They are two of the most accomplished and respected scholars both in the nation's elite collegiate circles and in the African-American community, but on Wednesday morning Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Dr. Charles J. Ogletree Jr. were preoccupied with one thing - going fishing.
Mr. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and Mr. Ogletree, a professor of law at Harvard Law School and founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, had less than an hour before they departed on their fishing trip when they sat down for an interview at Mr. Gates's Oak Bluffs home.
Their excitement for the trip, to be skippered by well-known Aquinnah fisherman William (Buddy) Vanderhoop, was palpable. But despite their air of anticipation and relaxation - Mr. Gates dressed in break-away wind pants and T-shirt, and Mr. Ogletree in jeans and a T-shirt - both were focused. The topic at hand was one close to their hearts: Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effect on the Gulf Coast, the city of New Orleans, La., and in particular on the African-American community living there.
"It was a debacle. Pure and simple. I don't think anybody sat down and said, ‘Okay, let's really stick it to those people in New Orleans.' But you can bet if that happened in Bel Air or Crawford, Texas - or Martha's Vineyard, for that matter - the government would have been there the same day to help those people," Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Ogletree said he continues to be disappointed by the lack of progress in rebuilding the city.
"Where are the plans to rebuild the schools? And what is being done to bring back the 20,000 or more displaced New Orleans residents scattered across this country? These people are not refugees, they are citizens of the United States - and they want their home back. That's the real tragedy. Many of these men and woman want to return and rebuild their city, but they don't even have the means to get back," Mr. Ogletree said.
Both men will take time out of their vacations next week to appear at a book signing and discussion entitled Hurricane Katrina: the Aftermath. Also speaking will be Dr. Manning Marable, a professor from Columbia University, and Dr. Lawrence D. Bobo, the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor from Stanford University.
The event will feature a special screening of the new Spike Lee documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, produced by the cable network HBO. It chronicles the devastation of New Orleans due to the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina last August.
The discussion takes place Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Mr. Lee, who owns a home in Oak Bluffs, will also attend.
The topic of Hurricane Katrina evokes scorn from Mr. Gates and Mr. Ogletree, who both feel the government - specifically the administration of President George W. Bush - was sluggish in responding to the disaster.
At best, Mr. Gates said, the Bush administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was inept. At worst, he said, it showed the federal government's unwillingness to aid the largely poor African-American community in New Orleans.
He added that Katrina opened up old wounds for many African-Americans, and demonstrated how America has not come quite as far in race relations as many people think. He pointed to a pair of news items from the Associated Press - one that showed a young white couple wading through the flood waters with handfuls of food, another of a young black man doing the same.
The caption of the white couple reported they found the food; the caption of the young black man reported that he looted it from a local grocery store.
But the federal government had ignored the plight of the African-American community in New Orleans well before Hurricane Katrina touched down last summer, Mr. Gates said.
For years, Louisiana officials warned of the tragedy that could result if the levees surrounding the city were breached. Every year, they begged for more money to strengthen the walls that kept Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River from overwhelming the Big Easy - and almost every single year, they were turned down, Mr. Gates said.
"It's a travesty that the federal government turned a blind eye to these innocent people of color in New Orleans at a time when this tragedy could have been avoided. Quite frankly, it's scandalous that the government has pretended it couldn't have done more to stop this," he said.
Mr. Ogletree compared Hurricane Katrina to the great flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, which displaced 330,000 African-Americans, many into relief camps. Then, more than 13,000 evacuees near Greenville, Miss., were stranded for days without food or clean water, while boats arrived to evacuate white women and children. Many African-Americans were detained and forced to labor at gunpoint during flood relief efforts.
Like the society described in a famous Winston Churchill quote, Mr. Ogletree worried the United States will continue to be the nation that forgets its past - and is doomed to repeat it.
"I call it racial amnesia, or racial fatigue. People forget what happened in 1927, and a lot of people have already forgotten about what happened in the Lower Ninth Ward [of New Orleans]. They've forgotten what happened at the Superdome," he said.
While the two men grew heated in voicing their dissatisfaction with the government's response to Katrina, there were also moments of levity and humor peppered throughout the conversation, reflecting their long tenure as both colleagues and friends.
When Mr. Ogletree expressed his frustration over the unhurried efforts to rebuild black neighborhoods in New Orleans, explaining that many of the projects are being overseen by "Donald Trumps and Donald Ducks," Mr. Gates stopped and chuckled.
"That sounds like a Jesse Jackson line," Mr. Gates said with a grin, after which both men broke into laughter.
Soon after, the guests for the fishing trip began to congregate on Mr. Gates's covered back porch.
The passenger list was impressive, featuring some of the most prominent scholars and legal minds in the nation: Judge Harry Edwards, chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; attorney John Payton, who successfully argued to keep the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy before the U.S. Supreme Court; Harvard Law professor David Wilkins.
As the guests arrived, Mr. Ogletree reflected on the importance of the Vineyard in the history of black America, and how it continues to serve as a nexus and forum for discussion for some of the most influential African-Americans in the nation.
That notion is perfectly embodied in next week's discussion on Hurricane Katrina, he said.
"I can't think of any other place with such a rich exchange of ideas in the African-American community. For many years the Island has given us a chance to both reflect on where we have been over the past year, and what we have learned as a world community," Mr. Ogletree said.