I found this post especially challenging to compose, partly because I didn’t want to belabor the obvious for readers who are already well tuned in to issues like racism, but also because it’s difficult not to despair over the stupidity of it all. This piece is about racism, but it could just as easily be about classism, religious intolerance, elitism, anti-intellectualism, and many more -isms that create false barriers between us.
The mind-numbing, soul-sapping tedium of racism
(at right: SNCC volunteer in Mississippi, 1964. Photo WGBH-TV)
My wife and I started watching “Freedom Summer” on PBS (via Apple TV) a couple of nights ago, and I tried to recall where I was then, in the summer of 1964, when a thousand or more people headed south to Mississippi on buses to help blacks register to vote – several of them never to return. I guess the whole thing wasn’t much on my screen. I was headed to college in the fall and had other things on my mind, I guess. I lived in an all-white suburban town, went to an all-white high school, and although I did participate in a sit-in the past year at a city coffee shop that didn’t serve blacks (this act caused an eruption at home), almost everything and everybody around me was white. Such was my world.
Then, that freshman year in college, I met a black kid named Ted Burrell. He was really the first black guy I got to know. He had a jolly temperament, we laughed at each other’s jokes, and generally had a good time together. In the fall he invited me for a weekend at his family’s apartment in New York. East Harlem, I think. Actually, as I recall, it was just his mother living there – his father had moved out. The apartment was very high up in a nondescript high rise and even by New York standards felt small. I’m not sure – I was just 18 then, new to New York, I didn’t know much. Maybe it was big by New York standards, maybe not. Either way, I enjoyed the weekend.
At some point in college, Ted moved on in one direction, and I in another, and we lost track of each other. He went on to law school, and I majored in English so I could guarantee myself a job serving from a McDonald’s drive-up window.
Skip ahead from freshman year 12 years, and this happened:
This photo played in newspapers and on TV nationwide. It was shot by Stanley Forman, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Boston Herald American, during an anti-busing protest outside Boston’s City Hall. Like most people who saw this, I was appalled and ashamed.
It may have been a few years later when I happened on the photo again and was compelled to read more about it – the circumstances of the attack and the people involved. The victim was Ted Landsmark, a lawyer in Boston on his way to work in City Hall, and the attacker was a 17 year-old kid from South Boston, Joseph Rakes. Landsmark suffered a broken nose and facial bruises in attacks that followed, but otherwise wasn’t seriously hurt.* And then, as I read more about Landsmark, it hit me –
“Holy sh–! That’s Ted!”
My old pal Ted. Sometime after we’d lost touch with each other, he’d dropped his father’s name and taken his mother’s name as his own. And here he was, right in Boston (see his Wikipedia writeup here – it’s impressive) and forever locked in an iconic photo of racial violence.
After years of civil service under Boston Mayors Ray Flynn and Tom Menino, Ted is now president of the Boston Architectural College (BAC). Joseph Rakes was convicted of assault and battery and received two years probation. Not a great deal is publicly known about his life since then. What is known is that Ted and Rakes met sometime after the incident, and Ted became friends with Joseph’s brother Stephen Rakes. Remembering Ted as I do, I believe it must have been his own choice to reach out.
I found Ted’s BAC email address at a couple of days ago and wrote him to reintroduce myself after nearly fifty years. Maybe he’ll write, maybe not. You never know.
* Sources say Rakes was swinging the flagpole through the air, not lunging at Ted as the photo suggests. The pole never made contact with him. The man holding Ted was trying to pull him out of harm’s way. And Ted didn’t realize he was injured until he saw blood all over his suit. The photo “lies” about what happened, but not about the racist rage that drove it.
My wife is mixed race, and over the nearly twenty years I’ve known her we’ve had many discussions – some rather sedate, many quite passionate and painful – about racism in her life and her family’s lives. Boston was her least favorite place to live. The black side of her family endured oppression in the Jim Crow South, and later in Indiana. She recently said, “Racism is just tedious. And absurd.” It is easy to accept, and easier to argue, that there is just one race: homo sapiens sapiens, aka human. The 18th- and 19th-century race classifications of Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasoid were social constructs stemming from cultural biases of a bygone era and based on precious little science. Those terms are now more than offensive, they’re essentially meaningless. Our biology, our blood, our DNA bind us tightly as family.
But the causative links in the chain of racism – ignorance, fear, bigotry and hatred - die hard. I read Alex Steed’s recent post about a racist restaurant patron in Portland, and could only shake my head.
In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, shortly after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison said it far better than I can – or maybe anyone, and you should take the two minutes to see it. A couple of pieces from it –
(Racism) is like a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy.
What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?
One line in particular grabbed us -
If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem… white people have a very, very serious problem.
That’s it! Racism used to be a huge problem for blacks (and it still can be, although less so than years ago), but now it’s emerged as a white person’s problem.
Racism: nonsensical, absurd, pathetic, tedious. But it keeps on keeping on. *Sigh*
And now for something completely different!
Make your own rhubarb schnaaps!
Except for pie, this seems to be one of the best possible outcomes for rhubarb. Friends of ours in Union made this and passed along the recipe to us. It’s easy to make, is ready to drink in 6 weeks or so, and makes a perfect after-dinner refresher, ice-cold on a warm night.
This recipe is for 1 liter of schnaaps. If you want more or less, do the math! You’ll need:
- about 1 and 1/4 lbs. rhubarb, chopped into 1″ lengths.
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 liter vodka, plus more if needed
- 2 1-liter jars
- 1-liter bottle
Divide the chopped rhubarb between the two jars. Add 3/4 cup sugar to each jar, put the lids on, and shake well. Unclip the lids and pour 2 1/4 cups of vodka into each to fill. If that doesn’t fill them, then pour in more.
Close the lids, put the jars somewhere cool and dark for a least 6 weeks and up to 6 months. Shake the jars every other day for the first month or so to keep the sugar blended.
Strain into a pitcher, pour into the liter bottle, and keep chilled in the fridge.
There it is, until next time.