“Bertram Baker might have been the soul of courtly compromise, but the one thing he would never abide by was disrespect.” Jacqueline Cutler, Daily News
In Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker, Ron Howell delivers a touchingly honest account of the first black person to ever hold office in Brooklyn: his grandfather. Howell revisits the triumphs of his trailblazing grandfather, who at age 50, would become the first black Brooklynite elected to any office. Most notably, Baker was instrumental in the passing of a nondiscriminatory housing act, the integration of professional tennis, and was elected majority whip in the set Assembly. But while Howell is diligent in shining the spotlight on Baker, 34 years after his passing, he is not reticent in showing a more intimate side of the assemblyman.
In her article, Cutler notes that the book serves as an “elegy, [as sort of a] double memoir,” as Howell touchingly examines his grandfather’s inner life through an examination of his own. Intertwined in this double examination are themes that are still relevant today; themes that address what it means to be a father and a husband, all while being a black man. Cutler notes a particularly salient anecdote, which Howell shares in the book, that highlight the nuances of Baker’s character. Baker gained the admiration of his grandson as he watched his grandfather disregard racial intimidation and police power to stand up for what he believed in (the mistreatment of a female black poll worker at the hands of a white police officer).
Howell’s hopes in writing a book about his grandfather was to preserve his legacy because his successes, however quiet they may have been (deemed as such by those who favored protesting and marching) were monumental in the diversification of New York City. Today, Brooklyn is a hub for Black and African-American culture, its streets humming with a vibrance that people like Bertram L. Baker envisioned when pushing boundaries, and people like Ron Howell preserve through necessary explorations of the past.