Crossing Swords: Trees Growing in Brooklyn

Crossing Swords: Trees Growing in Brooklyn

Last winter, Dissent published a symposium called “Where Will Critical Culture Come From?” Our thinking was organized around an image coined by Jules Feiffer in a 1998 cartoon. He portrayed a man who criticizes New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s policy of erecting barriers on midtown street corners, supposedly to prevent jaywalking. In the end a policeman appears and arrests him. “What for?” he asks. Feiffer’s cop’s response became an instant classic: “For jaytalking.”

In our symposium, seven other people and I criticized the world, the left, each other, and ourselves, and said some more and some less arresting things. I thought our questions were better than our answers. Our panel was drawn from too few ZIP codes and too narrow an age spectrum. Still, our shared desire for “critical culture” was right. And our image of “jaytalking”—discourse and dialogue outside the designated lines—had a resonance that I was sure would strike more chords out there as time went by.

We struck a chord in Brooklyn right away. Winthrop Holder, a social studies teacher at Sarah J. Hale High School, in downtown Brooklyn, sent Dissent a copy of his school’s student magazine, Crossing Swords. (Edited by Winthrop Holder et al., Volume 7, No. 1, Special Twelfth Anniversary Edition, Summer/Fall 1999, 222pp.) All through the 1990s, he said, this magazine was kept alive by “The Society for Social Analysis,” a group of dedicated students and teachers at Hale. Holder modestly hoped we could see “its (possible) place in creating a more critical and human culture.”

Remember high school? It comes at a time of life when nothing happens and existence feels pretty vacant, then ZAP! We are swept up by inner forces that feel like too much. If high school works for us, we develop a critical culture there: we learn to think about our lives, to see what the world is like, to distinguish between what is expensive and what is real, to imagine a real place for ourselves. If it doesn’t work for us, we come out as candidates for fundamentalist cults, as addicts of drugs legal and illegal, or just plain old respectable social conformist living dead.

The writers in Crossing Swords tell their stories and their hopes. They come across as smart, nice young American girls and boys. They dream of success and distinction. They fall in love, lament young love’s betrayals, hope they can love again. They become drug addicts, have nervous breakdowns, and sometimes come back to life. They blend into gangs and then try to break away from them. They want their parents, elders, friends, neighbors, to see through stereotypes and recognize them for themselves; at the same time, they aren’t quite sure who those selves are. They want America to change in large ways, but there is no movement for change with which they identify. They sound a lot like the soulful suburban kids in one of the 1990s’ best televisi...

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