Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations

Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn, NY

Beginning in 2011, Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) undertook a significant history project that convened the most prominent experts and scholars on racial and ethnic identity, captured the voices of over one hundred Brooklynites who self-identify as mixed-heritage, and built upon BHS’s own four decades old oral history collection, all with the goal of exploring race, ethnicity, identity and cultural hybridity. The project, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) culminated in a digital humanities site launched in 2015 that provides access to oral history interviews by local Brooklynites, accompanied by original essays on the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, an inter-disciplinary curriculum for grades 6-12, and links to additional community and academic resources.

Through CBBG, the public has access to hundreds of hours of personal stories shared by real, everyday New Yorkers, and a wealth of articles and perspectives that delve into cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity in the historically diverse borough of Brooklyn. Thirty-five of these interviews are available online via streaming audio and downloadable transcripts, and they have been indexed and synced using OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer)—an innovative web-based application that provides time-correlated, word-level or index search capability for the interview recordings. This collection uses storytelling to illuminate the historical and contemporary impact of racism, classism, sexism, immigration and diaspora, faith, policies and laws in the lives of Brooklynites.

Secondly, the CBBG oral history project was designed to integrate with a series of public programs which aimed to bring diverse (in race, ethnicity, age, gender, faith, and educational experience) audiences together for open dialogues about race and intersecting identities. Audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive, confirming that they value racial justice dialogues and were happy that BHS opened up space for these often neglected discussions. Nearly 1,800 people attended the 32 events and because of this success, BHS continues to program events along racial justice themes. Through CBBG, BHS established a dynamic model for how issues of mixed-heritage and identity are discussed in a public forum.

Finally, CBBG provides teachers with free tools to build understanding among and between youth of different racial and cultural backgrounds. To that end, Voices of Mixed Heritage: Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations, an interdisciplinary curriculum for grades 6–12 which teaches children to listen deeply, acknowledge and explore difference, trace historical patterns, and practice race-explicit conversations.

Ultimately, CBBG was intended to engage the public in a critical dialog about the intersection of people’s individual family histories – personal stories of love, marriage, family, children, and how these aspects of life intersect with the public sphere – laws, social mores, systemic racism and sexism, and xenophobia. People of mixed heritage’s stories occupy a particular place in American history and society that reveals a great deal about our culture: past, present, and future. To that end, CBBG has been successful in creating a supportive learning community in Brooklyn, where people can explore the nuanced, messy histories of migration, oppression, and social constructions of race together.