heritage, and intimacy


Roger’s Newsday articles (religion)


“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” [Elvis] Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

— “Fats Domino, Early Rock ’n’ Roller With a Boogie-Woogie Piano, Is Dead at 89,” by Jon Pareles and William Grimes, The New York Times, October 25, 2017



This quote got me thinking about a couple of things. (I grew up liking Fats Domino’s songs in the 1950’s. Everyone knew them.)

I always admired Elvis Presley’s basic decency and humility (as it appeared to me), after he became a success, in crediting others and seemingly remaining a polite Southern boy who never disrespected his parents or his roots. It is a fact that almost none of Presley’s music was original.

But, more to the point, I was thinking about Presley’s remark about “colored people.” Undoubtedly, he ripped off their music. But, it seems to me that, while I don’t know that much about his personal life, that he was always comfortable with blacks and respected them.

I got to thinking about the South and how the Jim Crow South is looked upon historically, in hindsight. One thing is evident: Whites and blacks lived in close proximity — one might say, cheek by jowl — in a degree of intimacy, whether one would call it “positive intimacy” or “negative intimacy.”

I am not really qualified to comment. I didn’t grow up in the South, and I am not a historian. I did grow up during the Civil Rights era which I viewed from a Northern perspective. What do I know beyond that? Very little.

But, I couldn’t help thinking about an analogy.



I grew up in Greater Boston. For a long time, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture predominated. My mother told me about it. Prejudice towards immigrant Catholics (e.g., Irish) was a fact of everyday life.

Slowly, over time, the Catholic immigrant groups — notably Irish and Italians — began, somewhat like what is the case with African Americans today, to make headway, gain acceptance, and procure political power. In my boyhood, many of the leading local politicians were Irish. The subways and other municipal agencies seemed to be predominantly staffed by Irish men.

Practically all the kids in my neighborhood — almost all of them Irish or Italian — were Roman Catholic. Being a WASP, I was in a minority, percentage wise. But, I was part of a privileged group.

My friends and I argued about religion all the time. I thought they were bigoted and narrow minded. They were more of less convinced that my liberal Protestant views (modeled almost completely on those of my parents) would lead me to Hell.

My intimate acquaintance with Catholics did me a lot of good.

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (Vatican II) in the early 1960’s under the pontificate of the beloved Pope John XXIII changed things fundamentally. The ecumenical movement removed official discord between us Protestants and our Catholic “adversaries.” We no longer looked down upon or distrusted them, nor they us.



I married a Catholic woman from a devout, observant family who took religion seriously, although they were not fanatical about it. I always felt I completely understood her and her family when it came to the religious aspect of their characters. Catholicism had been imbued in me since boyhood, as noted above. We were married in her church. Our two sons were raised as Catholics.

I wrote a couple of newspaper stories as a journalism school intern about a beautiful Catholic church in Brooklyn that was being renovated and one about a Catholic school educator who was a member of a religious order. (See PDF file aove.) The priest and I had immediate rapport. I told him that I was not formally religious, but that when my wife said she would pray for me at times of duress (for me), it almost always seemed to be a good thing. He got the point of my remark and liked it. (I also wrote a news story about a Lutheran minister and his church which the minister praised highly.)



It seems to me to be a truism that intimate acquaintance with people who seem to be the opposite from oneself — Southern whites and blacks, a New England WASP and devout Roman Catholics — is always beneficial. There is a kind of understanding that goes deeper than ethnicity, heritage, or ideology.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

4 thoughts on “heritage, and intimacy

  1. Pete Smith

    Interesting post, Roger. Regarding your comments on the south, and the intimacy there, I spent a good deal of time in Mississippi and Arkansas, etc. early in my career, and observed there that while there was significant discrimination evident everywhere, the blacks and whites I met there were must closer, and generally more cordial to each other, than blacks and whites were in Boston as we were growing up. This was less true in the Harvard area of Cambridge where we grew up — in fact there were two or three African Americans in my small graduating class at Agassiz — but in my experience, there was much stronger racial hatred throughout Greater Boston than in Jackson Mississippi or other southern states.

    For an interesting take on racism in the US, and especially in the South, you might want to read “The Mind of the South”, written by W. J. Cash, a Harvard professor from whom I took a course in race relations in 1962. The book is still recognized generally as a groundbreaking work of scholarship.

  2. Roger W. Smith

    Thanks, Pete. Very interesting reply. We are basically in agreement. Remember Louise Day Hicks?

    Yes, I do recall there were a few blacks at Agassiz school, and I recall the name Joe Tyree. Of course, you remember Mr. Gladden, who supervised us paperboys.

    It is fascinating that you took a course with W. J. Cash. I never knew he taught at Harvard. I have read part of “The Mind of the South.” I own the book. What I most remember about it was how beautifully written it was.

    Apropos of nothing, I also read (around the same time as “The Mind of The South”) “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. No doubt, it’s considered dated now. but, I thought it was an excellent piece of journalism.

  3. Pete Smith

    Joe Tyree was in my class and a wonderful person. He was not upper class, though, and because of that was prey to the Cambridge police. In the 8th or 9th grade, they would pick him up every once and a while for “loitering,” put him in a paddy wagon, and beat the shit out of him. Doing this, they’d hit him mostly in the chest area, so the bruises wouldn’t show in court. When he told me about this, I was very sympathetic but he told me not to worry, “that’s just the way it is here when you’re black.” I have never forgotten this.

  4. Roger W. Smith

    Incredible story; rings very true. I can see that it would be hard to forget.

    It seems that many blacks have developed a similar philosophy or adaptation strategy.

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