Martha’s Vineyard in the age of Obama: Vacation or self-segregation?
Bijan C. Bayne
On the threshold of the first family’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and 10 years after Lawrence Otis Graham published “Our Kind of People,” cultural critic Touré has touched off a summer storm, writing a New York magazine feature article that characterizes the traditional black summer presence in Oak Bluffs as self-imposed segregation.
Blacks who make the island off the coast of Cape Cod their summer home have not felt this misunderstood since Graham’s 1999 work cited intra-racial class division and snobbishness, and dropped the names of the rich and powerful. While the Vineyard vacationers interviewed and quoted by Graham, a summer visitor since childhood, or Touré, a more recent guest, are sincere in their attraction to the Oak Bluffs enclave, neither writer captures the meaningful nuances of the island’s appeal to black Americans.
A reader without personal experience in this regard, black or otherwise, might come away feeling that blacks on the Vineyard are elitist, insensitive and economically monolithic. People bring their own perceptions and personal context to Martha’s Vineyard, much as viewers did with “The Cosby Show.”
The majority of the earliest black summer visitors to Martha’s Vineyard were the families of late 19th-century laundresses and hairstylists working for white Bostonians. Touré references the Shearer Cottages as the first notable black-owned inn, and while its role as a historic establishment is longstanding and important, it is informative that other blacks of varying professional backgrounds shared their homes before the advent of the Shearers. Some of these thrifty folks saved enough to purchase the guest cottages of their employers. They in turn invited their friends — chauffeurs, doormen, butlers — to stay with them.
In the decades since, black Bostonians and, to a lesser extent, New Yorkers from all walks of life have called Oak Bluffs their summer home. Blue-collar workers, Merchant Marines, schoolteachers, housewives, itinerant artists and part-time actors mingled together. Their children and grandchildren became lifelong friends.
Self-segregation was never a defining factor. American resort locales such as Newport, Saratoga, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head did not welcome blacks. Martha’s Vineyard, and specifically Oak Bluffs, provided black families with a place of respite and recreation when few other places fit the bill.
The summer population of Oak Bluffs was 50 percent black before the Vineyard was thrust into the national spotlight via Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick, the filming of the blockbuster “Jaws” (released in 1975) and visits by the Clintons. It is only natural that such a legacy would later appeal to the Spike Lees, Charles Ogletrees and Vernon Jordans of the world — the operative word being “later.”
Many of the names and celebrities that both Graham and Touré cite as exemplary of a self-segregating black elite have only been visiting Martha’s Vineyard since the early or mid-1990s. Though much of the black summer population is professional or white-collar, they do not exclusively socialize with black folk. Black Vineyarders attend or host cultural events, party, play sports and cook out with black and white friends and colleagues. They also hang out with black or Cape Verdean year-round residents; Oak Bluffs’ per capita income in the 2000 U.S. Census was $23,829, with much of the economy being seasonal. Their children are not self-segregating when it comes to choosing biking or beachfront playmates.
If Vineyard blacks have sought an escape from whites, they have not found it. Such an experience was and is more available on the historically black beaches of Maryland, South Carolina and Florida than in coastal New England. Those who have visited Martha’s Vineyard have formed lifelong bonds with all kinds, not “Our Kind,” of people. Self-segregating types would likely feel more at home in the Nation of Islam than on an island that counts Alan Dershowitz, Mike Wallace and Ted Danson among its homeowners.
Touré’s interviewees make valid points — it is refreshing for little black children to splash on a beach or fly kites in a place where black accomplishment is not an anomaly. I have visited Oak Bluffs since I was 5 years old, and some things have not changed since those black laundresses of the Victorian era took their little ones for a dip in the Vineyard Sound. The Flying Horses, still America’s oldest operating carousel. The Tabernacle in the Methodist Campgrounds meeting place, dating back to 1879, that was the reason the island was settled in the first place. The old gazebo in Ocean Park — the location depicted in Stephen L. Carter’s bestselling 2002 mystery novel, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
These landmarks of provincial New England, timeless sites enjoyed by four and five generations or more, are a prime reason that black vacationers have chosen Oak Bluffs as their annual getaway destination. Just as significant are annual public festivities, tournaments, fundraisers and the friendships and romances that have blossomed over the years.
Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic and Boston native.