When you read the words “Boston” and “history,” what do you think of? For most folks, two events typically come to mind: 1) The Boston Tea Party, or 2) Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride (contrary to popular belief, he never actually shouted “The British are coming!”). Boston is often considered “the birthplace” of the American revolution: no first-time visit to Boston is complete without trekking the Freedom Trail. Although Boston is commonly celebrated for its revolutionary history, I discovered that the most compelling Boston stories and chronicles came from walking in the footsteps of those who came to the city much, much later than 1776. Malcolm X’s formative years were spent in and around Roxbury. Martin Luther King lived in the South End while in graduate school. JFK and RFK (Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s younger brother) were both born and raised in Brookline. Thoreau, Emerson, and other leading Transcendentalists roamed the streets of Beacon Hill – earning Boston the name “The Athens of America.” I have come to call this historical side of the city Boston’s “other” history – mostly because you won’t find hordes of tourists along this self-driven expedition, nor will you find any merchants eager to sell you 1776-themed red, white, and blue merchandise. (Though I’m sure we would all wear the heck outta this Boston Tea Party T-shirt every July 4th.)
The "Faces of Dudley" mural in Dudley Square, with Malcolm X on the far right (Source: Greg Cook)
Being an MIT graduate student leads to an adventure that goes beyond just our tiny campus bubble in Cambridge. What I’ve learned in my last 4 years as a Bostonian is that a quick walk across the Charles River has the ability to transport us to an entirely unique time, place, and setting – if we allow ourselves the opportunity. This passage back in time can be the perfect vessel to allow us to challenge our perceptions, and transform ourselves during this singularly unique period in our lives. Graduate school offers numerous avenues for personal growth; to those looking to come to MIT, and to those already here, I’d like to share with you an avenue of personal growth by voyaging into the “other” history of Boston.
When I moved up here from Texas, though I wasn’t particularly seeking the countless pathways to understanding the city’s rich “other” history, enough time here (especially in those seemingly eternal winters) forced introspection and contemplation upon me. As graduate students, we come here to learn, and to teach, but what we can also do in Boston is experience – through the writings of history’s greats who have walked this city’s streets, and been molded by its character. Boston’s “other” history is an opportunity for MIT students to step beyond ourselves, and immerse ourselves into the beauty of what’s right outside our door step. I’ll share my experience tracking four notable figures who were shaped by Boston (Malcolm X, Thoreau, JFK, and Emerson). I’ll talk about some of their books, describe where I went, and what I learned from each of them. I hope that prospective as well as current graduate students will be able to map out similar journeys of their own, from which they can look back and appreciate having passed through this wonderful city: Boston.
Malcolm X & Roxbury: Resourcefulness, and “Hustle”
What I learned: Resourcefulness & “Hustle”
"The main thing you got to remember is that everything in the world is a hustle. So long, Red.”
Detroit Red. Before he was known as Malcolm X, in Roxbury they would call him “Detroit Red.” Walking through Dudley Square (now re-named Nubian Square), and visiting Malcolm’s Boston home, I wanted so badly to be able to see the world through his eyes. I’m not so sure that it looks all that different now than it did in the 1940s – many of the buildings match old photographs of the area. Strolling down Washington Street, the “Faces of Dudley” mural depicts Malcolm, and other figures from Roxbury’s storied history. At times, it’s quite painful and trying for me to read and internalize Malcolm’s accounts of that era. An era where his father Earl was frequently threatened (and believed to have been murdered) by white supremacists. An era before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ’64 and ’65. A time where resourcefulness and “hustle” were absolutely necessary for someone of his background to have any chance at success. He writes of his early teenage ventures through Boston:
“Somewhere, I had already heard of Harvard – though I didn’t know much more about it. Nobody that day could have told me I would give an address before the Harvard Law School Forum some twenty years later.
This passage exemplifies the sweeping evolution of Malcolm X. For his transformation, Malcolm holds a special place in my heart, and I can genuinely say that his life story has left a lasting impression on me. The journey from Boston’s youthful and still-growing Detroit Red, to the man we now know as Malcolm X (A.K.A. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz) is one infused with numerous lessons: lessons on transformation, lessons on personal growth, and lessons on challenging our perspectives. Malcolm was a man always on the search for the truth, and in my promenades through Roxbury thumbing through his autobiography, I often marveled how “Detroit Red” found those truths. During Malcolm’s pilgrimage to the Muslim holy-site of Mecca, he remarks that:
“What I have seen, and experienced…has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This religion erases from its society the race problem. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color."
That truth, and that change in perspective, is what I had myself been seeking, in many ways. On any given Friday, MIT grad students can venture out into any one of the neighborhoods of the city, but I implore us to seek the less traveled path via Malcolm’s roots. Many Fridays I have found myself at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, situated adjacent to Nubian Square, and right along Malcolm X Boulevard. Individuals of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, colors, hailing from altogether distinct walks of life, and speaking several languages, all congregating under the banner of unity, peace, and gratitude. I came to Boston for an education, and often-times my greatest schooling occurred on those Fridays full of grace and diversity. For those precious moments, I felt as if I could finally see the world through Malcolm’s eyes, just as I had wished, and I felt that I had finally clutched Malcolm’s vision. His truth…right here in America…right here in Boston, on Malcolm X Boulevard, in 2020.
