White Parents, Black Son
Inside the house, there was no difference — we were a family. Outside the house, we were seen as “those” people, or “that” family — different, mixed, not the same. One of a handful of Black kids in the school, and one of only a few mixed-race families to grace the suburban landscape.
During a recent conversation with my father, I was able to peel back the layer of how we came to be residents of the Boston suburbs, and what the reason was for not wanting to reside in the more diverse (yet segregated) sprawl of the city.
Both my parents grew up in Dorchester, a racially mixed but segregated area just outside of Boston proper. The backdrop for this poor working-class community, like many in and around Boston in the ’40s and ’50s, was of depression, a lack of opportunity, and the inescapable reality of disenchantment.
It was a time of extreme racial division and many neighborhoods within the city limits were constructed of segregated “mini countries.”
The Italians resided here. The Irish resided there. The Portuguese lived in this section. The Jewish neighborhoods were strategically placed. And scattered around the periphery were other cultural groups trying to claim what little space was available.
The Black, Latinx, and Asian communities were not welcome in this microcosm of society and thus relegated to smaller, less desirable areas. Dorchester wasn’t a monolith — for generations this was the makeup of Boston and its surrounding communities as a whole.
Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud
On the heels of the civil rights movement and after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the racial tension still hung heavy in the air, occupying the minds of many who opposed integration of any kind.
This was especially difficult for those disenfranchised communities — specifically the Black community, trying to live a life free of inequality, discrimination, racism, and violence.
Although national attention was focused on civil unrest in the city of Boston, injustices all across the country were being played out. On April 5, 1968, the night after MLK’s assassination, the Godfather of Soul — the great James Brown — while performing at the Boston Garden decided to use his platform to quell potential riots in the streets.
In an effort to distract from the chaos disrupting the city, he was determined to bring not only an unabashed juggernaut of soul and groove to the people but also to be a voice of calm and unity in the face of a social powder keg in full bloom.
By the early ’70s, the turbulent times were coming to a head in Boston — not dissimilar to any other major city around the country. Making matters worse, opposition to the desegregation of Boston public schools began to grow. Known as the “Busing Crisis,” Boston public schools were under court decree to desegregate through a system of busing Black students to predominately White school districts. This ruling caused accelerated upheaval and distrust within the White communities.
School buses carrying Black children were pelted with bricks, eggs, and bottles, and police in combat gear fought to control angry (and violent) White protesters besieging the schools on the opening day of classes.
These events would last the better part of a decade and it was during this time, damage to the social fabric of the city had taken its toll.
Due to the busing protests, rampant violence and racist sentiments within the White community hijacked most of the city resulting in an unsafe environment for minority groups and mixed-race families alike. Everything was affected by the push to desegregate the schools even local politics, which contributed to demographic shifts of Boston’s school-age population, leading to a decline of public-school enrollment and “white flight.”
I’m sure you can guess what “white flight” is — a term used to describe the mass exodus of White people from the city — specifically to the suburbs.
Run to the hills
In an effort to avoid potential violence toward having a mixed-race family, my parents, who were faced with a difficult decision, reluctantly moved out of the city over safety concerns. As both grew up in Boston and enjoyed the diversity, ultimately it was the increased city tension that became too overwhelming.
Little did they know, the racist views of the new community they would now call home were reminiscent of what they experienced in the city — just a different flavor, in a different environment, and less blatantly targeted.
As you can imagine, not everyone was in favor of a mixed-race family in their neighborhood. Not that it was anybody’s business but it was virtually impossible to avoid the bigotry that came with living in the ‘burbs — a reflection of the climate.
There were opportunities available but with these came constant reminders of how different we were, how different I was — why we didn’t belong. A byproduct of this exclusion was my parents not being involved in many community activities or parent-led groups, invited to social gatherings, or experience general acceptance. Not because of a lack of interest on their behalf but from experiencing ostracism.
My family had the extra disadvantage of having a scarlet letter placed upon us right away by people who did not practice open-mindedness. Our extended social circle consisted mainly of family and my parent’s colleagues who still resided near the city, far away from the mundane every day of weekend soccer games and ice cream trucks.
Racism would show itself selectively throughout my childhood, especially when I would associate with other kids, more specifically, girls. You can imagine how many White fathers could not accept their daughters hanging out with a young Black boy, let alone, date one.
Mind you, because of this diverse-free atmosphere, multicultural options were thin at best. This reality mattered more to me than it did to them.
There were the threats, of course, the warnings, the drive-by rock throws, etc. — anything to keep the status quo and point of disdain at peak strength. Over time, I learned where I could go, who I could associate with, and more importantly, who to avoid.
We did have our sympathizers, those kind souls who cared nothing for the depravity of the ill-natured town folk. This sense of acceptance did provide, albeit small, a network of support.
The great white, and black, hope
Like anything in life, you learn to roll with the distraction and injustice the best way you know-how. It wasn’t until college, that I was able to leave the nest on a more regular basis providing a much-needed reprieve from this constrained environment.
Once again we find ourselves in a time of racial discourse. Are we at the precipice of another societal awakening? It sure seems like it. Finding inspiration is becoming more difficult every day but we are determined. We are going through cataclysmic social change and collectively if we can support one another, unity will be achieved.
Arguably a “pie in the sky” outlook, but all we have is hope… and the will to fight.
There is no difference — we are a family.