Growing up in suburban Westchester County, I was at home in America’s Middle Class, surrounded congenially there by its Upper Class. My parents, both supportive members of New York’s teachers’ union, moved out of the Bronx in the 1960s and set up a nice life for us in the city’s northern suburbs. We held on to the past through my mom’s Bronx accent and a collection of photographs put together by her father, whom I never met. He’s in many of the photos, which depict beach acrobats. The photos were taken at Coney Island, but most are from Orchard Beach in the Bronx. There he worked out with a group of men and women, performing stunts in their free time.
My grandfather was a cobbler specializing in arch supports. That trade and his hobby were distant from me. As members of the middle class my parents’ labor was in the classroom, not in a workshop, and their hobbies were discrete, taking place inside gyms—or in clothes more modest than swim trunks on a sunny beach.
One set of photos stand out in my grandfather’s collection. The memory of his party affiliation is murky, but there he is near my grandmother in a photograph of the Hungarian Socialist League’s Yorkville Branch and the Young Workers Athletic Club (YWAC).
In the above image, my grandfather is performing at Mukadvelo Gardaja, a Hungarian social club, in New York in 1938. He’s the one supporting a two-person stack. This club was sponsored by the International Workers Order (IWO). The IWO was a socialist group which operated clubs, organized largely among ethnic groups in the United States. These clubs and the IWO functioned as mutual aid organizations supplying its members with investment opportunities and a form of health insurance. The IWO, along with its clubs, was said to be one of the first organizations targeted by the post-WWII red scares.
There are also pictures of the YWAC performing pyramids and acrobatic labor tableaus. In the below image, the woman at the center of the tableau appears to be making a gesture about workers’ power and equality.
Like my mother’s accent, the socialist and communist affiliations that partly defined my grandparents’ generation were completely alien to me. The “red scares” of the 1950s made their mark—some cousins are said to have changed their names for a time because of it. In 1953 the government shut down those socialist clubs where my grandfather performed. However, it’s clear to me how these left-wing organizations of the 1920s and 30s shaped the twentieth century; in a single generation, my parents transcended the trappings of the working class, achieving the “American Dream.” They had stable jobs with the city. Retired, their union still gives them a fine pension and great health benefits. It was easy for me to grow up with the assumption that this sort of expansion would continue to be the norm.
Witnessing the structures that aided my parents to achieve what they have be diminished and attacked, I’ve been impressed by the strength, focus, and organization exemplified in my grandfather’s pictures. As archival images they contain traces of workers’ power and pleasure. As personal mementos they challenge me to consider other forms of affiliation and agency.
In response, I’ve been working with a group of amateur acrobats organizing stunts at sites of occupation. Starting in Wisconsin with the revolt against anti-union Governor Scott Walker and more recently with the Occupy movement, I have begun to see these kinds of affiliations, demonstrations, and forms of pleasure re-appear. Going through the process of staging these stunts in the context of workers’ struggles, these pictures are no longer quite so foreign.
Robby Herbst is a co-founder and former editor of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. He is also an active member of the Llano Del Rio Collective, whose newest project, “An Antagonist’s Guide to the Jerks and Assholes of Los Angeles,” is due out some time this winter. Herbst’s exhibition exploring the acrobatics of class and body, discussed in this blog post, opens at Brooklyn’s Dumbo Arts Center in early February.