In early October 2008 I was invited to Chicago to sit in the Family and Friends Tent in Bryant Park and witness the possible election of our nation’s 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama. This highly coveted invitation was not extended to me by my father, Henry Louis Gates Jr., or one of his highly esteemed colleagues; not by knowing some secret handshake you might inherit after your parents’ income swells above a certain mark or by always sitting with the “right” people at the “right” time. No, my invitation into Bryant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, was given to me by my dear friend and classmate Marti Pentheny Adams, a 24-year-old woman who had been chosen to be the deputy press secretary to Michelle Obama.
Marti owns no property, she belongs to not a single elitist organization and to this day I have no idea what her parents do for work — and I’ve met them. Twice. All I ever knew was that she was one of the most effortlessly intelligent women I will likely ever come to know, and that when it’s time for her to cash in on her much-deserved vacation time she, like so many of our peers, chooses to scour the world and invest in her global awareness, not slip into a gingham dress and sweater set and set sail off the illustrious Inkwell. In fact, If I’m not mistaken, the one time she did come to Martha’s Vineyard it was under my invitation, and while I hope she enjoyed her visit, she certainly wasn’t hunting for social elevation. She was right there with the rest of us, laughing off the year’s overwhelming academic stress.
It is for reasons much like this that Touré’s article in New York Magazine, White and Black on Martha’s Vineyard, struck such a dark chord in me. Debate about the article was reported in last Friday’s Gazette. The quotes I read, such as “for many people, being on Martha’s Vineyard makes [them] most proud to be black” infuriated me to an unfamiliar degree. Our generation is not defined by the same offshore aspirations as a select few of the older generation. We are a multicultural band of worldly hopefuls, lucky to find ourselves among such a buoyant collection of optimists, on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere. We define ourselves by myriad successes that are very seldom reduced to manifestations of capital — and those of our peers who do base their sense of self on such monetary nonsense are often so bland in character that we hardly take much notice of them anyway.
For me personally, vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, though a true gift (I wouldn’t miss a summer) has never made me the most proud to be black. In fact, it was on election night, watching Marti offer me a quick smile as she led heads of state across lines of mixed race reporters and supporters that marked my proudest moment to be black, not to mention a woman. And after Obama was swiftly chosen to lead the country, my first call was placed to my white mother who sat glued to her television with the rest of her liberal cohorts — a woman who spent summer after summer teaching her small brown children to find safety in the vast ocean right there on the Inkwell along with throngs of other women — and while she certainly wasn’t the majority, all those women were united under one motherly agenda: to keep their damn kids from taking off those orange arm floaters, so popular in the 1980s, so we wouldn’t drown as we playfully plunged into the tide. My white mother was among the very same women who were noticeably absent from the pages of New York Magazine’s interpretation of our summer haven.
After finishing Touré’s piece I longed to speak to him. I longed to speak to everyone involved in that article in fact, and while I only ever reached a small few of the “Only Ones” as the article called them, I did speak to Touré. What I found only surprised me in part.
“I was assigned the piece,” he wrote me in an e-mail, and after using Twitter, MySpace and Facebook to gather those who felt they were “experts on Martha’s Vineyard” he simply wrote about what he found. And for the record, I am not defending him — or suggesting that his investigation went far enough, but as a young woman who often finds herself saying, “but we’re not all like that” in defense of the many Islanders I know so well, I realize that the issues Touré’ unearthed went far beyond him — or anyone unfamiliar with the Island’s many layers. There are certainly people lurking behind all these nicely groomed waterfront properties that do enjoy validating themselves against such trivial standards.
And while that mentality certainly doesn’t describe the greater part of our summer community, I personally know a handful of Island dwellers exactly like the folks who answered Touré’s plea — those who seem to want the Island to have an agenda, to remain a modern free black town of sorts; those who never want technology to advance or newspapers to go online, the type of people who hated it when jazz rebelled into rock, when rock stomped into beat-box and when beat-boxing stormed into rap — the type who always have something nasty to say when saying nothing would do just fine. The exact same person who simply wishes they were still the “only one” who slipped through the cracks of the glass ceiling when in fact, they are now one among many. As Aixa Weekes, fashion editor of Giant Magazine and longtime Islander tells it, “It saddens me that we as blacks in America, a minority group who are celebrating our first black President can use terms such as elitism and Only Ones to depict our already petite race . . . What’s the purpose? A manifestation to others that we’re in a separate category that’s superior? Or maybe it’s important to know that your income is pretty powerful? We’re lacking so much as a people, why divide even more?”
For Tonya Lewis Lee, who owns a home with her husband, Spike Lee, in Oak Bluffs and has recently toured the country for her A Healthy Baby Begins With You campaign, “Being successful or having wealth has no bearing on one’s racial identity in my opinion. Cultural ties that bind a community are not erased by an individual’s financial gain . . . More often than not, regardless of their financial status, [they] will not be able to forget they’re black anyway . . . But I can’t say it enough, there are many, many black people all over this country who never come to Martha’s Vineyard who are doing great things.”
Which includes Barack and Michelle Obama, who to my knowledge never invested their sizeable dollars in buying a vacation home between Circuit avenue and Lola’s Restaurant — but perhaps that’s because at least one Islander, who rightly wants to remain nameless, has decided that our first lady is a “ghetto girl” and would rather be with “the people.”
Well, if Michelle Obama is a “ghetto girl,” somebody please tell me how to get on the next list for Section 8 housing so that I too might have a chance at her unparalleled grace, her undeniable poise and above all, please, somebody please, tell me what hair products this “ghetto girl” uses because every time she deplanes in some foreign country with her immaculate children not a single glossy hair is out of place, when I, the standard “light skinned product of a well-to-do family” can’t seem to moisturize my short crop of locks well enough to even make it through a Cape Air jaunt from New York city to Edgartown.
Simply put, we can no longer accept, tolerate or perpetuate antiquated ideals of blackness, folks. We have established a new world with elevated values and despite our understandable need for community, comfort and camaraderie, it is clearly a detriment to our overwhelming progress to continuously divide ourselves by such inconsequential standards as the pursuit of capital or demographic “rightness.” We are better than that. Black people, it’s time to wake up.
A seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs, Elizabeth Gates writes for The Daily Beast, a Web site.