Martha’s Vineyard has been abuzz over the last few weeks due to the arrival of President Obama and his family onto the island for some rest and relaxation. The Obamas will be joined and welcomed – perhaps – by leagues of other wealthy and successful black professionals who have also called the island their summer home for over a century.
For many black folks, Martha’s Vineyard and specifically Oak Bluffs, has historically been the epicenter of black elitism. Being able to own a home or even rent out a cottage for a quick weekend getaway is a sign of one’s class status in the black community. Growing up in Boston, I knew of many black lawyers, doctors, politicians and business owners who would disappear for the summer to that majestic place off Cape Cod.
As the child of Jamaican immigrants who moved to the United States to escape extreme poverty, I used to think that if I did all the right things in life – go to college, move up the professional ladder, move in the right social networks – I, too, could someday become a regular on that island of extreme wealth.
I made my Martha’s Vineyard debut the summer before my senior year in college, when a male friend who I liked invited me to visit his parents’ old money home near Oak Bluffs for a weekend social gathering. I remember sitting in the family living room, where the walls were lined with pictures of various family members standing next to famous politicians and movie stars, when my friend’s mother came into the room.
Instead of the general getting-to-know-you conversations, a “Hi, how are you?” or a “How are you liking the Vineyard?”, my friend’s mother quickly figured out that I wasn’t a regular on the island, and went into doing a deep background search on me. I remember her asking about things that were foreign to me such as where my family spent their winter vacations and what my role in my local Jack and Jill chapter was.
I was unable to give her the right answers to these questions, but I reassured her of my proud working class roots and the fact that I had a part time job as well as a paid internship at a local newspaper to help pay for my full-time tuition in college, while also maintaining a Dean’s List status. In addition, my family was too busy working hard to go on fancy trips and attend soirees. Needless to say, my friend’s mother wasn’t impressed. “If you had future marital intentions with my son, you can forget about that,” she told me, sternly.
I was disappointed at the time and realized that no matter how successful one is in life, there will be some people who will still won’t be accepting. Thankfully, I would learn years later that not all black Vineyarders are elitist snobs or come from old money.
However, the recent controversy surrounding some Vineyarders who were reported to have described Michelle Obama as a “ghetto girl” brought back bad memories of my own incident. Nonetheless, I now have a different view that life’s successes are not always determined by a physical place, but a mental place. I am happy about the successes in my life without a Vineyard home, and I am certain Mrs. Obama could care less about what some other Vineyarders will think of her during her vacation stay.
The real question is, if Michelle Obama – the first black First Lady and one of the most powerful women in the world – isn’t welcomed by the Vineyard’s black elite, who is?