We should grapple with our past, not erase it
OFFENDING SIGNS of the past have now been removed. Baseball fans are safe from reminders about the troubling history of our hometown team and the mixed legacy of one of the franchise’s dominant personalities.
The brouhaha over the Boston Public Improvement Commission’s decision to return Yawkey Way to its original name of Jersey Street has died down. And that makes the time ripe to reflect on a very important public debate about history and racism, and to ask whether there were other ways forward for the team and our community as we overcome the demons of our past bigotry.
Almost a year ago Red Sox owner John Henry started the conversation about Yawkey Way, when he told the Boston Herald he was “haunted” by the team’s racist past. A brute reminder of what haunted Henry came earlier last season when Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was taunted with racial slurs by Fenway Park fans. He called it one of the worst experiences of his life.
As is par for America anno domini 2018, the ideological sides lined up in diametrically opposed camps. For some, Yawkey Way was the gateway to Fenway and the street name deterred Boston’s African-American community from attending games. It was time to turn the page.
For others, Tom Yawkey’s name was being erased in away reminiscent of a Soviet Politburo. The Yawkey Foundation’s good work is just one source of his acts of generosity and kindness. The Yawkey name is etched into so many buildings to ever be forgotten, so why not leave well enough alone?
The fact is that the name change was anything but Politburo-style: It came from a private company we call the Red Sox, with business interests of its own.
But the march to change the name raises a puzzling question. Why is our culture so obsessed with the attainment of innocence? Does sweeping away the name change the fact that it took until 1959 for “Pumpsie” Green to be the first African American player on the Red Sox? Does it change the fact that they took a pass on Jackie Robinson in 1945?
Americans approach history and conflict in draconian fashion. A very different approach is taken in places like Italy, which has a history littered with extreme war and brutality. In his “cuckoo clock” quip in the film classic The Third Man, Orson Welles famously extolled how “for 30 years under the Borgias” Italy “had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but… produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.” To this day, remnants of the peninsula’s conflicts are there for all to see. Walk through Italian city squares and you will find architectural motifs and remnants from the Etruscans, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, the Spanish, French, and other conquerors.
Perhaps it is because Italians don’t feel our otherworldly yearning for a morally pristine innocence.
Which makes me wonder if there was a different path on Yawkey Way — er, Jersey Street. You might call that way forward the “more history” approach. What if we erected a statue to Green right on Yawkey Way? Or imagine a full squad of statues of the Red Sox’s greatest African-American players, dressed in the uniforms of their time and marching toward the stadium’s main gate?
Less dramatically, perhaps, what if we removed the Yawkey Way sign and, instead, erected a monument to Yawkey that outlined his accomplishments and misdeeds?
The country needs more history, not less. A sanitized view of history is a shallow history — and it opens us up to culture wars and demagoguery. Cultural cleansing may sate emotional calls for justice, but it is oriented to the past. It’s a cheap way to confront racism, and frankly does little to address it.
Mayor Walsh, who professed no position on the Yawkey Way debate, was right when he noted that “A lot of people are talking about ‘this is going to help us end racism.’” Wisely, he suggested, “The way we end racism is we deal with racism.”
History is a complicated business. Consider the good that FDR did, even as his racism against the Japanese and others was horrifying. What about Woodrow Wilson (racism against blacks), Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and Sen. Robert Byrd (both former Klan members)? Given that Boston, Salem, and Newport were New England’s centers for the slave trade, it should come as no surprise that the list of families involved in that commerce was long. These same people established universities, centers for the indigent, blind and more.
History is thorny because people are complex and cultures create sometimes horrifying narratives. People do good and bad, and they struggle with angels and demons. We change over time, overcoming past faults even as we develop new ones. We hope that with each generation our new faults are less severe and numerous than our past ones. We hope.
That is why the search for innocence in history is a fool’s errand. We can’t treat our community and our country’s history as if it were someone else’s. It is best to recognize (and remember) what we have gotten wrong and what we have done right, as we seek to better ourselves and our community.
To do otherwise — to destroy the past — is the stuff of French revolutionaries. As the saying goes, Italians do it better.
Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. The views expressed here are his own.