Julian Houston, author of New Boy (Houghton), was born and educated in Richmond, Va., before attending the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. Houston is now an Associate Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts.
What inspired you to write New Boy?
I grew up in the 1950s in Virginia, and it was a very difficult life in a lot of ways, and a life that has pretty much disappeared. I grew up at a time when racial segregation was rigidly enforced, in our city and our state, and in fact throughout the South. As a result, whites felt comfortable in acting in a superior way toward blacks, and in talking to blacks in a superior way.
It's a much different world and a much different society that we live in in the U.S. as a result of the civil rights movement and of the actions the federal and state governments have taken to put an end to the kind of official "racism" that I grew up with. I wanted to try to capture what that world was like. I'm pretty sure that most young people today have no appreciation of what segregation was really like.
The other reason [I wrote the book] was that I went away to boarding school in 1959, like Rob [the narrator of New Boy], and shortly after I arrived, my classmates singled out an Italian-American boy in our class for harrassment and ostracisim and he was tormented throughout the school year. Toward the end of the school year he was moved into the infirmary, but really nothing was done to protect him by the administration as far as I could tell. That experience has never left me.
I felt that it was important to record it in some way so that those who were responsible would not feel that this doesn't matter or that no one cares, that all is forgotten.
Did you ever feel similarly singled out by your classmates during your time at Hotchkiss?
It's a good question and the answer is, not really. I was pretty much left alone. I had one or two incidents around race while I was there, but I handled them myself. I was 6'4".
Did you, like your narrator, feel torn between being the "Jackie Robinson" of your boarding school and remaining in Virginia to help your friends in their efforts to desegregate your home town?
When I left Virginia in 1959, there was not a lot going on in civil rights. There had been the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, which lifted a lot of spirits, but nothing much happened after that.
I left because my mother wanted me to get the best education I could. So I came to boarding school, and I have a very, very distinct memory of reading the New York Times in 1960 and the reports of student demonstrations and sit-ins, some of which took place in Richmond, where I was born and raised, and feeling like I had made a terrible, terrible mistake: that this movement that had the potential to change the South forever was taking place, and I was stuck in this boarding school in northwest Connecticut.
When I graduated from boarding school, the one condition I had for going to college was that I would go to a school that would permit me to become involved in the civil rights movement, and that's how I ended up at Boston University. Indeed, a couple months after I arrived [at B.U.] I was involving myself in civil rights activities. By the end of my freshman year, I'd decided that it was time to leave school altogether and commit myself full-time to the civil rights movement.
Do you think students in today's society are aware of the sacrifices made by the generations who came before them?
Only superficially, if at all. I think it's partly the result of the failure of my generation and older generations to effectively communicate that message—to communicate it in terms that young people can understand and relate to.
On the other hand, we live in a society that is bombarded with cartoonish depictions of history and individuals and life in this country and elsewhere. So it's easy to see how young people get a very superficial view of everything. It's quite sad. Kids don't read today. I hope they'll read my book, but I see too much attention for visual media and anything that won't take longer than a few minutes to experience.
When you took time off to work in the civil rights movement, did you think you would go back to college?
I always knew I'd go back and finish college. During the year that I took off, I was involved in organizing rent strikes in Harlem and East Harlem, and then I took a job with the Harlem Education Program and was involved in protests against discriminiation in the NYC schools, and organizing tutor programs, getting college students to spend time tutoring minority kids.
During that time in Harlem , did you, like Rob, run into Malcolm X and his followers?
The Muslims were all over the place. You couldn't walk down the street [without running into them]. There were lots of Muslims in Harlem and in Boston, in Roxbury. At that time, they were regarded as curiosities—people didn't take them seriously, and the idea of racial separation was not taken seriously.
When I met Malcolm X, it was shortly after he had left the Nation. He had gone to Mecca and had seen that there were all kinds of Muslims in the world, in all kinds of shades, with all kinds of hair textures, and he had not known this before. It led him to conclude that Elijah Muhammad's assertion that whites were devils just didn't hold water, and that it was possible for blacks and whites to get along quite well.
I met him at Channel 13, and when he saw me, I was dressed in what I wore all the time in those days, what we called the SNCC uniform: jeans, a jean jacket and a blue work shirt. That was sort of the outfit that members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee wore in the South.
He saw what I was wearing and immediately broke out in a big smile, and we talked for a while, and he asked me what I was doing. Then he told me, "Just be careful. Take care of yourself."
What do you hope readers will take from your book?
Certainly that they will come away from it with a greater appreciation of what a segregated society was like. I also hope they would come away with a sense of what it takes to confront injustice and how important it is to do that. Even though you won't necessarily achieve your objective right away, it is very important to be willing to stand up and say, "I'm not going to go along with this any more."