By Raphael Jackson
One of the highlights of my life was being involved in the EAST Cultural Center.
One of the eye-opening experiences was seeing an organization being grown from the ashes of an abandoned building into a world-class cultural and educational center. I still have to wrap my head around the fact that the EAST organization was started by teenagers. When we think of teenagers, we usually think of self-absorbed individuals. Looking back on fifty years, it still baffles me and gives me hope for things to come. My thought is that if we could do it with the resources available to us then, there is a great possibility that the youth of today can far exceed our triumphs and expectations. It was under the tutelage of my former teacher Jitu Weusi who became the architect for my trying to replicate the EAST Cultural Center wherever I went.
Having participated in building an organization from scratch opened my eyes to the possibilities of replicating the EAST experience anywhere in the world.
My first experience outside of New York City in creating the EAST was at the State University of New York in Albany. We, the students, many from Brooklyn, were instrumental in creating “Black Weekend.” This was a cultural and political extravaganza. We brought Pharaoh Sanders, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, The Heath Brothers, Mongo Santamaria and Gil Scott Heron to the school. It was through the inspiration of the East and Jitu Weusi that we were able to contact and negotiate with these artists. The foundations of the EAST were firmly planted in my consciousness. At SUNY-Albany, we named our newspaper, Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), and our magazine, Umoja (Unity).
One of the observations one makes when they leave the crucible of New York is how far behind many residents are in these outlying states. Much of this cultural lag is due to the lack of exposure. In New York, you are bombarded by every cultural aspect of the Black World. After moving to California, I re-created aspects of the EAST at the local community college. I replicated all of the programs I was exposed to at the East.
In many instances, transplants from New York bemoan the fact that there is a dearth of culture that they are used to. My experience from the EAST saw every opportunity to create where there was a need. I used to tell my students that whenever there is a need, it was their responsibility to fill it. People from New York who are engaged in “nation-building” have an open palette to create similar institutions in other cities. The EAST taught me that pioneering spirit. That spirit is available to those who are willing to build.
The EAST experience taught me that you build from home to home and community to community, expanding to an institution like the African Street Festival (International African Arts Festival) when the opportunity arises. It is the same spirit that the African-American churches use when they are pioneering in a new location. There was a film that stated, “If you build it, they will come.”
I always welcome settling in a location where “there is nothing happening.” Many times, the mere concept of networking will help generate interest in building a cultural organization. I must admit coming home to Brooklyn and experiencing the warmth and camaraderie of the EAST family makes me nostalgic for “the good old days.” You get charged up and continue the process of building from scratch. In the words of our great Booker T. Washington, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”
I look forward to reuniting with many of the sisters and brothers who made the EAST what it was as we celebrate our 50th Anniversary on May 18th in Brooklyn.
“All of these accomplishments were guided by the influence of my grammar school teacher Jitu Weusi. I would not have had the insight to initiate any of these things without the mentorship and wisdom of my former teacher and mentor.”
Raphael Jackson is a former New York City Public Schoolteacher, former Assistant Director of the Urban Media Education Institute at Columbia University Teachers College, retired Assistant Professor at Bethune Cookman University, a radio and record producer and the author/editor of three anthologies. He currently lives in Kentucky.