In the modern era, while the Willie Horton spectacle and the Charles Stuart fiasco also have extensive shelf lives, Boston’s turbulent busing years continue to resonate beyond the city’s borders, perhaps even more durably than Bostonians realize. Many African-Americans of my generation have never forgotten the photo showing a rabid young white man attacking a black Boston attorney, Ted Landsmark, with an American flag in 1976. That image, although thirty-some years old, was cited more often than any other when black friends responded to my moving plans.
I was only dimly aware of Boston’s busing turmoil when I came to town a year after the flag attack for my sister’s graduation from Brandeis. While I was taking an evening stroll with my father not far from campus, a car pulled up beside us. The young white men inside shouted at us, calling us “niggers” and urging us to “go home.” We declined to acknowledge them and they soon tore away, spewing a cloud of exhaust. Earlier that year, whites in my hometown of St. Louis had called me that same epithet twice, once at my high school and another time as I walked to tennis practice at a nearby park. It had been just as ugly and stupid then, and the experience in Boston simply confirmed what I already knew: Racism was everywhere, and you didn’t have to go looking for it. As sure as the sun rises, it will find you.
On that same trip, my father tried and failed to use the facilities at four different gas stations. At each stop the proprietor coldly looked my father up and down before derisively informing him that the restroom was broken, closed, or otherwise unavailable. Did they turn him away because he is black? He couldn’t prove it, he admitted, but he had a feeling.
He had felt the same sensation many times in St. Louis, where a lifetime of slights had sharpened his awareness. My hometown, as much as many other American places, has a twisted history of racial outrage, laden with atrocities, humiliations, public confrontations, and systematic deceptions. As with Boston, the significance of its track record can hardly be overestimated, but is by no means unique. Whenever a friend singled out Boston for its racism, I always wondered where the accuser had been born and raised. Did his hometown have a miraculously blemish-free history? Each time, I recalled that scene in A Soldier’s Story when the sergeant, played by Adolph Caesar, tries to distinguish himself from the dysfunctional South. “Well,” says Private Peterson, played by Denzel Washington, “where are you from? England?” If blacks want to live in a place free of a racist past and free of present-day racists, we’d have to go to the moon.
I don’t expect racism to end any time soon, and a flurry of events unfolding as I write this essay — Paula Deen’s wistful recollection of the antebellum South, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the George Zimmerman murder trial — demonstrate that post-racial America remains a fantastic ideal, “to be pursued but never attained,” as Haile Selassie would have put it. W.E.B. Du Bois, himself a son of Massachusetts, once argued that the typical black American simply wished to pursue his destiny without “having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” My wife, Liana, and I have always felt that the best way to honor those striving African-Americans of yesteryear is to become Strivers, relentlessly chasing after our own fate. Opportunity awaited us in Boston, and we saw no reason to resist its overtures.
In 1945, Richard Wright wrote about blacks in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago desiring “a life compatible with the dignity of their aspirations.” For us, Boston held as much promise as any other place we’d lived. We arrived to find a black governor presiding at the State House and black athletes welcoming the adulation of sports fans once widely considered the most racist in the United States. That such heartening occurrences can take place amid economic inequality, disparate incarceration rates, and other dispiriting realities is almost to be expected in a country whose citizens can elect a black president while keeping his most reactionary opponents in office.
Boston at its best and worst embodies the profound contradictions of our age. The warring impulses and unreconciled strivings that Du Bois attributed to African-Americans are symptoms not just of the Bay State but also of the country at large.
An associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College, Jabari Asim is the executive editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Among the books he has authored is The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. Continued...