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.