Monday, December 28, 2009

Codman then and now

I read a memoir by a man who had grown up around Codman Square during the Depression.  I can't remember the name of the author.  He is (was?) a professor of Romance Literature at BU, I believe.  I checked it out from the Mission Hill Library (of all places) and the cover featured a snapshot of him as a teenager blowing a bugle at Boys Club Camp.  I'd like to remember the name of the book to add it to my collection.

The point of the matter is that the Codman Square he describes isn't too much different from the Codman Square of today.  Some of the stores have changed, drugstores don't have soda fountains for instance, and the high school isn't located nearby, but the fabric of the neighborhood is similar.  The populace is made up mostly of working class folks, a few well off but many more working harder to get by.  He describes income insecurity and a need to move because landlords got tired of being stiffed for the rent.  Grocer's don't extend credit anymore (I think) now that there's WIC.  Alcoholism was the social scourge rather than other drugs.  Nowadays there are just more choices.  Urban street culture was still thought of as thug life rather than cosmopolitanism.

Codman Square seventy or eighty years ago was similar to Codman Square today.  One major difference is the complexion of the people who live there, not their aspirations or abilities.  Minorities make up the swell of the citizenry, though from the inside looking out, people of color are the majority in this part of Boston.

Though a person can combine both attributes, a bigot needn't be a racist, though the two often go hand-in-hand.  A bigot is someone who is intolerant of those unlike his or herself, no matter their color (see the commentary on our December 24th post.) The recent film "Gran Torino" from Clint Eastwood featured a racist who discovered he wasn't a bigot after all.  He came upon this realization from staying in one place while his surroundings changed, and not, for all intents and purposes, for the better. He didn't have to stop being a racist.  He didn't need to.  He did stop being a bigot.

Everyone harbors some race-related notions.  These are more cultural and socio-economic, upon examination, and they can serve as useful shorthand to navigate situations.  When they become the only criteria to guide one's judgement, one's circle of potential allies shrinks because no one is an ambassador for a gene pool.  We are all individuals with the same needs and desires.  No one wakes up in the morning wanting to do the wrong thing, no matter how they may define what's right.

As a Euro American, I am classified as white.  After asking if I am non-hispanic, government forms have no more use for my ethnicity.  My skin gives other people certain cues as to how I might act, what I might think, how I might expect to be treated.  It is a curse, but one borne more lightly than other people's burdens.  I know that black people are different from me.  Their skins are darker.  Though African Americans come in as many shades as personalities (much like Euro Americans within different gradients) 'black' like 'white' is shorthand, meaning little and certainly not meaning black.  I suppose 'brown' never came into fashion because 'white' people brown in the summer.

As much as I love the word octoroon, I've never been very interested in genealogy.  It's too much irrelevant information to consider when labeling someone.  I prefer to think of most people as potential friends.  That seems to be the way around most of Dorchester.  There are differences, but we all tend to get along.  The older you get, the less fight...the more you work together.  Longevity breeds patience.

Dorchester's population is stable, growing a bit even.  It will never be 1940 again or 1970.  We will never be young again.  The complexion of the neighborhood will change again and again with fresh faces.  That doesn't matter.  What matters is that there is a Dorchester, a place where people come to take their chances, make their mark, and try to get ahead without holding anyone else back.  That's the Dorchester I live in.  It's a place remarkably free of bigots.



R. Foley said...

The author you seek: Robert Louis Sheehan, book: Dorchester Streets

Whalehead King said...

Thanks R. Foley. Now that I know how to find it, I'll write up a review soon.


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