The Passion of Politics
by Rena Feit Shagan
I grew up in the Sunnyside of the late 1940s - early 1950’s, and what strikes me most was the politics and the passion around supporting what you believed in. As a child, I remember hearing that people were canvassing for Henry Wallace and his American Labor Party, and that that was not very popular in some parts of the neighborhood and could be really dangerous. That would have been in 1948.
The fifties were a time when the parents of some of my friends were losing their jobs in the NYC school system and other public agencies because they refused to either say that they had been members of the Communist party in the 30’s or during the war, and/or refused to name their friends who had been. Several of my schoolmates’ fathers were in prison - I think the words from the Smith Act were “for attempting to overthrow the government of the United State by force or violence.” Some of those people gave up their livelihoods and, for all intents and purposes, their lives for what they believed and what they believed was right.
I remember neighborhood gatherings where money was raised to help support the families of those who had lost their jobs or worse. I remember a gathering with Dr. DuBois well. It was at Ruthie H.’s house and I believe it was a fundraiser for her father and others like him who had lost their jobs. I must have been nine or ten. I think Ruthie and I were in Mrs. Kampf's class. I came with my mother who was more political than my father.
I would have to say that my family was on "the cusp" of that kind of activism, certainly not Party members. Neither had ever belonged to the Party, although I understand my grandfather's sister was a member and active right through Khruschev's "outing" of Stalin. I think if you had spent your entire life with allegiance to that genre of politics, to hear that it had been corrupt would have been very difficult.
I like to say that I grew up believing the Rosenbergs were innocent. The Thompsons lived next door at one point, and Ellen was a classmate. Her father, Robert Thompson was a Party leader. Those were difficult times and people made decisions that were very honorable, despite what one might have thought about the politics. I don’t consider myself a radical but the politics of Sunnyside in those days had a hell of an impact on me and I wonder whether there were similar experiences and feelings among other Sunnyside kids growing up.
Rena has spent most of her life in the performing arts, mostly in the dance field and is responsible for the North American performances of companies like the Martha Graham Dance Company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Forsythe Company, and for the musician/composer Meredith Monk, among others.