African American Studies


Marian Swerdlow was born on November 8th, 1949. Her mother was born in the Bronx, and her father’s family emigrated from Russia and lived on the Lower East Side. After marrying, they moved to a small house in Morrisania, at 3660 Park Avenue. Marian’s parents were active members of the communist party, although Marian herself did not find this out until she became involved in Vietnam protests and her parents informed her of their political inclinations.

Marian and her family lived as one of the only white families in their area, although Marian did not grow up with a sense that her family was different at all. She mentions that she never questioned why her parents chose to live in a virtually all-black neighborhood. Marian recalls playing with other children, and remembers many people from the neighborhood going in and out of her house. Although she socialized with many white people, the people with whom her mother socialized with were mostly black, although she realized that many of them were women with whom she shared political affinities.

Marian began attending P.S. 2 in Kindergarten, and her mother was very involved in the PTA. Her school worked on a split-session schedule; nobody had a full day, as two groups of children would each do a half-day of school. She recalls her early school experiences negatively; the school itself was overcrowded and in terrible condition, and she was put into the slow class because of her constant crying over the recent death of her father. She remembers being the only white child in the class, and being given constant “busywork” by the teacher. When her mother came to school to complain about her daughter not being taught to read, the teacher answered that it was because nobody in the class was capable of learning to read.

Although she lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, Marian did not recall being marked as white until the fourth grade, when a girl next to her told her she could not be in her house because she was white. Offered no further explanation, Marian remained confused. However, at age ten, Marian and her mother moved to Pelham Parkway, a move she described as “culture shock.” Marian went on to P.S. 96, where in contrast to her old school, everyone around her was white. Although she was put into the slow class again, she noticed that everyone around her was still being taught, something she attributed to the fact that in P.S.2, unlike P.S. 96, the students were black. Marian was stunted educationally and socially at this point, and eventually came to realize she was poorer than her peers.

Eventually, Marian began drawing, and went to the Music and Art High School. After high school Marian stayed in the Bronx for two months and then went on to Bard College, never went to live in the Bronx again. She eventually worked as a subway conductor and on the Board of Education, which brought her back to the Bronx.

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