History is recorded by the victors, it is said, but the most accurate history may be that conveyed by those who experienced it. Ordinary peoples’ recollections, contemporaneous letters and documents, photographs, and artifacts provide perspective and evidence for what occurred so historians can analyze and summarize the past. This is the approach which Peter Golenbock uses in his compelling book, In the Country of Brooklyn.
Based on the oft-stated premise that “one in seven Americans can trace his family to having once lived in Brooklyn,” Golenbock animates his historical analysis with oral histories that inferentially answer the question, “What makes Brooklyn special?” This is a celebration of similarity, despite the religious, national, occupational, political, and social diversity of the interviewees.
Many of the entries refer to Jackie Robinson’s trailblazing impact on racial justice in the United States. Robinson might have successfully integrated baseball had he been signed by another team, but Brooklyn may have been the ideal venue for this grand experiment. Note Ira Glasser’s observation: “If you grew up in Brooklyn the way I did, you were taught to believe that racial injustice was the same thing as anti-Semitism in Germany, that what led to the concentration camps was the same thing that led to slavery and Jim Crow justice, [and} if you were a Jew, racial justice was your issue.” Playing a role in exploding the myth of inherent racial superiority inspired Brooklynites, but it also ultimately set the stage for national reconciliation and de jure equality of opportunity in a nation that has selected an African-American as candidate for President of the United States.
Golenbock reveals shameful episodes, such as Ted Rosenbaum’s encounter with McCarthyism, and amusing ones, such as the role played by Neil Sedaka and “Cousin Brucie” Morrow in the rock and roll revolution. He chronicles how immigrant groups influenced America, and the changing face of America over several decades. And he gives voice to personal family and community recollections that have shaped us today.
Those who love the sovereign nation of Brooklyn will love this book.