On Being Black

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of January, 1983:

Dora Grain lives in Vineyard Haven. There’s nothing astonishing about that, but there is meaning. Mrs. Grain dreams of the day people will not assume she lives in Oak Bluffs. For in the assumption she sees prejudice and racism. Mrs. Grain is black. With the recent celebration of the 54th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the naming of the Nathan Mayhew Seminars building for Rufus B. Shorter Jr., the late Island school superintendent, and the annual meeting Sunday of the Vineyard’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Mrs. Grain talked about being black.

She spoke in personal terms, not as a spokesman for the Island’s approximately 100 year-round black families, not as a sociologist, not as a historian. Her thoughts came during a talk that ranged from the beauties of the Island as a home to its inherent forms of racial prejudice. The talk was in Mrs. Grain’s living room, lined with the poetry of John Milton and Langston Hughes, in the house she and her husband have lived in since 1974. For 20 years before that the Grains came to the Vineyard summers from their home in New York city. “I identify strongly black. And I have been active in it all my life, in the trade union movement, in the black movement and the NAACP, and in civil rights causes when it wasn’t totally popular. I have been a political and community activist all my life,” she says.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Island black community “stayed pretty much with itself. Really, at that point the summer black community had not gone out into the general summer community. Oak Bluffs, then, was the only community where blacks lived. It was the climate, the social-political climate. You’re talking 1954, ahead of the civil rights movement. It was merely the custom. I cannot say I was met with any prejudice.” Things have changed. Now blacks own homes in every Island town. “I think things are wide open now. It’s quite open, yet we have many problems in racial attitudes. It’s almost a contradiction.”

When the Grains were testing the house market in the late 1960s, “real estate brokers would show you nothing but Oak Bluffs and a (small, predominantly black) section of Vineyard Haven. Nobody said you couldn’t live anywhere else. We were just not shown anything else. Then I began noticing other things, the Cape Verdeans, the non-whites, were not working in the stores. If you look around you won’t see too many, even in the places that hire great numbers of summer young people.

“There are people that still don’t want to hear that there is racism. Well, there is racism. You can sense it. You can feel it. There are people who will tell you, ‘Don’t be silly. There’s no racism on this Island.’ And this is such an open community, there is such warmth and friendship everywhere that you don’t want to believe it.” But as much as she loves this Island, problems remain.

Mrs. Grain was on Main street, Vineyard Haven this summer. “A man was collecting signatures for (Congressman Gerry) Studds. So on the top is the Vineyard Haven petition which he immediately removes and brings up the Oak Bluffs petition. Well, I resented that. I said to him, ‘Why do you assume I live in Oak Bluffs. Why don’t you ask me where I live? I go into a bank in Vineyard Haven, this is 1976. And I ask about safe deposit boxes. And they say to me, Wouldn’t it be more convenient to get one in Oak Bluffs?’ This may seem small. But I consider it a racial assault. It is a major stereotypical attitude.”

In Queens, New York, years ago. Mrs. Grain realized that her family needed black identity. “I began celebrating blackness. I collected a black history library that rivaled Harvard’s. I put black on my walls because my daughter had to understand that black is truly beautiful. A friend once told me, ‘Black children should be taught from the time they are old enough to hear and understand. Do business with white people. Live with white people. Socialize with white people. But don’t expect too much.’

“When my children came home from school and they would say, ‘Somebody called me nigger,’ and I’d say, ‘So, what else is new? You’re going to fall down dead on that? No. That’s not a statement about you. The person is making a statement about himself. David [Mrs. Grain’s son] once made a friend in school. A boy came up to him and said ‘You’re black.’ And David said to him, ‘Yes, and you’re white and what is your name?’

“I don’t believe in this melting pot — it’s a salad bowl. People should be able to identify the lettuce from the tomatoes. And yet be comfortable. That’s all I want. I want to be me. I don’t want someone to come in and say, ‘Why do you have all these black faces on your wall? And I would love to see the day when you would put that beautiful black lady on your wall. And I would love to see you put Poetry of the Negro on your coffee table, so that your friends would say, ‘My god, what have you got here?’ And you would say calmly, ‘I have an anthology of poetry by black poets.’

“I would love to see that,” she said.

Compiled by Eulalie Regan