John F. Kennedy (JFK): Courage and Fortitude
What I learned: Courage, Fortitude, & Resilience
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
President John F. Kennedy in August 1962 (Source / JFK Library)
Landing at Terminal A of Boston’s Logan International Airport, it’s hard to miss the larger-than-life JFK display near the elevators. The quote above is not only plastered for all to see as they ride up and down the adjacent escalators, but also on a small display booth with a speaker-system that continually plays audio clips from that September 1962 speech at Rice University. JFK, and his equally inspiring younger brother RFK (Bobby Kennedy) were both born in Brookline, MA. After reading a few of his speeches, his book “A Nation of Immigrants,’ and his Pulitzer Prize winner “Profiles in Courage,” I regularly wondered what exactly a young JFK believed? What inspiration did he find here in the winding roads and interwoven alleys of Boston, and how was he shaped by his time in this city?
JFK’s 20s were spent in the theatre of the Pacific during World War 2 where he received two medals for his heroics on PT-109. Afterwards, he launched his early political career here in Boston, where many landmarks pertaining to JFK’s growth are scattered. On Bowdoin Street near the Commons I found the building where JFK operated his 1946 congressional run. Right down the street at the intersection of Bowdoin and Beacon he rented a two-bedroom unit he called home for some time. JFK would spend lazy Sunday afternoons at the Union Oyster House near the north end, and his 1952 Senate campaign was run out of a building a few blocks down on Kilby Street.
JFK and his brother RFK, both men who have monumentally altered this country’s direction, and whose speeches, words, books, and character are everlasting, traversed these streets decades ago. I started to ask myself questions on their states of mind:
What kind of courage is required to take a public stance, and put yourself in a public arena?
How did JFK and RFK both build the resilience required to be public servants?
How did JFK manage the scrutiny of public life? To have all of his flaws, and every bit of his private life under a microscope? Is this courage? How is courage defined?
I tried to stitch together the stray fibers of JFK’s life in Boston and how they then wove together to build a man who would go on to become President of our country. I found those threads woven together to paint a portrait of a leader who, above all else, possessed the courage to accept responsibility when it is passed down to him. In his 1961 inaugural address, JFK proclaimed:
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Walden Pond & Thoreau
Book: Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Place: Walden Pond
What I learned: Introspection & Self-examination
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
Walden Pond (Source)
I had the opportunity to visit Walden Pond in Concord, MA this past year – only a short trek from campus. It was an unexpectedly pleasant Fall day hovering around 75 degrees, with the sun sparkling across the pond’s dark, blue water. I thought about how Thoreau eschewed many of the technological advancements of his day, and instead retreated to the woods of Concord to “live deliberately.” I sought to take a walk in his shoes, and wander the shores of his Walden, which is enveloped in a thicket of rich, emerald-colored trees. I started to brood over what Thoreau would say about today’s 24/7 never ending news-cycle, and constantly connected digital society. Finding moments away from e-mail – the key to successfully completing graduate school, right?
“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? ...time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” Heeding his advice, our group took a frisbee, and waded into the frosty water. No technology needed. Just our thoughts, and our time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston, & Reason
What I learned: Originality & “Spirit”
“Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself.”
Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Source: Boston Athenaeum)
Emerson is a known mentor and friend of Thoreau. Alongside many other writers and thinkers that challenged the institutions, thoughts, and beliefs of their day, he formed the core of Transcendentalism. In the early 1860s Emerson unsuccessfully attempted to convince Walt Whitman to revise his then controversial poems, as they walked around the Boston Commons. Emerson spent hours upon hours reading, and writing at the Boston Athenaeum, adjacent to the Commons. Emerson, like Thoreau, spent much of his time shunning the modern technologies and discourse of his time, instead chasing a path of originality, and molding the public dialogue through his toil rather than partaking in what he considered society’s “frivolous” undertakings. Bold and brazen in the face of criticism, Emerson says the following in his essay, Self-Reliance:
“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face.” Emerson maintains that you must “Insist on yourself, never imitate.” Heeding that advice can take many forms I suppose. In my case, on a warm summer afternoon I decided to strap a tree-hammock between two massive, ancient looking trees, and I spent the rest of the afternoon as the lone hammocker overlooking the Frog Pond. “Insist on yourself, never imitate.”
Conclusion: Take the Time to Transform
Graduate school is a time for transformation. It’s essential that we recognize the opportunities available to us outside of MIT, outside of Cambridge, and outside of our subject matter studies. The last few years have taught me that it is absolutely critical that I make the most of not just the new-found solitude that graduate school intensely demands, but also of my new environment and geography. For us at MIT, that means Boston, and New England. Boston’s “other” history right at MIT’s doorstep has treated me well in this regard.
From Malcolm X, I was able to learn the importance of resourcefulness, and the value of challenging my own perceptions. From Thoreau, I recognized how solitude, introspection, and deep reflection can renew one’s purpose. From JFK, I understood the courage of standing up for what you believe in, and the resilience of pushing through. From Emerson, I slowed down to contemplate originality, and being true to myself. Boston shaped these men, and through their histories, I myself have found endless inspiration. I wish that you too are able to chart your own map of inspiration during your time at MIT. In another upcoming post, I hope to share with you my wife and I’s various escapades into broader New England: Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.