I just watched a great documentary called A Place Of Our Own. It’s about the Black families who spent their summer vacations on Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard and the sense of community that developed from their time there.
If you are unfamiliar with the Black upper-middle class background of Martha’s Vineyard, I will give a brief overview. Basically, as the film states, in the days before integration Black families wanted a place where they could go and experience leisure and also get away from the racism that they faced in their daily lives. Oak Bluffs became the prime place for African-American to spend their leisure time because during the 1900s-1960s, many other areas in New England were de facto segregated …but Oak Bluffs became a safe haven. It was a place where African-Americans could reside peacefully, purchase waterfront property and enjoys the fruits of life without having to experience everyday racism.
The creator of the film Stanley Nelson chronicles his time growing up in Oak Bluffs and the impact that it had on his life. One of the main themes of the documentary is the sense of community that Oak Bluffs gave to African-Americans.
For example, Mr. Nelson grew up in a predominately white school in New York. Everyday he was faced with being the odd one out in the bunch. In one incident, he describes how a West African girl came to the school and the white children derided her for her west african surname and her hair. Mr. Nelson describes how he joined in on the mockery, but when the little girl looked at him and said, with tears in her eyes, “i thought you of all people would know better,” Nelson felt ashamed.
“as i got older, i was uncomfortable being one of the few black kids in a sea of white faces, by the time i was a teenager, i started looking at my classmates differently…i knew that no some deep unspoken level, i wasn’t really one of them.”
Oak Bluffs gave Nelson and many other people a place where they could be themselves and not feel ashamed. They were in a place where everyone was Black and for once they fit right in. Every summer her went to experience the leisurely air of Oak Bluffs and built friendships with other African-American children of a similar background. He describes a life of cocktail parties for the adults, beach fun for the children and dancing lessons where he learned how to grind…lol
However, Oak Bluffs wasn’t perfect, like many places in the African-American community, there were colorism issues. One darker-skinned Black woman who grew on the Vineyard described how at dances, she always felt saddened when she wouldn’t be asked to dance. She felt this was largely due to the colorism that permeated the culture at that time. Eventually, her father purchased her a special gift so that she would fit in with the rest of the children at Oak Bluffs…but she felt that her other sisters, who were also dark-skinned, didn’t return to the Vineyard because of their experience with colorism.
At the end of the film, Nelson describes how the sense of community in Oak Bluffs dwindled with the advent of integration. As more areas in Martha’s Vineyard became open to African-Americans, some purchased homes outside of Oak Bluffs…while others stopped coming to Oak Bluffs altogether.
The last portion of the film saddened me because such a vibrant part of African-American culture seemed to be lost due to the desire to assimilate into white society. Racism was the main reason that well-to-do African-Americans poured into Oak Bluffs in the first place and to see that disintegrate was saddening to me.
It reminded me of how I felt growing up in a predominately white neighborhood and school. It was fine to be in that environment as a child, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s become increasingly more unbearable to be the only Black person all the time. I am constantly alone in my neighborhood, which is filled with white families. All of my white friends that I knew from when I was little have moved on and we’ve lost contact. I have to say that as I’ve gotten older, I have wondered why my family and so many other Black families pushed integration on their children so much that it seems like we had to sell our culture out just to go to the best white prep school in town or live in that nice, white suburban house.
If one thing integration did, was drive a wedge between Blacks and separate us…whereas before, we had to create our own spaces because we weren’t welcome anywhere else. That is why I have mixed feelings about integration…but that is another post entirely, which I’ll be doing soon enough.
I have visited Oak Bluffs before, but my family were not the Martha’s Vineyard class back in the day. We were farmers, who lived in the country and fished…it was only later that we became what is considered bougie. Well…my mother’s side was country and my father’s side tried to be bougie, but they weren’t. However, today I definitely feel like I can relate to those who sought out a safe space at Oak Bluffs…I also know how good it feels to be in a place where you can relax and be the norm, its kind of how I felt when I visited Bahia and for once I looked like everyone else and I didn’t stand out.
I wish that we (my generation of African-Americans) had a place to call our own too.
Any way, I really enjoyed the film…it’s heartwarming. It’s hard to find, but you can watch it on stream via amazon for $2.99, I recommend it.
read more about the film here: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/placeofourown/talkback.html