Divided art exhibit accents the ties, gaps between blacks, Jews

ART REVIEW

April 22, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Although it may have seemed like an interesting idea, in practice it turns out to be a mistake to show "Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews" in two different places for its Baltimore run.

This challenging exhibit tracing the history of cooperation and conflict between two of America's minority populations was organized by the Jewish Museum in New York; it had the services of an African-American curator, Gretchen Sullivan Sorin. uses artifacts, documents and art to tell the story of the centurylong relationship between the two groups, both its positive and its negative aspects.

Assuming that the show has it right, until recent times the positive so overwhelmed the negative that there was no close competition between them. Through more than half of the century, blacks and Jews in America looked at one another primarily as allies battling the enemy of bigotry.

There were certainly places and times of tension between the two groups, but more often they found common ground. The exhibit's first four sections, shown at the Jewish Historical Society, make that clear. The groups shared similar backgrounds ofenslavement and oppression. They both arrived in great numbers in northern American cities in the decades around 1900 -- African-Americans from the South, Jews from eastern Europe. They had similar organizations for advancement, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Jewish Congress. They struggled together (as well as separately) in the labor movement, and in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The last part of the show, at the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, traces the widening distance between the two groups since about the mid-1960s. There were a number of reasons for this, from white flight to the suburbs, leaving largely black inner cities and city school systems, to the black power movement and increased Jewish attention to Israel after the Six-Day War of 1967.

The results were that "blacks and Jews encountered each other less and less frequently" as one of the show's texts states; another acknowledges that "there remains for many a growing mistrust and hostility." This has surfaced in such places as a dispute over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the late 1960s, and the more recent hostility in Brooklyn's Crown Heights.

There are two problems with having the show split up as it is. First, the part of the show at the Jewish Historical Society is much better installed than that at the Eubie Blake Center, where the one section is spread over much too large an area. But more fundamental, it's impossible to make people go to both parts, and many obviously won't. Those who go only to the historical society will get the positive side of the history, and those who go only to the Eubie Blake Center will get the negative side, and neither will have a balanced or complete picture.

This, then, is to say please be sure to go to both places. And I would recommend going to the last part, at Eubie Blake, first. It's much more important to take away from this exhibit what's been positive about this relationship, which so outweighs the negative that it ought to be the visitor's last impression.

ART REVIEW

What: "Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews."

Where: The Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St.; the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, 409 N. Charles St.

When: JHS hours are noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays; Eubie Blake hours are noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Through June 10.

Admission: $2 for adults, free for children under 12 at JHS; Eubie Blake, free.

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Call: JHS, (410) 732-6400; Eubie Blake, (410) 396-1300.

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