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How a radical Black community in the 70s shaped Brooklyn

The full episode transcript for “The Sun Rises in The East”.


Into America

“The Sun Rises in The East”

Archival Recording: Here I am. Am I here? You know it. You know.

Trymaine Lee: Long before I ever moved to Brooklyn about 15 years ago, I'd fallen in love with it. One of my favorite authors, Richard Wright, wrote one of his seminal works, Native Son, right here, some from a park bench in Fort Greene. And then there were all of those gorgeously shot scenes of Bedford-Stuyvesant in my absolute favorite movie of all time, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.

Archival Recording: From the heart of Bed-Stuy, you're listening to We Love Radio.

Archival Recording: Doin' the ying and yang, the hip and the hop, the stupid fresh thing, the flippity flop. The color for today is black. That's right black, so you can absorb some of these rays--

Lee: When I finally moved here to Bed-Stuy in late 2006, it all seemed so familiar, so vibrant and warm, and so beautifully Black. The brownstones, the block parties, the churches, the festivals, the pride. And I've never lived in a neighborhood with so many Black-owned businesses, restaurants and bars, wine ships and boutiques.

I mean, you could get body butter and a Bordeaux with your Black dollar never leaving Black hands. Despite gentrification, there's still something so real about this neighborhood. If anything, perhaps it's a continuation of something, something that many people living here now, Black or white, probably don't know. In 1969, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a pan-African organization called The East planted its roots and grew.

Cynthia Gordy Giwa: What was The East? Oh, my God. I mean, that's a good question. What was The East? It was a cultural community of individuals who wanted institutions and businesses run by, founded by, taught by Black people.

Lee: The founders of The East were young Black teachers and students who wanted to take back control of the institutions that shaped the lives of people in their community.

C. Giwa: It was history in the making. It was a mecca. It was home. And it was a revolution.

Lee: In the 1970s, The East ran a food cooperative for over 50 families, night classes for adults, music and dance programs, a publishing house with a newspaper, an elementary school program, and an experimental high school. I mean, the list goes on and on. They even started their own jazz club. And that jazz club became world famous.

Tayo Giwa: And a couple like Sun Ra and Gary Bartz and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And it's hard to even imagine having such talent so easily in a neighborhood like that. I mean, it's really special.

C. Giwa: It sounded like this really sprawling, fascinating organization. But we were finding not that much information about them. It wasn't really accessible to us.

Lee: Tayo Giwa and Cynthia Gordy Giwa are the owners and founders of Black-Owned Brooklyn, a community-based publication that highlights Black-owned businesses. It's like a modern day Green Book for people who want to buy Black. Their Instagram has over 100,000 followers. Tayo and Cynthia first heard about The East back in 2018 when they were covering Brooklyn's annual International African Arts Festival.

T. Giwa: There are these, like, fragments of The East that kept bubbling up, pieces of history that we kept hearing from business owners as we were doing Black-Owned Brooklyn work. We knew that this was a rich history that really, really impacted people.

Lee: So Tayo and Cynthia asked themselves if no one was gonna tell the story of The East, why not them?

C. Giwa: People don't even know that the way that Brooklyn looks and feels is directly related to this liberation movement that The East set into motion.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. In their upcoming documentary, The Sun Rises in The East, Tayo and Cynthia chronicle how this historically Black community in Brooklyn reclaimed their neighborhood and restored Black folks to the center of the narrative. And a former member of The East recalls her time in the movement.

Fela Barclift: It was like leader after leader coming through there and talking to all of us about how we could be the change, how we could make the revolution happen.

Lee: Cynthia and I go way back. We got to know each other as two young journalists living in Bed-Stuy.

C. Giwa: We met at the beginning of the Obama administration. It was a while ago.

Lee: That's crazy. That's crazy. But now it's like Black-Owned Brooklyn. You got the babies and the husband, filmmakers. How different is your life now?

C. Giwa: Way different.

Lee: Now she's married to Tayo. And they have two little ones who made a few appearances throughout the interview.

C. Giwa: All right, can we take one quick break--

Lee: Yeah, of course.

