Our Challenge

When the Obamas vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, they don’t stay as long as the Clintons did. This is good, not because I begrudge the president a long vacation but because it gives the press corps less down time to run around gathering “local color.” The black-and-white flowering of that local color was so inadequate that it helped inspire me to write The Mud of the Place.

This visit produced at least one local color piece: “On Martha’s Vineyard, a Stark Look at Income Equality,” in the Washington Post. A friend shared it on Facebook. I tried to read it, started hyperventilating halfway through, and gave up. Then another friend shared it, and another, and another. People were commenting on it. I gobbled up the comments.

The big yellow press bus that followed the Obamas when they were out and about. The rest of the time it was parked on Music St.

The big yellow press bus that followed the Obamas when they were out and about. The rest of the time it was parked on Music St.

On the third try, I got through the story. I’m glad I did, because two friends of mine, Dan Waters and Michele Jones, were quoted toward the end and they know what they’re talking about. Really, the article isn’t half bad. The reporter touched several important bases and got some good quotes. What he didn’t get is what’s happening on, or to, Martha’s Vineyard.

A big problem, I do believe, is that the reporter — like just about everybody else to the left of Dick Cheney — has been sucked into the 1%/99% frame popularized by Occupy Wall Street. It’s Vineyard working people against the billionaires — you know, the ones with the mega-mansions the size of small towns — and the billionaires are winning.

This frame is as inadequate for Martha’s Vineyard as it is for the rest of the country. Martha’s Vineyard, however, is small enough that it’s possible to glimpse up close and personal the specifics of how and why it’s inadequate. (I blogged about the general limitations of the 1%/99% frame in the fall of 2011. See “Occupy” and “99%”).

To be fair, there’s no way a news story in a daily paper can convey the complexity of island economics, which is what this story was about. An in-depth feature in, say, Rolling Stone or The Atlantic or The New Yorker is required — at least.

mazer coverThe last time anyone took a serious nonfictional look at Martha’s Vineyard was in the mid-1970s. Milton Mazer’s landmark People and Predicaments was published by Harvard University Press in 1975. Milt Mazer was a psychiatrist and he focused on islanders in trouble, but People and Predicaments is the portrait of a community, its strengths, its weaknesses, and its challenges, painted by a man with the detachment of a trained professional who also had his feet in the mud of this place, to borrow Grace Paley’s line yet again. (Part 1, the first five chapters, is still indispensable to understanding the “character of the island,” now as well as then.)

1975!! That’s 38 years ago. Why has there been no follow-up, nothing remotely comparable, published in the decades since? With all the writers, journalists, and academics who pass through, hang out, and even take up residence here?

Well, I’ve got some theories about that. Some of those writers, journalists, and academics have written with spectacular insight about social, political, and economic structures in other places, so I’m sure they have the experience, intelligence, and theoretical tools to see beneath the surface of Vineyard life the way Milt Mazer did. Why aren’t they doing it? Because in order to write about — or even see — year-round Martha’s Vineyard they’d have to look hard at the ways that they, as summer residents, summer visitors, or people who move in summer circles, might be part of the problem.

Very few of us are willing to do this. White women would rather talk about sexism than racism, men of color would rather talk about racism than sexism, and so on and on and on — unless we’re pushed. As plenty of us have been. Left to our own devices, would white people have started dealing with racism, or men with sexism? Don’t think so.

But there’s nothing pushing summer residents, summer visitors, and people who move in summer circles to take a closer look at what’s going on here. We aren’t pushing them, we longtime and sometimes lifelong year-round residents, the ones who’ve moved twice a year, worked three jobs in the summer, gone broke in the winter, and been treated as menials by the summer hordes. Why not? Because we’re in a symbiotic relationship with them and, despite all the complaints about “summer people” in general, we like a lot of them personally and don’t want to make anyone — including ourselves — uncomfortable.

Nearly every Vineyard summer brings lectures and symposiums devoted to major social and political issues. These feature high-powered speakers and panelists and often attract SRO audiences. Can you think of one that addressed the local manifestations of those major social and political issues and included longtime year-round Vineyarders in the discussion? Help me out here. I sure can’t.

And you know, it’s hard to get too angry about this, because we’re not having many of those discussions among ourselves either, even in the off-season with no one looking over our shoulders. So I’ve made my peace with that Washington Post story. The story isn’t the problem. The problem is the absence of other stories — our stories.

Anyone else want to try to get a discussion going? I’m feeling a lot like a case study for People and Predicaments, and I didn’t even live here then.

lorde quote sm


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Our Challenge

  1. Juleann says:

    The issue is about class and wealth, not about summer people vs. year-rounders. And NO ONE wants to talk about classism, it is not allowed. There are PLENTY of year-rounders whose ability to live here year-round is based on inherited wealth. The problem doesn’t lie only with not wanting to make summer people uncomfortable, we don’t want to make our year-round neighbors uncomfortable either.


    • You’re exactly right. Class/money was almost totally absent from the recent Gazette story about counterculture types who moved here in the 1960s and ’70s. But I don’t think summer people vs. year-rounders is an either/or thing. The boundaries between the two are permeable in various ways: children of summer people become year-round residents, summer people retire here and become year-round residents, etc. That’s a tricky thing about MV: year-round people look like summer people, and with the year-round people class (e.g., family connections, financial resources) is easy to miss: we work the same jobs, wear similar clothes, etc.

      So do you think it would be possible to get a few people together in a secret hideaway down a long unmarked dirt road to talk about class on MV, first-person/CR style?


      • Juleann says:

        Oh . . . now I see what you are saying about summer people and how we/they morph into year-round and the domino effect. What does CR mean? Counter-revolutionary??


      • Heh! CR = consciousness raising, foundation of second-wave feminism. You build theory from the ground up, starting with individuals sharing their stories in small groups, discovering some commonalities in those stories (like women who thought it was their fault they’d been raped or were being hit on by an employer or were going crazy being isolated in suburbia), and developing strategies to deal with it. CR pretty much died out because so many of us didn’t realize that consciousness was never raised once and for all, not to mention that there are always new people being born and growing up.

        Deep down I believe that telling stories is the root of everything. 🙂


  2. tompostpile says:

    Pages 15 to 41 of that book,the section called “The Island and its people” remain one of the best descriptions of Martha’s Vineyard ever written.


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