Now that I, like much of Massachusetts, have spent several days glued to the television or, in the case of my husband, participating in the memorial, but before we turn to the speculation about his successor, I want to post a few thoughts from Patricia Williams writing in the Sunday Guardian.
There isn’t anyone who grew up in Massachusetts who doesn’t feel personally touched by the life of Kennedy. There’s the family legacy. His maternal grandfather was the amiably colourful mayor of Boston, John Francis Fitzgerald, the child of immigrants and the first Irish Catholic to achieve such power in the then-English – or “Boston Brahmin” – dominated-political landscape of New England.
The election of “Honey Fitz”, as he was known, was significant because this was the Boston of Henry James and the Irish were very much looked down upon. I remember my grandmother describing signs in the windows of certain establishments that read: “No Irish, no coloured, no dogs.”
The particular struggles of the Irish in Boston is largely forgotten today; indeed, the Kennedys are often characterised as part of “the north east liberal elite”. But the origins of their family success are rooted in a fight that spans all aspects of a broader civil rights movement that stretches back to the 1800s and included not merely African Americans but Irish and Italian immigrants, the descendants of indentured servants, the poor, the labouring classes.
It is true that the senator’s life history was one of great human complexity. And just as the healthcare debates have been disrupted by an astonishing amount of hateful speech, so the national blogosphere is filled with bitter, ungenerous commentary about the time he cheated on an exam at Harvard; or how he called his political advisers before he called paramedics when his car plunged off a bridge on Martha’s Vineyard, leaving the body of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young campaign aide, submerged for nearly nine hours; or whetherhe drank to excess.
But here in Massachusetts, it is the political commitment that counts. It is his public service that means the most and the regional allegiance to this man crosses all partisan boundaries. The Boston Herald, a local tabloid that spilled oceans of ink denouncing him in life, remembered him with uncharacteristic mistiness.
As I write, President Obama is giving the eulogy at Senator Kennedy’s funeral. To African Americans, Obama is “our Kennedy”. I wept when I discovered that the funeral was to be held at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Although many in the national press cite the church as one close to the hospital where his daughter Kara was treated for lung cancer, or one that is in a neighbourhood once inhabited by Irish immigrants, it is also in the neighbourhood where I grew up. It is in what most Bostonians know as a black neighbourhood, a “dangerous” neighbourhood, a neighbourhood “in transition”.
(This is Tremont Street near Mission Church. Photograph from the New York Times.)
These days, it reflects the demographic that both Kennedy and Obama represent: a new generation of the American dream. It is a neighbourhood filled with hopeful immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa and Bosnia and the Middle East. It is on the cusp of gentrification – a neighbourhood of college students and the underemployed, of medical technicians and starving artists.
There’s a black barbershop next door to the church, and a pizza joint and restaurant that serves Jamaican food. If some reporters were surprised when they set up the satellite feeds, those who knew anything about Ted Kennedy and the tradition from which he came were not.
There was a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses that Senator Kennedy loved, a quote that he read at his brother Robert’s funeral, and one that is now being read as he is laid to rest: ” I am a part of all that I have met… ” begins the stanza. Senator Edward Kennedy lived his life precisely at the crossroads of all that he encountered – at the intersection of statesmanship, of history, of moral purpose, of tragedy, of compromise.
There are many who think that his passing means the end of an era. When I look at the unparalleled outpouring of those he met, whose world he touched, I am confident that the work he began lives on not only in the politics and presidency of Barack Obama, but in the dreams he ignited in so many, many others.
Some people will question the sanity of women, people of color, the poor, the disabled and the gays and lesbians wondering how we can mourn a man who in the words of one of the commentators who posted about this piece “left a woman to die in his car”. I don’t think they will ever (or perhaps can’t) understand what he did for people who were not born with his priviledges. This is why so many of us stood and watched the motorcade and were glued to the television. This is why Governor Deval Patrick could quote his mother “I love me some Kennedy.” This is what we will miss.