by Yvonne Surette
If someone told you about a successful musician turned actor (an Academy Award nominee), who was also a faithful husband, devoted father, devout Catholic—attending Mass daily—as well as a generous giver of time and money to children’s charities, undoubtedly, you’d say, “What an admirable guy.”
But what if you heard that this same man got into some trouble in his youth? Maybe you’d say, “Well, it’s just youthful indiscretion. Could happen to anyone.” What if, upon further searching, you learned that he came from a deprived background, raised by uneducated parents in a poor section of working class Boston? Maybe you’d say, ”Well, no wonder, with a background like that.” You may feel even more admiration for him. Then, when told that he’d gone to jail for the crimes, you’d say, ”Case closed then. He did his time. Leave the guy alone.”
But what if the crimes were of a particularly vicious nature? What if they involved throwing rocks at small African-American school children and beating an unarmed Vietnamese man? You’d call him a racist bastard, right?
In November 2014, Wahlberg applied to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a pardon of those crimes. He served his time, he says (although he only served 45 days of a two-year sentence). He was only in his teens, he says. He’s turned his life around, he says. This is all true. We’ve watched his career for the past 20 years: he doesn’t go around spouting racism; he doesn’t beat up on people. He lives an exemplary life and has starred in some great movies.
I know that if Wahlberg had, let’s say, beaten up one of his teenage buddies over a girl, or maybe thrown those rocks at a rival baseball team, I’d say, for heaven’s sake, expunge the record of such foolishness. But that’s not what he did
As a daughter of Boston myself, I don’t think we can take Wahlberg’s crimes out of context. I don’t think we should cover up the ugly underbelly of racist Boston that was exposed in full in the seventies. It should live on in infamy, so we can learn what not to be, how not to treat others. Isn’t that the role of history? Leave the records for people to see so we don’t repeat our crimes?
Wahlberg was a racist teen punk in the late eighties, not the seventies, but he was born in 1971. He came of age in a segregated Boston saturated with hate, especially in the school system. This was the Boston where acclaimed writer and educator Jonathan Kozol was fired because he taught a Langston Hughes poem in a Dorchester fourth grade classroom. What we absorb as children, what we learn at our mother’s knee at an early age, we now know, forms the basis of who we are. The first years of our lives shape our personalities, our core beliefs, and our psyches. What, I can’t help but wonder, did he hear as a small child? What was said in his Dorchester neighborhood, in his home, in, for instance, 1974, when he was three? I pick that year because it was the beginning of a dramatic and consuming crisis in Boston, when the schools were integrated through busing.
A white judge from nearby wealthy Wellesley, Arthur Garrity, ruled that Boston’s schools were too segregated for federal law, and set out to implement integration. The reaction in the poorer Boston neighborhoods was swift and defiant. There were protests. High school football seasons were cancelled. A group called ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) was formed by Boston City Councilwoman, Louise Day Hicks. School enrollment fell drastically.
And then the violence began.
Perhaps the most searing image (out of many) from that time was this one, ”The Soiling of Old Glory,” that won photographer Stanley Forman a Pulitzer Prize:
There were other incidents throughout the city. Riots. A couple of people were killed. White parents threw rocks and eggs at the buses carrying children of color into their neighborhoods and schools. The busing crisis dominated the news for two years. Marky Mark could not have avoided such an enormous crisis happening in the city all around him, even at a young age. He must have heard the grown-ups talking about it. What did he hear? What did he absorb that may have seared itself into his soul so profoundly that he acted upon it as a teenager, much like the young man in the photo above?
Anthony Lewis’ book Common Ground, also a Pulitzer-prize winner, offers the most comprehensive look at those years, but if you want a really great memoir about the seventies in Boston, read All Souls: A Family Story From Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald. In it he describes growing up in a family much like the Wahlbergs: White, Catholic, many children, poor. Lots of crime. Lots of drugs. Heroin deaths. He makes it clear that South Boston and family loyalty never die, and also asserts that Boston is more classist than racist. He maintains that poor and whites and poor people of color were caught up in, and were pawns of, a system completely out of their control. He wishes that whites and POCs, instead of hating each other, had bonded together to rise up out of the poverty so pervasive all over the projects and in working-class Boston neighborhoods. He has a point.
I don’t know what to think about pardoning Wahlberg. His mother seems like a perfectly nice lady on Wahlburgers. Perhaps she never said a bad word about anyone of color. Perhaps my analysis of the situation is wrong. But Wahlberg’s impetus to harm people of color came from somewhere. Didn’t it?
And shouldn’t that count?
On the other hand, it’s been a LOT of years since teenage Wahlberg inflicted violence on others. Hasn’t it been long enough? How long should a person atone before forgiveness? What does it take for a man’s absolution?
For this I have no answer.
Yvonne Surette is the mother of Nate Waggoner, one of the begetters of The Tusk, and Hope Waggoner, a sometime contributor. She lives and teaches in Northern Virginia, and is putting the finishing touches on a novel.