Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Visit to Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard

From Deneen L. Brown's article, in today's Washington Post:
Oak Bluffs still encompasses one of the country's oldest circles of black wealth and power. Edward M. Brooke, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction, and Martin Luther King Jr. summered here. Spike Lee owns a house here. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett summers here, as does Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Clinton.

It is a destination of the rich, whether they call it that or not. Most people just say it is a magical island with down-to-earth people from all walks and tsk-tsk at all the talk about the black elite. You wonder whether that isn't New England modesty. Because, in reality, anybody who makes it here has to have reached a certain status in life and has the luxury of leisure time in a recession, can take weeks to vacation by the sea, might have at least two houses even if it's a house a grandmother bought generations ago when she arrived as a domestic. Each generation produced children who climbed into another social class -- the daughters of maids became teachers, the children of teachers became doctors and lawyers. The Obamas have rented an estate in Chilmark, about 12 miles up the island from Oak Bluffs. They are scheduled to arrive Sunday. It is assumed the Obamas will pay a visit to Oak Bluffs.

Old Money
There is a social stratification here that is hard to discern in the salt air.

But it's here just as sure as the water is cold.

It was a place where beautiful black people vacationed. The women with red lipstick and Lena Horne hair looking out from old photographs, each woman more striking than the next. The men in pinstripe suits. Adam Clayton Powell, "King of the Cats," with his hair tossed back.

Here you can watch gradations of class. A subtle thing. Unspoken.

It is a place where summer becomes a verb, as in: "Where do you summer?" And by inference, winter becomes a verb as you politely ask, "Where do you winter?" And they answer, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. The answers are clear and precise.

Not like that of the man on the bus back in Providence who explains life on the other side of the water with regular folks: "I don't roll like that," says Michael Lucas, 43. "I have to summer and winter in the same place just to keep my lights on."

On the Vineyard, you know people who arrive here have arrived. "You don't get it when you first meet them," says Donna-Marie Peters, a sociology professor at Temple University, who has come here since she was a child. "But when you do, it will be subtle. A coded word. I live on such and such street. There are many echelons of middle class. There are the new elite and the old elite."...


...This community holds a confluence of old upper class and new upper class and those who straddle between. The unwritten rules you can't break because they are unwritten.

There are subtle questions that get asked here. Class can be distinguished in a matter of seconds with the right questions about family and ownership.

Lawrence Otis Graham explained this kind of social stratification in his book, "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class." "All my life, for as long as I can remember," Graham wrote, "I grew up thinking that there existed only two types of black people: those who passed the 'brown paper bag and ruler test,' " meaning lighter skin and straight hair, "and those who didn't. Those who were members of the black elite. And those who weren't. . . . There was us and there was them. There were those children who belonged to Jack and Jill and summered in Sag Harbor; Highland Beach; or Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, and there were those who didn't."

Oak Bluffs, Sag Harbor, Idlewild in Michigan -- which was called the "Black Eden" -- and Highland Beach are historically black vacation resorts built during the era of racial segregation. Highland Beach, in Maryland, was created by Frederick Douglass and members of his family.

"A lot of very early African American property owners in Oak Bluffs were apparently domestic servants of whites who vacationed in the areas. They had been exposed to the area. They liked the area and they bought land there," said Portia James, curator of "Jubilee: African American Celebration," an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.

"There was a time when those cottage owners who were black numbered less than a dozen -- indeed it was a gala summer when that number was achieved," Dorothy West wrote in 1969 in the Vineyard Gazette. "Their buying power made almost no ripple in the island's economy, and they, themselves, had no wish to make waves. But they had importance as forerunners. These early vacationists from Boston were among the first blacks anywhere to want for themselves and their children the same long summer of sun and sea air that a benevolent island provided to others who sought it. These first blacks made later generations vacation-minded and island-oriented."