgrounds together, even it is for just one day a month, to engage openly and honestly with their personal and cultural histories and together try to answer the question, “Who is Birmingham?”
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