Racism: A Personal Meditation

Racism has been a constant companion all of my life. I, first, met him in the first grade in Richmond, Kentucky. During this tender time, I had developed a crush—or whatever 6 and 7 year olds call it—on a girl in my class who happened white. Somehow, my teacher, who was white as well, caught wind of my seemingly innocent crush. She, promptly, informed me of the error of my ways and punctuated my transgression with a paddling before the entire class. With an embarrassed ego and a bruised bottom, I ran home and told my mother and my grandfather. Though he bore the scars of living in the Jim Crow south, my grandfather carried a considerable amount of influence. Levering his weight in our Mayberry like town, granddad had the teacher fired. It would be years later before I understood why the incident fired my mild mannered grandfather up.

I was not raised to dislike or judge someone based on skin color. I often listened with Dr. King with my grandfather who admired him. At a young age I understood what King was talking about and to this day, I get choked up when I hear “I Have A Dream”. After my grandmother’s death my grandfather would fall in love with and marry my dearly beloved step-grandmother was part Italian. Oddly, my childhood in the South was at some level sheltered from the wilds of race—save the incident in the first grade.

As aged, moved northward, and continued my interracial affections, I would encounter the dirty looks and scandalous slurs even in the every cosmopolitan New York City and genteel New England. For sure I had heard all the stories about racism in Greater Boston. My dad who resided in Lynn did not talk about it much. He got along with pretty much anyone regardless of race. My Roxbury relatives were far more vocal about their experiences. My aunt and my uncles fled the Jim Crow South in search for a more dignified existence. What they encountered in here was not a polite society saturated with New England pleasantries but rather in their words—“Boston is more racist than most cities in the South”.

When I first arrived here the person I came up here with told me to never go to South Boston, of course they also failed to tell me exactly where Southie was. A few weeks later a friend of mine and I met a couple of girls after work. We went looking for a bar to have a few drinks. We found one near the Broadway stop on the Red Line. I have no idea to this day if the girls we were with realized where we were, my friend and I did not. So there we all were having a good time. After several drinks, I ventured to the men’s room. A guy came in behind me and asked me politely asked, “Do you know where you are?” Responding to my puzzled looked, he suggested that when I go back out I should have a look around. I did just that and realized I was the only person of color in the room.

We were indeed in a Southie bar. Immediately, we managed to get out of there, but I went back to the Combat Zone where I knew I would be safe. There were other ountless other incidents in Charlestown and East Boston. I even remember walking in a part of Somerville and being called the N word. It was not much better on the other side. When I talked to whites I would get funny or disgusted looks from black. I was even told by a brother that I was white orientated because I was a Celtic fan, it seems in the racial battle I could not win. All this began to affect me in certain ways, the city being so racially divided you had to watch where you were walking especially if you were homeless and sleeping. I felt so boxed in which caused me to mistrust and be suspect of everyone who was not black. A developed a militant outlook and began to judge and treat people by their color instead of their character. Actually, I did not care for this new version of me. I felt the same disgust for myself that I had for racists on both sides of the aisle. The only relief I got was when I went across the bridge to Cambridge and when I moved to the North Shore.

Of course that was many years ago racism in Boston no longer affects me the way it did then. The only thing that irritates me is when people here say racism no longer exists in Boston. Maybe not to the extremes it was all those years ago, but it still here. As black man, you still get the same scrutiny when you walk into a store. People still grab their kids and belongings or cross the street when they see you coming. When the only empty seat on the bus or subway in next to you, people shuffle on by. Yes it is still here and in the city that started the American revolution. Perhaps we need another revolution—one in which we all get truly free.

-James Shearer



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