HOUSTON cites the decline of state-sponsored racism.
Anyone meeting Julian Houston for the first time might feel intimidated. Résumé aside, at 6-3, the former associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court is a towering presence. His eyes bulge forth, confidently, boldly, like a bullfrog’s, and won’t do much to put you at ease. But when you meet him, his eyes and his stature soften to reveal a kind and gentle man. Now retired from the bench, Houston spends his time writing fiction at his home in Brookline, but it is his real-life back story that is the stuff of novels. While attending Boston University in 1962, Houston became an integral part of the local civil-rights movement. At the end of his freshman year, he then took a leave of absence to work for the civil-rights cause in Harlem, organizing rent strikes and tutoring programs.
In 2005, Houston published his first and only novel, the critically acclaimed New Boy, just out in paperback. The story, set in the late 1950s, follows a young African-American Virginian, Rob Garrett, as he crosses the racial divide to attend an all-white boarding school in Connecticut. It’s a case of art imitating life: Houston attended the Hotchkiss School, in Lakeville, under similar circumstances. (There’s a sequel in the works about how Rob decides to withdraw from Yale after his freshman year to work for civil rights in Alabama — sound familiar?) I had the good fortune of catching up with Houston a few days before his January 16 Beacon Hill book reading (sponsored by the National Park Service), to pick his brain about racism in America today.
Asked about Chris Matthews’s recent remarks anathematizing Boston as an exceedingly — though disguisedly — racist city (“It may not be ‘I think I’m better than you,’ but it might be ‘I don’t want to live next door to you.’ ”), Houston censured the leftie pundit.
“[His comments] were another attempt by a representative of the media to stir up a controversy with stale information. What does he base this opinion on? Events that took place 30 years ago? The fact of the matter is that Boston has undergone enormous changes since the time that such a charge would have stuck.” (Matthews, it should be noted, lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland — you do the geographical math.)
So, is Boston a racist city?
“No more so than any other city in the country, and that includes New England cities,” opined Houston. “It should be obvious, even to Chris Matthews, that things have changed. Any number of cities in the North, as well as the South, have black mayors, sizable black representation in city councils and state legislatures, as well as in the administration of school systems and other key positions in urban government. That is not to say that racism has been eliminated, but, for the most part, state-sponsored racism has.”
Houston also weighed in on the presidential election. “I think America is ready for anyone who is honest and compassionate. . . . Race isn’t an issue.” Though he declined to say for whom he’d be voting, he did voice his uncertainty over Barack Obama’s candidacy. “I felt he was vulnerable on the issue of experience, and I still feel that way.”