Common Ground

by J. Anthony Lukas

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What does the example of the Twymon children in Common Ground suggest about the success or failure of busing?

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Rachel Twymon’s children in the book Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas navigate very difficult paths to adulthood. They are clear examples of how busing alone could not address the more complex problems of inequality of class and embedded race hostilities in Boston in the 1970s.

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Rachel Twymon’s family is followed through their struggles in the pages of Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas. She had two elder sons, Richard and George, by a man who did not stay with her or continue to support her for their expenses. She had another four children in four years from 1958 to 1961. Frederick, Wayne, Cassandra, and little Rachel also became their mother’s exclusive responsibility as their father, who was a Sergeant in the US Army when Rachel had first met him, quit the army and defaulted on child support payments in spite of court interventions and a prison term for non-payment.

The boys grew into troubled teenagers who acquired a criminal record, with the exception of Wayne. The girls became vulnerable adolescents who were preyed on by older men, and little Rachel became pregnant at thirteen. Their lives mirrored the despair and frustration of segregated urban poverty. Richard and George found their own methods of dealing with the perpetual lack of money in Rachel’s home by learning to “hustle,” the street term that meant getting some money for nothing. Richard began snatching purses at the age of twelve, until, by sixteen, he graduated to mugging and then burglary. He usually worked in a pair with another member of the gang that met at the Soul Center, a record store and “bar-b-que” that was also suspected to be a place for drug-dealing. George also turned criminal.

He too was a street hustler—snatching purses, picking pockets, later graduating to car theft and mugging.

His arrest and a two-year probation sentence put the brakes on what could have been a move towards more serious crimes.

Apart from the money which the crime brought them, the Twymon kids were also responding to the uglier aspects of segregation and the feeling of being at the bottom rung of the social ladder for all time. Richard had little remorse about stealing from white people, whom he considered rich enough to replace quickly whatever he had snatched from them. As a student in high school, he had already developed a cynical world view.

By then, Richard was at English High School, caught up in the turmoil of the Afro-American Society, seeking to extract reforms from the white administration, sometimes even coming to blows with white boys in the corridors. Often in those years he could feel a hatred for white people welling up within him, and every confrontation only heightened that feeling. One evening, coming home through the Boston Common, a gang of whites chased him all the way to Dartmouth Street, shouting racial epithets.

The most frightening and violent transformation of Rachel Twymon’s children was seen in her bright, cheerful son Frederick turning into a brutal rapist. He chose to attack white women who trusted him enough to offer him a ride in their car. He landed in prison for the first attempt, but when he was out on parole, he attacked a scholarly woman attempting to show that better relations could exist between the races. When this happened, it left his mother devastated.

A great sorrow and a great rage surged within her and she couldn’t quite tell them apart. Frederick’s arrest was bad enough, but the crime with which he was accused was more than she could bear. To a woman who prided herself on her church attendance and bourgeois respectability, rape seemed the most horrible of all offenses. To a lifelong integrationist and follower of Martin Luther King, rape of a white woman was a repudiation of everything she believed.

While Rachel Twymon’s children did not lack intelligence, the forces that pulled them to apply it in directions other than school were often too powerful to be resisted. Her daughter Cassandra missed out on doing well in high school because she had such a busy night-life staying up late with her boyfriend. It was also undeniable that an older boyfriend would not have seemed such an irresistible attraction if she had been having any of the regular experiences of going to high school, sharing camaraderie with friends, or having enough space and opportunity for leisure and recreation activities in the school setting. Instead, she attended a school with no cafeteria, playground, or greenery. She was bused to a school where staying past the school bell for any activity meant the terror of going home through a hostile area of town and had to be avoided at all costs. Her classmates never adapted to receiving the bused children, so the white children seldom spoke to her and sat separately from the blacks. Overall, the jeering and violence that had marked Charlestown High School’s reception of the “bused” children on the very first day stayed the same throughout her time in the school.

It is clear by the end of the book that “busing” by itself could not do enough to bridge the class and race divide in 1970s' Boston. The Twymon children were growing up in a dangerous neighborhood and succumbed to its dangers. They were facing race hostility in school and on the streets and weren't able to apply themselves to conventional methods of advancement, which changes their lives forever.

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