Bridges and Boundaries

BY GLENN McNATT

April 03, 1993|BY GLENN McNATT

In fourth grade, I briefly collected stamps at the behest of a teacher who believed -- correctly as it turned out -- that philately was a fine introduction to the subject of geography.

I pursued the hobby in a desultory way, with a few stamps from what was then called ''French Equatorial West Africa'' -- I thought the name had a certain ring to it -- the rest mostly one-, two- and three-cent U.S. issues. These I dutifully pasted in a book and promptly forgot about.

Not so my pal Frankie Schweitzer, with whom I shared a desk at school. Frankie owned a large, elaborate collection whose centerpiece was an encyclopedic inventory of stamps from the Third Reich, each embossed with the unmistakable swastika symbol.

One day our class had two visitors from a local teachers' college, who asked to see our stamp projects. Standing over the desk where Frankie and I sat, they glanced at my tiny collection, then watched in fascinated horror as Frankie solemnly turned the pages of his bulging tome, each of which was completely covered by those evil insignia. After a few minutes, one of the visitors quietly turned her head away and broke into sobs.

Unconsciously, I knew even then that Frankie's stamps were about the Holocaust, and that they somehow represented his struggle to come to terms with the loss of so many family members during the war. I empathized with his pain because when I looked at those weird hooked crosses I got the same fearful sensation I experienced whenever I saw old movies about slavery or pictures of Ku Klux Klansmen.

I was reminded of that incident when the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland and the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center announced their collaboration in presenting an exhibit tracing the complex relationship between blacks and Jews in the 20th century.

Entitled ''Bridges and Boundaries: African-Americans and American Jews,'' the exhibition was organized by the Jewish Museum of New York in cooperation with the NAACP. It includes more than 300 artifacts -- historic photographs, letters, advertisements, newspaper cartoons, polemical tracts and works of art -- that explore the changing social and symbolic interactions between the two peoples.

The physical installation of ''Bridges and Boundaries'' will be divided between the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland at 15 Lloyd St. and the Eubie Blake Cultural Center at 409 N. Charles St. Baltimore is the only city on the show's itinerary in which the exhibition will be shared between an African-American and a Jewish museum, a collaboration intended to emphasize the project's goal of fostering interracial understanding.

The show's sponsors admit that relations between blacks and Jews have been ''marked by periods of cooperation and shared goals as well as times of enmity and distrust.'' The project grew out of a desire to examine the partnership forged between African-Americans and American Jews in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and the roots of the current tension between them.

To that end, ''Bridges and Boundaries'' explores five ''places'' -- points of historic intersection -- where the paths of blacks and Jews have crossed during this century.

An introductory gallery relates how Africans and Jews came to America, the former involuntarily, the latter fleeing religious persecution. Other sections explore the central role of religion in both black American and Jewish culture, the attempts by both groups to make a place for themselves in the American mainstream and the persistent discrimination each encountered.

The final sections of the exhibit examine the the two groups' role in the labor movement between in the interwar period and thereafter and the deepening estrangement between them beginning in the 1960s as a more militant black self-determination took hold and Jewish attention increasingly was drawn toward Israel and its problems.

Today's highly publicized examples of black-Jewish conflict -- such the dispute waged by intellectuals of both groups over affirmative action, or the Crown Heights riot in New York City -- tend to obscure the similarities of experience as well as the long historical collaboration between blacks and Jews.

''Bridges and Boundaries'' is a show worth seeing if only for the unhappy light it sheds on a once honorable alliance now tragically fragmented by the Farrakhans and Kahanes of this world.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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