The 40th Reunion of Arts High’s class of 1971
Recently I attended my 40th Reunion of Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey. Before attending the reunion I spoke to several people about the idea of high school reunions. Most of those conversations reflected an indifference about these affairs. People, in general, weren’t too enthusiastic about their high school experiences and weren’t anxious to get in touch with old acquaintances.
Therefore, it may come as a surprise that my high school reunion was wildly successful. This column will attempt to answer the question of why former high school students had such a good time after forty years. When we consider the events that transpired while we attended high school, this question will be even more compelling.
First, Arts High was located at a mid-way point between the low income housing projects and the commercial center of Newark. Today, I noticed that most of the housing projects appear to have been torn down.
It only takes about thirty minutes to drive out of Newark to several public high schools that have a completely different environment. These high schools are located in Livingston, Maplewood, Milburn, and Summit. In those schools, per student funding for education is much higher, which means that these schools have all the amenities for education, that might include swimming pools and tennis courts.
We might consider that in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in its decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate education is illegal. Apparently this ruling did not apply to these suburban communities. The gross disparity in funding for education is clear for anyone who chooses to look at this reality.
This gross disparity in funding for education is what initially caused me to think differently about politics. This funding disparity did not happen because of a mistake or because of a lack of sensitivity. No, the disparity in funding for education reflects the fact that there is something profoundly wrong with the political system in the United States.
Newark and the world in 1967
While Newark has changed a bit over the years, when we went to high school the city was, for the most part, polarized. Italians lived in the north. There continues to be a Portuguese community in the east. The central, west, and southern areas of the city were predominantly African American.
I lived in a section of the South Ward called Weequahic. Philip Roth is about twenty years older than I and he wrote about the Weequahic section of the city when it was a predominantly Jewish community. One of his first books, which takes place in Weequahic, is titled Portnoy’s Complaint.
The reason why this neighborhood changed was explained in a song by the Temptations, titled Ball of Confusion:
“People movin out
People movin in
Because of the color of their skin.
Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide.”
Fortunately my parents did not join in the exodus from Newark.
Our first year at Arts High was in 1967. That summer the newspapers argued that “riots” took place where the National Guard came to Newark and 26 people died as a result. Hundreds of people were injured and arrested. There was a massive amount of property damage.
In reality, the so-called “riots” were rebellions against the repressive and racist atmosphere in the city. Most of my classmates might have had parents, grand-parents, or great grand-parents who experienced chattel slavery, and Jim Crow discrimination. Many of my classmates parents or grand parents came to Newark to escape the inhuman atmosphere of the Jim Crow states where the Ku Klux Klan had political power.
While there were more opportunities in Newark, African Americans experienced discrimination in housing, employment, and education. The issue that sparked the Newark rebellion was police brutality.
All legal means were employed to rectify these problems to no avail. In fact, the rebellions took place after the federal government passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
At this point we might refer to a passage from the Declaration of Independence. The signing of this declaration is a national holiday in the United States celebrated every year on the forth of July.
“Governments long established should not be changed for light or transient causes.” “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.”
It is a profound irony of history that some of the signers of this declaration were slave owners. This passage illustrates that the founders of the United States were revolutionaries who did what was necessary “to provide new guards for their future security.” Clearly, this was a similar sentiment as those people who rebelled in Newark in 1967.
The government in Newark did not change as a result of the rebellions of 1967. However, the mayor of Newark at that time, Hugh J. Addonizio, did serve time in prison because of a conviction on corruption charges. Addonizio joined the list of politicians from New Jersey who also served time in prison.
We might also consider that while the National Guard had been sent to Newark, the U.S. government also ordered hundreds of thousands of soldiers to go to war against the people of Vietnam. In that war, millions of people died as a result of the U.S. armed assault on that country.
Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense of the United States and was also one of the architects of the war against Vietnam. Late in his life, McNamara acknowledged that he felt the war against Vietnam was a “mistake.”
Just as in Newark, the federal government has made no attempt to compensate anyone for the destruction the U.S. armed forces were clearly responsible for.
