Martha’s Vineyard is rooted in black history

OPINION - While on the Vineyard, you're just as likely to bump into a New York City office security guard as you are Spike Lee, and more importantly you'd probably have a friendly conversation with both of them...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

On Sunday, President Obama and his family will travel to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island, for some well earned rest and relaxation. In choosing the Vineyard, the first family is paying homage to a more than 50-year legacy of African-American vacationers.

The Obamas’ timing couldn’t be better as it’s been nearly 10 years since that legacy was last given a national spotlight. That spotlight last shined when Lawrence Otis Graham gave the Vineyard and, more specifically, its Oak Bluffs section, significant coverage in his book, “Our Kind of People”.

In the book, Graham offered a wonderful history of African-Americans on the Vineyard, but often portrayed African-American Vineyard vacationers as one-dimensional, class-conscious snobs who were more interested in patting themselves on the back for making a lot of money than relaxing and having a good time. On that point, nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of African-Americans that go to the Vineyard go there simply to decompress and have a sanity check – the definition of a good vacation. Rather than erect class-based boundaries to distinguish themselves as “elite” folk, African-Americans on the Vineyard show an admirable amount of unity without uniformity.

It’s true that you will find a lot of affluent African-Americans who own beautiful summer properties on the Vineyard, but you’ll also find working and middle class African-American families who have pooled their money to stay at the historic, black-owned Shearer Cottage, or those who have even gone one step further and rented a house for a week or two. These supposedly different groups of people might meet one another for the first time while sitting on the beach of the Inkwell or grabbing a bite to eat at Lola’s (now a Mediterranean restaurant) or Dionne’s. It’s not beyond the pale of reality for those same wealthy African-American property owners to open their homes to the working and middle class families they may have just met.

This relaxed, diverse African-American atmosphere is one of the Vineyard’s biggest selling points. While on the Vineyard, you’re just as likely to bump into a New York City office security guard as you are Spike Lee, and more importantly, you’d probably have a friendly conversation with both of them.

Two events that occurred on the Vineyard last week also highlight this seldom-covered diversity. The first event was a fundraiser held for The Brotherhood-Sistersol, a Harlem based non-profit committed to improving the life chances of young people in New York City. The second was a private party thrown at Mediterranean by the President of BET to celebrate the launch of the Centric Network (formerly BET-J and VH1 Soul).

When you work hard, you have to relax hard. Those two mindsets – the socially conscious and the partygoer – are always present on the Vineyard in the summer. It’s why a summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard comes close to being a “Black Utopia” and why it’s notable that the Obamas are taking their first summer vacation there as first family.

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