Stanley Nelson: His Oak Bluffs Story Will Air on Public TV


Early in A Place of Our Own, Stanley Nelson's documentary
about the African-American community on the Vineyard, his father states
that "we didn't come to Martha's Vineyard, we came to
Oak Bluffs."

In the 1940s and 1950s, as demands for racial equality brewed in a
national cauldron, the town of Oak Bluffs served as a quiet haven for a
group of African Americans. This is a story of black upward mobility,
set against a backdrop of the segregation of the times, that the
Emmy-award winning film director tells in A Place of Our Own. The
documentary will air nationally on PBS on Tuesday, Feb. 17. Mr. Nelson
hopes to screen it at an Oak Bluffs theatre this summer.

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Through rare photographs and home movie footage of black families
arriving on the ferry, frolicking with children on the beach and sipping
cocktails at lawn parties, Mr. Nelson paints a picture of a seemingly
idyllic summer community. But for the more modest designs of the bathing
suits and the sweeping hairstyles of the sixties, this could be today,
and in some senses it still is.

Through Mr. Nelson's soft lens, Oak Bluffs is a place of
leisure, a place where, he says, "African Americans can go to be
themselves," free of the strains of class and race consciousness
that hovered in their hometowns and cities. A place where
"it's okay to play tennis here. All the black people
did!" A place where friendships and courtships are nurtured and

Telling the story of the growth of this tightly knit community
became for Mr. Nelson a personal tale. His mother, the matriarch of the
Nelson summer home overlooking Ocean Park, died last year, making last
summer the first he and his siblings visited the house without her, and
this is described in the documentary.

He didn't intend at the beginning for it to be a personal
film, but Mr. Nelson recalled this week that "I found that to
really tell the story, I had to put myself and my family in the middle
of it."

The director met his wife, screenwriter Marcia A. Smith, in Oak
Bluffs. The town is also the place where Mr. Nelson's family was
happiest, and later, where trouble undermined the summer ease, leading
to his parents' divorce and tension between his siblings. The
absence of his sister, the writer Jill Nelson, also a seasonal resident,
is particularly poignant. She prefers to visit their summer house when
her brother is not in it, and declined to be interviewed in the film.

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Mr. Nelson, a MacArthur Fellow who has for 20 years made
documentaries for television about historical figures like Emmett Till
and Marcus Garvey, as well as lesser known American artists and
soldiers, had not turned the camera on himself before.

The result is an intimate family portrait with strong undercurrents
of loss, both personal and communal. As Mr. Nelson strolls the beach
talking with his estranged father, whom he's invited to join him
in Oak Bluffs for the first time in many years, talk turns to what their
life - and their town - once looked like.

During the summertime work week off-Island, African-American men
shouldered the burden of what the elder Mr. Nelson calls
"representing the race"; but on summer weekends, "We
looked like we owned the world."

A Place of Our Own calls into question those halcyon days and
places, at the same time as it is nostalgic for them. Several Island
notables, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Manning Marable, Lani Guinier
and Isabelle Powell, weigh in on the community to which they belong.
They talk about the expansion of the black middle class and raise
important questions about how a community can stay grounded as it
becomes more privileged. Indeed, they ask, should it even be expected

Mr. Nelson said that audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah
last month, where the documentary was shown, expressed some surprise at
seeing Oak Bluffs' growth from a modest vacation spot to a venue
for powerhouse networking. But of course this shift has taken place in
all six towns on the Island, since the Clintons began visiting in the
early 1990s and, some say, before.

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Across the Vineyard, both black and white families build ever-bigger
houses, park ever-bigger cars in their driveways, cater their cocktail
parties and tile their floors with increasing extravagance. The
boundaries that once defined these communities, racial and otherwise,
have begun to blur.

For Mr. Nelson's part, he seems ambivalent on the subject of
this upscaling. How much is too much? "I think you should build
what you want to build," he said. "You can say that Oak
Bluffs used to be a stronger community and that it's slowly
eroding. But you can say the black community was more vibrant during
segregation. Do I want to go back to segregation? No."

Perhaps the economic disparities between black and white communities
on the Vineyard are less pronounced now, as is true among wealthier
blacks and whites in towns across America. "But there is still
isolation in the black upper-middle class," says Mr. Nelson.
"There is still a need for Oak Bluffs. I come here in August with
my 14-year-old and my five-year-old twins. It's a good meeting
ground. It's our home."