[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]
On three layers to one of America’s most unique historic beaches.
The small town of Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard, includes one of America’s most historic African American resorts, a summertime community with roots more than a century old and a vibrant contemporary presence. That community has long designated its preferred stretch of the Oak Bluffs town beach “The Inkwell,” a name that was originally conferred out of racial bigotry but that (at least as I understand it, and I’m directly descended from one of the island’s foremost historians!) was subsequently and lovingly adopted by the African American community itself. Indeed, scholar and frequent Islander Henry Louis Gates Jr. named his genealogical and historical organization the Inkwell Foundation, a detail which nicely ties together the site’s past and present roles and meanings in African American and American life.
The Inkwell and Oak Bluff’s African American community are also the titular and principal setting for one of the more unique recent American bestselling novels, Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002). Carter, a law professor who has gone on to write many more, equally successful works of fiction, was famously paid a seven-figure advance for Emperor, which combines multiple genres (it’s a murder mystery and legal thriller that’s also an academic satire, historical novel, and romance) into a work that’s not always more than the sum of its parts but is always readable and compelling. And as its titular emphasis on Martha’s Vineyard’s African community suggests (Ocean Park adjoins The Inkwell), Carter’s novel is at its heart a historical and sociological study of that community, and of the complexities of identity that arise from its combination of race, class, and family history (his narrator is the son of that titular emperor, a preeminent African American judge).
Similarly connected to those complexities of identity, community, and history is another frequent summer visitor to Martha’s Vineyard, President Barack Obama. Political commentators have often linked Obama and his family’s Vineyard vacations to those of his Democratic presidential predecessor, Bill Clinton; conservative commentators have used the vacations to argue that Obama is out of touch with most Americans. But others, including many Islanders, have instead linked the Obama family’s time on the Vineyard to the island’s historic and contemporary African American communities. That Obama’s vacations could be read as either deeply connected to those communities or entirely distinct from them is a reflection not only of his own complex American identity, but also of the evolving history and story of this complex and potent American beach and site.
Next BeachStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other beach histories or stories you’d highlight?
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