The class warfare debate that breaks out every summer when black people head to Martha's Vineyard always misses the point. For most people, Oak Bluffs is about family tradition.
As the first family heads to Martha’s Vineyard for their first first-family vacation, the island is still all aflutter over cultural critic Touré’s New York magazine feature characterizing black Vineyarders as a bunch of self-segregating snobs.
Blacks who make the island off the coast of Cape Cod their summer home have not felt this misunderstood since Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People cited intraracial class division and snobbishness, and name-dropped the rich and powerful. As a lifelong Vineyarder, I can tell you that neither writer captures the nuances of the island’s appeal to black Americans. If you haven’t been there before, you might think that black Vineyarders are all elitist, insensitive and economically monolithic. People bring their own perceptions and personal context to Martha’s Vineyard.
The thing is, the Vineyard never started out as a buppie haven. It’s far from it. 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. In his article, Touré notes that Shearer Cottage was the first black-owned inn. But it wasn’t the first, nor was it the only one. Blacks of varying professional backgrounds shared their homes before Shearer Cottage. 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. And in time, Oak Bluffs became the destination spot for black folks. Black Bostonians, and to a lesser extent, New Yorkers, from all walks of life, called Oak Bluffs their summer home. Blue-collar workers, merchant marines, schoolteachers, housewives, itinerant artists and part-time actors mingled; their children and grandchildren became lifelong friends.
Self-segregation was never part of the equation. 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 way before the Vineyard was thrust into the national spotlight via Sen. Edward Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick, the filming of the blockbuster Jaws and visits by Clinton family. It is only natural that such a legacy would later appeal to the Spike Lees, Charles Ogletrees and Vernon Jordans of the world.
Many of the names and celebrities both Graham and Touré cite as examples 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 folks. 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 census was $23,829, with much of the economy being seasonal.) Even if Vineyard blacks were seeking an escape from whites, they wouldn’t find it there. You’re more likely to find all-black summer enclaves in the historically black beaches of Maryland, South Carolina and Florida than in coastal New England.
But then again, it is refreshing for little black children to splash water on a beach or fly kites in a place where black accomplishment is not an anomaly. 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 is still America’s oldest operating platform carousel. Concerts are still held at the historic Tabernacle, the original site for the Methodist Campgrounds meeting place. Then there’s the old gazebo in Ocean Park—depicted in Stephen L. Carter’s mystery best-seller, The Emperor of Ocean Park.
As for the wild, impromptu South Beach parties Touré recalls from the mid- to late-1990s, there were a few of those, but they didn’t result in an intraracial class clash. Many of the July 4 partiers were white-collar professionals. They weren’t undergrads; no drug dealers were among the revelers. Nor did longtime Black Vineyarders rally to ostracize their younger counterparts from the island. The appeal to the Steamship Authority to restrict its ferry reservation (a requirement for those driving vehicles onto the island) and standby policies grew out of years of angry letters-to-the-editor to Vineyard newspapers. Summer and year-round residents had long complained about large, noisy house parties, litter and sizable crowds lingering on Oak Bluff’s main street, Circuit Avenue, after the town’s few night spots had closed. It was primarily black letter writers, who identified themselves as older than the partygoers, and in some instances, activists and local NAACP leaders, who wrote letters defending the July 4 set as well-mannered, professional and unfairly singled out because of their race. Town meetings and reservation rule changes ensued.
The combination of Jim Crow legislation and de facto segregation led American blacks to form many social organizations and institutions of their own, from Greek letter societies to national professional organizations. To imply that blacks who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard are racist or are running away from whites, is as unfair as asking, “Why are there still black colleges?” People enjoy Martha’s Vineyard for their own reasons, and black Americans are not alone in their quest to sustain family traditions, valued friendships and summer fun for their children.
Bijan C. Bayne is a regular contributor to The Root.