Before the Fires—A True Community Product
By Professor Mark Naison
The response of people in the Bronx and neighboring communities to Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930’s to the 1960’s (Fordham University Press) has been one of the most gratifying aspects of publishing this book.
As background, Before the Fires is the outgrowth of a community history initiative called the “Bronx African American History Project” which has recorded more than 300 oral history interviews during its 14 years of existence. None of these interviews would have been possible without the support of community residents and community leaders who wanted their voices recorded and the response to the book has reflected the power of that community input.
Since the book was published in September, my co-author, Bob Gumbs, and I have been hosted by two local cultural organizations–The Bronx Museum of the Arts and The Bronx Music Heritage Center; two public high schools–Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School and Community School for Social Justice; and one African American Church–Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon. In all of these events, there has been enthusiastic audience participation in discussing the stories contained in the book, and encouragement for us to record more. Universally, people have applauded the book’s appearance as a sign that their view of Bronx history–on in which Black people’s community building and culturally creativity was foregrounded–could no longer be ignored. Everywhere we went, people express pride in the book’s appearance and took ownership of it. They urged us to get maximum publicity for it, not as a way of enhancing the reputation of the authors, but of affirming the value of the communities whose history it recorded and celebrated.
It is hard to put in words how much this experience affected both Bob Gumbs and me emotionally. It affirmed our vision of this book as a true community product, one which people whose lives were highlighted in the book could claim as a window into the world they grew up in, and still look back upon with great affection and respect.
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