At a recent Christmas party I described our project to someone I’d just met as “trying to tell a more full story of school desegregation and busing in Boston.”
“Common Ground already did a pretty damn good job at that, didn’t it?” he asked.
So I didn’t know this guy very well and I was at a very loud and crowded party. I did not really feel like debating the finer points of J. Anthony Lukas’ opus. But here’s the truth – one of the first things I learned when coming onto this project is that not everyone does think Common Ground should be the definitive history. After nearly two years of talking to people about this history I am inclined to agree, if for not other reason then it’s too easy to say ‘this history’s been told – Tony Lukas did the hard work for us, now we can move on.’
“Well, I think lot’s of people feel their experiences aren’t represented in that book” I responded, and, much to my relief, he let it drop. Did I mention it was really loud there? Anyways, we moved on to talk about his feelings about desegregation in South Boston, rather than getting into it about Common Ground.
I didn’t think much more of it, but now here we are in 2014 and, as the BBDP has been expecting, the 40th anniversary remembrances have begun. Commonwealth Magazine recently featured an article from the Columbia Journalism Review looking back at Lukas’ work with reverence, concluding that:
“Anthony Lukas was a perfectionist in a world that is far from perfect. Common Ground is probably as close to that ideal as journalism can get.”
Ok, now I’m ready to get into it. Common Ground is a sprawling epic – there is no doubt that it covers ambitious history, but it is one man’s perspective. There are multiple perspectives and stories not included in it. One of the most powerful critiques I’ve heard came from Ruth Batson, who was a leader in Boston’s Black Educational Movement:
“One of the most devastated and distorted views of the Boston public school history was the publication in the 1985 of the book Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas…JOHN ANTHONY LUKAS STOLE OUR MOVEMENT… In spite of all his accolades and skills as a writer, Lukas does a shoddy job of portraying the true desegregation era in Boston. It seems to matter little that the contributions of black activists were minimized, omitted, or reported negatively in Mr. Lukas’ book. The book completely leaves out the struggle that was carried out for so many years by black activists in Boston. When the book was first published, many of us who had labored long and hard in the battle for educational equity felt as if we had been cut off at our knees.” (Ruth Batson, The Black Educational Movement in Boston, 2001)
Ms. Batson is not the only one who feels Common Ground got some things wrong, though she perhaps said it the most strongly. In our report from our first year we listed several examples of stories we believe can enrich both our understanding of our history and where we are today:
- The story of what was happening in Boston’s Latino/a and Asian communities
- The story of those who went through school desegregation (especially young men during that era – we have heard more from women)
- The story of communities as viewed by the people who lived in those communities, including the story of South Boston from a South Boston perspective (many originally from this neighborhood feel it has been misrepresented)
- The story of those who were committed to making school desegregation work, before, during AND after the crisis
- The story of schools that didn’t experience violence
This list is by no means exclusive and we’d love to hear your thoughts on other stories that don’t fit into the Common Grpund narrative. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this work is that there can, of course, be no single story. As we enter the 40th anniversary year of school desegregation I think the city will do a disservice to this history if we say, ‘this story’s been told – Tony Lukas did the hard work for us, now we can move on.’ There’s so much more to learn and to understand from each other that can not be gleaned from one book.