Sunday, September 11, 2005

Finding Martha's Vineyard

One of my great pleasures during the summer now gone by was attending a reading by Jill Nelson from her new book Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at home on an island. I first encountered Nelson's autobiographical writing in Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, the tale, both horrifying and hilarious, of her stint as the first Black female writer at the Washington Post in the late 1980s. When I heard she was reading in Chilmark, Mass., aka "on the Vineyard," I knew this was not to be missed.

I imagine most people have never heard of this island in the Atlantic off of Massachusetts; if they have, they probably think of the Kennedys or Clintons who've been known to summer there. Nelson writes about a different Vineyard, the seaside resort that has offered daily, ordinary pleasures and comfortable community to (predominantly) middle class African Americans for several generations. That ordinariness itself makes the island vacation community extraordinary. Since as far back as the 1930s, there have been enough professional Black families among the summer residents so that they could enjoy a community in which they and their children were simply people, perhaps one of the greatest luxuries anyone stigmatized in any society can enjoy.

Finding Martha's Vineyard is not analytical; it is Nelson's tribute to a place she loves, where she grew up with families very like her own, where she brought her children to weather their own adolescences, where she returned to mourn her mother's death. It records the reminiscences of the first generation of African Americans to acquire property there, to commit themselves to bringing children there to live the long, lazy, free-spirited summers that are so little the experience of over-scheduled urban children. And it includes an interview with contemporary teenage visitors who still find an unfamiliar freedom from care.

Of course, even as she records the small rituals and daily pleasures of the place, Nelson is too much of a truth-teller not to attempt set the island in its social context.

Certainly the Vineyard is not a racial utopia, but it was and is better than most places. Or at least it seems that way, maybe because there has always been a finite, acceptable number of black families here. The obvious bond of race is augmented and in recent years perhaps trumped by the bonds of class. …

Yet much as we are united by class and race, neither is absolute. These obvious identifiers are trumped by the seductions of the physical and psychic separation of Martha's Vineyard from the rest of the world. In the plaza in front of the Oak Bluffs post office are two mailboxes. For years one was labeled "On Island" and the other "America." The fact that we are on an island, detached from the mainland, isolated consciously or not, necessitates a level of mental detachment from many of the demands of the so-called real world. …

We come to Martha's Vineyard in search of as many things as there are visitors: some of these overlap, many do not. Yet I am convinced that we all cross the boundaries of race, class, age, religion, and geography to come to this island in search of home. For black Americans, this search for home is perhaps the most profound. For the most part we do not know what region or country our ancestors came from, have no inkling of what name or address to put on the envelope if we wanted to send a letter home…. We know we're looking for it, can't describe it, but will know it when we get there.

For many African Americans, "there" is here, on Martha's Vineyard.

Finding is a worthy tribute to that "home."

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