C. Giwa: --for my baby? Sorry.

Lee: If you can't take a break for the babies, who can you take a break for? (LAUGHTER) And these two, they absolutely love Brooklyn.

C. Giwa: There's so much warmth and sort of a community feel, cultural pride. We know our neighbors. We're connected to the business owners in our community. They know our children. You know, it's like a place where people have been living for generations. And it's like people's family, people's roots and history are here.

Lee: Their life is like a love story to the borough.

T. Giwa: We met in Brooklyn over a spring. And we just started dating. And Brooklyn in many ways was this sort of backdrop to our relationship. We, you know, were big walkers. So we'd just be walkin' around town, going to different events, checking out new businesses. And so in many ways that sort of seedling for our relationship was the impetus behind Black-Owned Brooklyn as we started thinking about all these places that gave so much meaning to our lives in Brooklyn.

Lee: Brooklyn means everything to them. It's a place that brought them together, supported them and their business, and gave them a community to raise a family. There's this line in their documentary that I loved, that if you waste any of your gifts, you're insulting the ancestors.

C. Giwa: We were taught that if you waste any gift, you were insulting your ancestors. And it was just like, "What? You know how to write, but you're not writing poetry? You're not writing essays? You know how to sing, but you're not using your voice? You know how to move, but you're not dancing?" That was a true insult. And so they pushed us to just be.

Lee: It reminds me of Tayo and Cynthia's drive to do right by their borough, the same drive that compelled them to make this documentary about The East in the first place.

T. Giwa: I think Cynthia and I when we were conducting these interviews, you know, looked at each other at some point. And we were like, "Wow, this is really historic what we're capturing." And, you know, at that point it became, "We have a duty to make sure that we do this to the best of our ability because this is such an important history." And that it's not been done I think, we felt that not only did we need to make this film, but we had to make it in a way that was gonna bring The East into the lexicon of this time period.

Lee: For The Sun Rises in The East, Tayo and Cynthia interviewed as many former leaders and members of The East as they could and some people who grew up in the movement.

Archival Recording: We are the original Wakanda children.

T. Giwa: Many children who go to public school pledge their allegiance to the United States of America. We had a different pledge. We pledged ourselves to contributing to the Black Liberation movement to our freedom.

Lee: But The East didn't just value education. The East was founded because of education. In the 1960s, the majority of Black schools in central Brooklyn were seriously neglected by the city. Parents felt that the teachers who were overwhelmingly white were failing their kids, and at the same time, feeding them a whitewashed version of history and themselves. When New York City implemented busing in the late '60s, many Black children had to leave their neighborhood schools, exacerbating the problem for those who stayed.

T. Giwa: Then you have the existing schools in the community that are just, like, falling behind with big student populations, but teachers who don't necessarily care about the students.

Lee: And in 1968, thousands of white teachers in central Brooklyn went on strike leaving many Black students without structured classes for over a month. Here's how Jitu Weusi, one of the founders and really the true patriarch of The East, explained these conditions in archival footage the Giwas dug up for the documentary.

Jitu Weusi: There was no teaching going on. The teaching had just stopped. Teachers came in in the morning with radios, with coffee and cake and newspapers. Teachers left their classrooms to place their bets at the track. The teaching process within that school had been suspended. It was my belief that there was a calculated effort on the part of the union teachers, the United Federation of Teachers members, supporters, to sabotage the program.

Lee: Jitu Weusi and other community members were simply fed up. So they took a radical step. They created The East to fill the gap.

Weusi: We see wealthy communities take control of their community. And it seems, well, obvious to them that they should have control of they community. But there is something perhaps frightening about our society when a Black community takes control of their school in this way.

Lee: They started with evening classes for kids and adults.

Weusi: That was just incredibly powerful to say, "You know what? These public school systems, we've tried to work within the system to, you know, have control in our community. But this isn't working for us."

C. Giwa: Liberation begins with the mind. And they knew that.

Lee: The East began in a two-story building at 10 Claver Place in Bed-Stuy and quickly grew into a community center, a jazz club, a publishing house, and two years later, a full-fledged school.