Our formal education
The school day began with the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Apparently the school board required teachers to lead classrooms of students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. As we know, in this Pledge we were asked pledge out allegiance to the flag of the United States which was supposed to represent, “liberty and justice for all.” Given the events that were happening in the world in 1967, these words appear to be absurd.
At Arts High students can major in art or music and I was a music major. The 1960’s and 70’s were a musical watershed with respect to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Jazz, and Latin Music. However, at Arts High we were not allowed to perform in these musical styles.
In fact, several well-known musical performers attended Arts High. These include: Connie Francis, Melba Moore, Wayne Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, and Woody Shaw. We were not allowed to perform the music of these artists.
My first introduction to music at Arts High was in the marching band sounds of John Phillip Sousa. We also performed the classical music of the 1800’s as well as some of the popular show tunes.
Our instruction in English literature had a similar problem. James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou were all prominent authors at that time. Phillip Roth and Amiri Baraka were both prominent authors who were raised in Newark. We were never assigned to read these authors. Instead we read the authors of Dickens Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare. While I learned to appreciate these writers in later years, in high school I found them to be incomprehensible. In fact, the first book I read from cover to cover was The Godfather by Mario Puzo in my senior year.
The value of our history courses were summarized in the book by James W. Loewen titled Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen studied the history textbooks read by the vast majority of students in the United States. He found that these books are filled with distortions and outright falsifications.
Christopher Columbus did not discover the Western Hemisphere. Native Americans lived here for perhaps 20,000 years before Columbus. In fact, Native American knowledge of agriculture and medicine was more sophisticated than the knowledge of Europeans at the time of Columbus.
With all these limitations, we all were exposed to music, art, literature, history, science, and physical education. We attempted to make the best out of that exposure. This is one reason why I support funding for education for everyone throughout our lifetimes.
Our informal education
My informal high school education began with the buss ride to Arts High School. It took many years before the buildings that had been destroyed in the rebellions were torn down. So, every day on my ride to school I viewed block after block of burned out buildings. As a fourteen year old, I merely thought that this was normal and only years later did I begin to understand the significance of this devastation.
The rebellions in Newark, as well as the civil rights movement, and the movement against the war in Vietnam were beginning to change the consciousness of people in the city.
During our high school years, Newark experienced the longest teachers strike in the history of the United States. While the teachers were on strike, students organized to make it clear that we also had demands that needed to be addressed.
These experiences taught us an invaluable lesson. We were not just students, but human beings who had a voice. Our actions had the potential to make real changes.
In my senior year I was one of the students who walked out of our music class. We demanded to be taught about the history of Jazz. Our walk-out lead to a change in the curriculum.
One of my most valuable lessons had to do with my association with our African American classmates. Their families had experienced the horrors of chattel slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. Yet these families found a way to survive.
One of their strategies for survival is that life is about living. With all the tumultuous events that were transpiring in Newark during those years, we managed to have a good time.
This lesson made me think of a song by Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was one of the pioneering Jazz musicians. He experienced poverty and discrimination in New Orleans where he was raised. The song I’m thinking of is What a Wonderful World. Some of the words to this song are:
“And I think to myself…what a wonderful world.”
In my humble opinion, the reason why we had such a good time at our 40th reunion was because during our high school years we looked at a reality the Board of Education didn’t want us to see. We saw that reality, engaged it, and managed to have a good time.
Clearly we all were glad to graduate from Arts High and move on with our lives. I don’t think any of us would want to go back to those days. However, today we can reflect on those days and appreciate their significance.
During our reunion I learned that Arts High was built in 1931. This meant that it was built during the depression when millions of people did not have enough food to eat.
In the past few years Newark, like many cities, has experienced a construction boom and there are many new skyscrapers in the downtown area. However, currently we are in another depression and about 40 million people do not have enough food to eat in this country.
In my opinion, this situation illustrates why the words I quoted from the Declaration of Independence continue to be relevant. People will struggle as they never have struggled before to make this a world where everyone is treated with human dignity. The lesson of our reunion is that we can have good times and appreciate what life is about in the course of that struggle.