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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Gary McFarlane


Melted pot


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Day the Bronx Died
by Michael Henry Brown

There is an image of black America, prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic, which stresses violence and gang warfare. This play seeks to identify the roots of this mayhem in the unforeseen outcome of the struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. Focusing on the Bronx district of New York we are introduced to Mickey both as a teenager in 1968 and as a successful professional today. Through his eyes, the author draws out the central contradiction of the legacy of the civil rights and black power movement – namely how it was that only a minority of the black population benefited from those struggles.

Instead of 1968 being the year which marked a high point in the struggle, for Brown, in hindsight, it becomes the beginning of the end of New York as the melting pot, where blacks and Jews could join together in common struggles for justice – and when black people could see the need to unite against the enemy, white racism.

Mickey is not an easily categorised individual. On the contrary, the pressures and decisions he makes in his life reflect his social environment in the Bronx. His best friends are Alexander, a black kid who heads a youth gang called the Gladiators and Billy, a Jewish kid. All three live in private houses as opposed to the ‘projects’, and as such they harbour many of the prejudices against people living in public housing.

Mickey’s mum, an admirer of Martin Luther King, wouldn’t mind seeing an atom bomb dropped on the project and the area turned into a big park for black and white kids to play in together.

She still has the hope of integration into white America on equal terms, and as such wants the best for her son. She works in the house of a middle class Jewish family and explains to the young Mickey how blacks and Jews are both ancient peoples.

Alexander on the other hand has little time for Jewish people who he characterises as worse than the average white – his not so latent anti-semitism is sharpened when his father loses his job and they have to move into the projects. It is also a turning point in his friendship with Mickey as he graduates into the criminal gang world and falls in with the arch hoodlum, Prince, who uses the project as his base for seemingly terrorising the whole neighbourhood.

Soon a black cop is dead, and so too is Alexander. But when King gets assassinated in Memphis in 1968 the Bronx truly ‘dies’. The days when Mickey could go to Billy’s Barmitzvah and be treated like a son by Mr Kornblum are apparently lost in a whirlwind of anti-white violence. By the end of the play it is the older and richer Mickey who is trying to come to terms with the shooting of his son more than 20 years later. His rage is now not directed at the society that Dr King tried to eradicate – capitalism and the racial oppression it generates and perpetuates – but instead at the lawless black men from whom ‘we have to take back our civilisation’.

But although the play concludes with a tone which fits exactly with both the black establishment’s ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality and the anti-black law and order campaign, it nevertheless provides us with powerful illumination along the way. The impact of this play in New York, against the background of the Crown Heights rioting between blacks and Jews and the anti-semitic posturing of the Nation of Islam and others in the early 1990s, must have come as a timely reminder of the reality that working class black and Jewish people have to and do in fact live together.

Gordon Edelstein’s direction makes for a tight piece of storytelling. Although the full potential of 1968 is not explicitly explored, or even the fact that thousands of Jewish kids joined the Freedom Riders down south, the sense of dashed possibilities comes across powerfully. We are to some extent left asking – where do we go from here? The Day the Bronx Died does not pretend to have much of an answer, which is perhaps a fair reflection of the crisis of black leadership in America today.

The Day the Bronx Died is at the Tricycle Theatre, London

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