Barclift: The school was called Uhuru Sasa, "Freedom Now," Swahili word, "Freedom Now."

Lee: One of the first teachers was a young Fela Barclift. Fela moved to the neighborhood with her family when she was just an infant. But there's no doubt she had Bed-Stuy coursing through her veins. For the past 40 years, she has run Little Sun People, an Afro-centric early childhood center devoted to nurturing young Black minds. Sometimes durin' our conversation you can hear them in the background. But Fela, she didn't show up at The East planning to be a teacher.

Barclift: I was a jazz lover. Oh, my God, and, like, all through high school that's all I listened to, me and my little clique. (STUDENT VOICES) When I heard about The East, it was because of the music. Every Saturday they would have some of the most amazing musicians. Like, everybody was strollin' through The East. It was unbelievable.

They had John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Kenny Garrett. They would have Pharoah Sanders. They had Alice Coltrane. They had everybody. So I just started hangin' out down there every Saturday. But I was poor. 'Cause I had just got out of high school. I had money.

Lee: That's when Fela met The East's beloved founder, and guidin' light, Jitu Weusi.

Barclift: After a few months of me every Saturday sittin' there listenin' to that music and lovin' it, (STUDENT VOICES) Jitu, I guess, he must have noticed me. And he asked me would I be interested in waiting tables. And he said he couldn't pay me. But my entrance was free. And to me, that was, like, the best gift that anybody had ever given me.

Lee: Fela had a 9:00 to 5:00 as well. At the time, she was workin' on Wall Street.

Barclift: I hated my job on Wall Street. I hated it. I mean, it was so dehumanizing. And also there was so much sexual harassment and whatnot. (STUDENT VOICES) But, you know, we were like all these little Black kids that had been recruited to come down there and diversify the place. All these white owning-class men felt like we were just candy in the candy store for them. And they could touch us (STUDENT VOICES) and, you know, (LAUGH) just whatever they felt like doing.

Lee: Yeah.

Barclift: When Brother Jitu asked me to come and work one day, I'm just walkin' around and he's like, "Sister Fela, I want you to be our first teacher for these girls. And you're gonna be the teacher for the girls. And Brother Adeyemi's gonna be the teacher for the boys." And I'm like, "Absolutely not." (LAUGH)

Lee: You weren't a teacher, right?

Barclift: That's right.

Lee: You were--

Barclift: I was like, "No." (LAUGHTER) I was, "What are you talkin' about? I'm not a teacher. I'm just a kid myself. I'm not trained." He's like, "You don't need to worry about that 'cause we will train you."

Lee: Wow.

Barclift: He said, "The kinda training that you need to offer to our students you can't get in those schools anyway."

Lee: Fela always loved learning. But growing up, she hated school.

Barclift: Well, education was pretty much a nightmare, honestly. I don't think I remember having a single Black or brown teacher during the time that I was in my early school years. And I went to all schools right here in Brooklyn. I did not feel--

Lee: Wow.

Barclift: --connected at all to my school. (STUDENT VOICES) Fortunately I was a reader. And I got that from just my family's desperation to read. So I taught myself, and I went to the library.

Lee: Wow.

Barclift: And that's how I got to be so engaged with literature. Because I would just get in a corner of the library, get a stack of books, and just read and read and read. It was just my natural curiosity and interest. But it certainly wasn't because of school.

Lee: At the Freedom Now school, Fela gave her students a learning environment that was the polar opposite to those schools.

Barclift: It was about revolution. It was about bringing African culture, perspective, thinking and ideas to our young people in total contrast to what we had been taught in the regular Euro-centric school system.

Lee: I'd imagine, like, this community who was thirsty for that, even folks who didn't realize they were thirsty for it, how did the community respond once you all started to nurture these seeds?

Barclift: Well, the first year was a little slow. But by that second year, we had hit the ground running. And people were coming from everywhere to bring their kids.

Lee: You know, I wonder and I have to assume not much different than today when Black people center ourselves, and tell our stories, and empower each other, and pour into each other unapologetically Black that the white power structure and white supremacists, even if they're in a nice suit tie and politicians, take aim at us. Back then when you were doin' this, was is it seen as radical outside the community?

