The former president moves up on Martha’s Vineyard

Edd Merritt

Throw my ticket out the window
Throw my suitcase out there too
Throw my troubles out the door
I don’t need them any more
‘Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you
~ Bob Dylan, Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took former president Barack Obama to task for lavish parties at his new house in the posh section of Martha’s Vineyard, the island off Cape Cod. The Vineyard is a series of small towns, each with its own character—from Edgartown, where the rich and famous spend summers, to Oak Bluffs, which developed into a racially mixed summer colony, to the mooring harbor of Vineyard Haven, to the fishing port of Menemsha, and the end of “up island,” the Aquinnah-Wampanoag tribal village.

Our family has a summer residence in Oak Bluffs, to which we have been going each summer for the last 50 years. Our house is somewhat unique to its neighborhood. It was built in the nearby Methodist campground and followed the gingerbread design of tents turned into houses. It had been moved out of the campground long before my wife’s family bought it and is now a part of the main village of Oak Bluffs where it carries the name “Plumb Blossom’s Place.”

I bring President Obama into the picture here because of Oak Bluffs’ unique character, that of an integrated summer colony.

The first African-Americans on the Vineyard were servants who also acted as slaves and whalers whose bounty provided them with oil and the money from its sale. That changed in the 19th century when families of these whalers turned Oak Bluffs into a resort town. By the 1950s, middle-class Black doctors, lawyers and executives made it a summer colony—with a character that remains today.

Neighbors include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard’s director of the Hutchins Center for African and African/American Research. His house happens to be just down the State Beach road.

Ed Brook, retired Massachusetts United States Senator, owned a house just around the corner. A civil rights activist, Vernon Jordan, summers in our neighborhood, as does award-winning journalist and author Charlene Hunter-Gault.

Early in our Vineyard tenure, we became close friends with nearby neighbors, a mixed-race couple who had moved to the Vineyard year-round to escape the racist outlook on their marriage in New York City. The city problem was particularly demeaning because he held a well-paying position that he gave up to move to Oak Bluffs, but they felt the move was positive.

The street from our house to the Nantucket Sound leads past many summer cottages whose porches, on a nice day, hold families catching the rays, talking among themselves, and greeting those of us walking down to the beach. From house to house, these families are white, Black and Hispanic, and we chat with each on our way to a section of the beach ironically called “the Inkwell.” Named that because it was where the black kids went to play at an earlier time, it is now where my grandsons go and mingle with black friends, building sandcastles together and splashing each other with water from the sound. The Inkwell has become truly multi-racial. Only the name remains.

In her Times piece entitled “Behold Barack Antoinette,” Ms. Dowd implies that by purchasing and holding gatherings in his multi-million-dollar mansion in largely white Edgartown, the former president is placing money over heritage.

Maybe he would have done better by choosing the neighborhoods of Oak Bluffs with those of his earlier comrades who were not invited to the strictly fundraising gatherings across the harbor.

My father-in-law, a dairy farmer from northwestern Connecticut, originally purchased our Vineyard cottage. He joined the front-porch sitters, regularly greeting all walkers with a friendly “hello!” and a moment’s chat about any topic—local, national, seaworthy or landlocked.

To me, it demonstrated that no matter what work life held, interpersonal thoughts helped keep us a human collective. And in Oak Bluffs that meant a multiracial body. Not that many places have chosen to mix like Oak Bluffs. Author Dowd felt that the Obamas, unfortunately, have chosen money over mixture.

Whenever our clan takes off toward the Inkwell, we hope that Jaws won’t join us. We are quite certain that we don’t taste as good as he’d like. After all, we go there for our cultural pleasure, not his taste.