All Souls: A Family Story from Southie
General Assembly 2000 Event 343
Michael Patrick McDonald's book, published by Beacon Press, received much critical acclaim and sold numerous copies. The book tells the story of his family's journey through poverty in the crime-ridden neighborhoods of South Boston, MA, where pride and denial, a criminal class, and despair prevented any effective action. The book begins and ends on All Souls Day, when he and neighbors held a vigil to remember those who died too young from gangs, violence, and drugs, breaking the code of silence.
His mother was an entertainer and wrote the protest songs of the 70s against busing. McDonald gave a new perspective to Unitarian Universalists (UUs) and social justice when he described the day the busses of black children came, and feelings of loss, being, beaten down, and humiliation overwhelmed the people of South Boston. Suddenly we saw those whom we remembered seeing throw bricks at the busses were human beings, too. We learned that as a result of the riots of 1974 and 1975, the children dropped out of school. The value of education in neighborhood plummeted, and drugs increased. Whitey Bulger and the Irish Mafia took over with permission of FBI, who wanted Bulger to fink on the Italian Mafia. Drug trade continued, but the Irish Mafia put the lid on murders. Those who fired off guns disappeared.
The suicides impelled him to begin his book. In the early 80s McDonald lost three brothers to violence. His oldest brother jumped from the roof. His sister Cathy was pushed. She survived, but is brain damaged. Frankie, four-time Golden Gloves champion, was the shining light of the family. In 1984 Frankie was killed during a bank robbery. His other brother, Kevin, was found hanged in a jail cell for a jewelry store heist, possibly murdered for what he knew about organized crime.
During the first vigil, McDonald and three others came up with 250 names of people who died of violence. His mother is a key character. She survived but only by giving back in some way to her community. She was learning cosmetology and gave back by giving haircuts to the homeless or makeovers to those dying with AIDS. She played Irish music at wakes. As McDonald said, "Ma was on a mission to help the mothers who had lost their children."
When he escaped, McDonald had to work on these issues, to do something about the violence. First he became an activist in Dorchester, with Hispanic and Black people, but finally, he did return to Southie, to do what he could to bring it into the coalitions of multiracial, multicultural people trying to stop violence.
McDonald's story of oppression and redemption tapped into deep wells of emotion in the audience. At the end, an older African-American man arose and expressed a deep anger at the Irish, their failure to recognize their natural affinity with other poor of Boston, and the oppression he had suffered at their hands. McDonald handled the situation with grace, essentially agreeing with the speaker and saying it was his personal recognition of this situation that had led him to attempt to create a multiracial, multicultural coalition.
At this point your reporter must step outside his role and make a personal statement. As this man spoke, at first I was angered that he had interrupted the speaker, but as he told his own story, I realized that he had paid for the right, and that it was a story of thwarted hope and faith. Yet, I did not feel I had the right to go to him and tell him so. How could I, a white person, ever say I understood? Finally, a younger African-American woman in the audience went to him and simply comforted the angry speaker. Later, I spoke to her, telling her I had wanted to tell him that his story had affected me powerfully. As a Southerner, I had seen the injustices of which he spoke. She saw my tears and frustration and gave me a hug, telling me and all the others that she understood where we were coming from, and that, yes, we did have the right to offer him comfort. Her hug and words gives me hope that someday these injustices will heal and that our world will become whole again.
And so, I sought out the speaker, and shook his hand, telling him that I had seen the injustices he had suffered, and that it just wasn't right. I think that hearing from me meant as much to him as my telling him. Without my faith as a Unitarian Universalist, I fear I would be a lost soul.
Reported by Bob Hurst.