Barclift: Yes. (STUDENT VOICES) It was seen as radical inside the community as well.

Lee: Right. (LAUGH) Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Barclift: Yeah, 'cause you know all of us are not in agreement with revolution, so to speak. (STUDENT VOICES) So the whole East and Uhuru Sasa and Freedom Now and the revolution and all of that pan-Africanism for many Black people in the neighborhood, they weren't thrilled with it at all.

Lee: So Fela, when you were part of this school and the whole objective was to give something different to the Black children of the neighborhood, what did that actually look like in practice in terms of, like, what you were teaching the children?

Barclift: Well, an example is that we were given a lot of leeway (STUDENT VOICES) to choose what our currency was gonna be. So one day, James Brown was playin', singing at the Apollo. So my lesson for the day was we were all gonna get together and go to the Apollo and listen to James Brown.

My girls loved it. You know, another lesson that I remember stands out was the lesson where I got my name. All of those girls in my class had African names. And they all said to me, because the name I used at that time was Frances, because that's the name that my parents gave me. (STUDENT VOICES)

And so all of the girls was like, "You can't be Frances here 'cause that's your slave name. You have to have an (STUDENT VOICES) African name like the rest of us." So the lesson was: Let's go into the African name books. Let's find an African name that you feel speaks to who I am, that you know me so far. And then let's come back and let's discuss those names. What part of Africa did they come from? And what do they mean? And how does that connect to me? (STUDENT VOICES) And so that's how I ended up with the name Fela--

Lee: Wow.

Barclift: That was the lesson, you know? And never mind the dance classes, the martial arts classes. We would march. Like, some of the time we would have to go do protests. That's part of our lesson. We're gonna go and we're gonna protest this unfair treatment of, you know, Black people in this situation. And that's part of our lesson.

Lee: We have to take a quick break. But when we come back, more about The East founder, Jitu Weusi, and how his legacy continues to shape Black Brooklyn.

Lee: At its height, about 100 young families made up the core of The East. And at the heart of that was founder Jitu Weusi.

T. Giwa: Jitu was dynamic. And we wanted to make sure that people didn't just know that there was this influence person, but he was special. And he had a charisma to him. And so we really wanted to make sure that we impressed that on people, that this was a significant figure in the Black Power movement.

Lee: Jitu was 6'6" with a commanding presence. And Fela says, Jitu's impact on the community can't be overstated.

Barclift: For me, specifically he could see you. He, like, saw me. He saw so many of us. And he brought out the best in us. Because the society saw us as nothing. We were just fodder, you know, just to be used up, abused and thrown out. Whereas he saw us as contributors, as leaders, as speakers and teachers. And he's like, "You can do it." So he not only did that for me, he did that for hundreds of young Black people like me.

Lee: Brother Jitu left The East in 1977. And without his larger-than-life presence, and without his wisdom, the organization began to unravel.

Barclift: I would say the first thing that I think started to challenge things was that Brother Jitu started to get burnt out and feel like, "Okay, I gotta take a breather here." (STUDENT VOICES) And that sparked that fire that he had that brought so many people there.

Like, when he started takin' a step back and put other people there who were not him. Not that they weren't good people, (STUDENT VOICES) but they weren't Jitu. Things changed. And then the community started to complain about various things. They weren't happy with this drumming or that chanting or this marching. And, you know, just those kinds of, like, internal and external attacks and also the leadership that started to change all kinda led to The East dwindling.

Lee: Brother Jitu died on May 22nd, 2013, at the age of 73. Through old interviews unearthed by Cynthia and Tayo for the documentary, you can almost feel his power, his gravitas.

Weusi: Brothers and sisters, I just got finished watching this talent show. And really, it blows my mind. It shows you just how much talent, just how much goodness, just how much positiveness we have in our community. (BACKGROUND VOICES) And that's we gotta do. We gotta accentuate the positive.

Lee: Among other things, The East was no doubt a product of its time, including the role that gender played within the organization. The leadership was dominated by men. And despite a slew of powerful women who helped mold the organization, they were often relegated to roles in the kitchen and caring for the children, even when they had formal education and college degrees. And while America was in the middle of a larger sexual revolution, The East began experimenting with ways to build strength in numbers, including polygamy. Here's how Fela explained it in the documentary.

Barclift: One day I walked in there and they announced that the brotherhood had decided that all of the single women were going to be connected to a brother or a family. And it wasn't gonna be up to the sister who that was gonna be. So at that moment I decided that it was time to go back to college.

Yeah, I didn't at that point really know how to stand up for myself and fight back against sexism. So I just said, "Well, I guess that means I'm leaving The East." Because I wasn't going to stand for that. Of course, I found out a few months later that many sisters weren't gonna stand for it. And they stopped it. So (LAUGH) I coulda stayed. But I think it was my time anyways.

Lee: After Fela left The East, she went back to school and eventually became a mother. When it was time to put her own children into day care, she wanted them to have an experience like the one she had given to her students at Uhuru Sasa.

Barclift: And there wasn't any place for me to go. I couldn't find, I looked all over. I went to ten different child care programs. And all of them had Mickey Mouse and all these white princesses. And nothing about the Black or African experience was reflected in any of them.

And that's why I said, "You know what? I'm gonna open my own." I was only planning to do it for a few years while my kids were little. (STUDENT VOICES) And then once they went on to their elementaries, I was gonna go do my next thing. And it just turned out that I was so fed by this experience and so satisfied.

And also I felt like I was contributing. Because I realized that if you really want to build, you know, a Black identity, you have to start when someone is born. You can't wait until they're in college or even middle school. Elementary school is even late.

The building blocks go in from birth to seven. Those are serious buildin' blocks. After that, everything else is just, like, puttin' flowers and decoration. So I felt like, "Okay, this is actually where I get to be part of the revolution."

Lee: I asked Fela how it felt to be involved in a documentary about a time and place that had shaped her life so much.

Barclift: Well, I loved it. I loved it. I mean, I was surprised. You know, I didn't expect how my heart would feel so touched that I got a chance to speak from my heart about a place and a time that was so important to me, to my growth as a human, to my growth as a young woman, (STUDENT VOICES) and to my perspective about life and living as a Black woman in this world.

The East was an amazing gift. And I will always be honored, proud that I was a contributor, that I had Jitu (STUDENT VOICES) who really cared about me and who saw my potential. And then getting to be a part of that movie, I just feel privileged and honored that I was asked and that I could contribute.

Lee: Well, you call that time in The East a gift. And all these years later, it still feels like you were gifted something special.

Barclift: I certainly was. I certainly was.

Lee: Like Fela, people from The East continue to shape Brooklyn today. One graduate founded a dance student. Another became a grassroots organizer. Others opened stores and started businesses. And making this documentary has made Cynthia and Tayo even more proud of their adopted hometown.

T. Giwa: It's not a coincidence that these things happened in central Brooklyn, right? That there is this large quantity of Black-owned businesses in our community. And so there is this desire and belief in self that, you know, we can own businesses in our community.

And people do it. And that didn't just come out of nowhere. And it didn't happen, you know, in the summer of 2020. You know, this has been a movement in our community for a long time. And so we want to make sure that The East is given their flowers.

Because they created the ceilings of all this. I mean, you walk around Bedford-Stuyvesant and you see trees with red, black, and green, sidewalks with red, black, and green painted on it. You know, one of our daughter's favorite playgrounds is painted red, black, and green.

I mean, it's serious here. There's a lot of Black pride in our community. And obviously our neighborhood's changing. But it's still here. It's still strong. And we want to make sure that people understand that this expression of identity and pride comes from somewhere.

This is Black history. It's rooted in Brooklyn. But we think that this is a bigger story that is inspirational to people throughout the country, throughout the world. Because while it's a Black story, we think it's a human story. And it's a history that we think can inspire, you know, people all over.

Lee: You can find the trailer for The Sun Rises in The East in our show notes. Cynthia and Tayo are planning to release the film this year. You can follow Into America on socialism, on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @intoamericapod. Or write to us at

That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.