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The History, Significance & Changing Landscape of an African American Resort Community in Stanley Nelson's 'A Place Of Our Own'

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by Wendy Okoi-Obuli
July 10, 2014 6:38 PM
3 Comments
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"A Place of Our Own," by Stanley Nelson, is a film which some of you may already be familiar with as it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004.

For those of you who are not familiar with it, the description reads:

“In this cinematic love song to place and identity, director Stanley Nelson explores the rarely seen world of the black middle class and the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, where African Americans have vacationed for generations. Using wonderfully evocative photography and landscape cinematography, Nelson lets us into a side of black identity rarely incorporated into the larger lore of Americana. Through intimate interviews in gloriously manicured surroundings, Nelson relives his family’s ties to the Vineyard, taking us along for a very satisfying trip down memory lane.”

But, having watched the film, it is so much more than stated above and much more than I expected.

Interweaving the history of Oak Bluffs with the contemplation of the pain and breakup of his family, the death of Nelson’s mother, Liel, marks the beginning of the film and the death of a family that managed to hold on to a house but lose touch with each other; a house that was once full of laughter and love, now cold, empty and full of silence. As the film navigates the issues of race, class, sense of community and identity, we see Nelson’s touching effort to restore a convivial relationship with his estranged father.

In looking at the importance of a place like Oak Bluffs, initially the black section of segregated Martha’s Vineyard, in the history of America, the following quote from the film sums it up quite nicely:

“Part of what racism does in the US is deny black folk notions of celebration, of leisure, of creative cultural space to do your own thing. I think what black folk, for several generations, have tried to do is to carve out those niches where they can find their own voice, where they can celebrate with their friends and you don’t have to explain a damn thing.”

Nelson observes in one segment how, secretly watching his parents and their friends party, it seemed that all they ever talked about was white folks and how crazy they are, and Negroes and how crazy white folks make them. Oak Bluffs wasn’t just a place to hang out during the summer, be seen and boast about how much money you’d made; it was a community in which to restore sanity.

The struggle of having to fit in with white people, having to make white people comfortable, having to constantly wear a guard against the ever imminent possibility of the manifestation of institutionalised racism from white people, is something that still pervades today for all black people, rich or poor, and not just in the US. One of the unexpected revelations of the film was an interesting segment in which Prof. Louis Gates describes how, when he first bought his house in an almost all-white neighbourhood in Massachusetts (presumably the one he was not-so recently arrested in), he was so afraid of being arrested for just driving through the neighborhood (ha!) that he found an excuse to go to the local police station to introduce himself to the local constabulary to make his face and name known to them.

Nelson’s own father was a dentist who’d come from a poor background – a poor black boy in a hostile white world in which he had to struggle against the odds to assert his right to be seen, or at least treated, as human; while Stanley’s mother was a librarian from a black, upper middle-class family. The house which Stanley’s father bought on Oak Bluffs is something of a local landmark, even today, and was a first – a first for a black family to buy in that area of the Vineyard, on the beach front – and a statement by his father that he too wished for and deserved sunlight, beauty, clean air… the finer things in live.

The issue arises, of course, as to how the next generation, who have only known privilege, can remain centred and connected to their inner souls. Like their parents before them, they’ve found themselves putting their children through private schools in which they are one of few black students who eventually find that, despite their wealth and privilege, they have an uncomfortable and internal struggle to actually feel they belong.

While being able to escape to a community like Oak Bluffs certainly helps, another coping mechanism for some might be an age old one among America’s middle class, the deselection, whether consciously or otherwise, of dark skinned blacks in favour of lighter skinned blacks, even though they belong to the same class – a prejudice which, as depicted quite movingly in the film, weighs heavily upon the emotions of young black women in particular, eroding their sense of self image and worth, and instigating feelings which wealth and privilege, though a great comfort, don’t help to assuage.

As a product of a “broken” home and someone who has lived most of her life in the UK, mostly among and with white people, and not often in very nurturing environments, but who spent all of her adolescence in Nigeria, ostensibly with family (and in relative privilege), but mostly in boarding school and university, a lot about what I learned about African Americans when I was growing up was from African American literature, and it often told of the hardship and humiliation of life, with snatches of intermittent joy. But it’s also in African American literature that I first read about Martha’s Vineyard and middle class vacationing blacks, something which I found both refreshing and, having lived in comfort and privilege in Nigeria, resonated with me to some extent.

This film, however, brought home to me what I never quite connected with from all the books, perhaps because I was still too young to fully comprehend at the time I first read them, and perhaps because I was still forging my own identy, which is that, as we struggle to attain success, greatness, relationships and the pleasures in life, what we’re really doing is trying to find an outer manifestation of what we all really hope and strive to find inside of ourselves – a place of quietness, of ease, of loving and forgiving… A place of our own. Home.

The film is currently available on home video platform (DVD, VOD).

Here's its trailer:

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3 Comments

  • Tracy | July 19, 2014 6:35 AMReply

    Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. lived in Lexington, Massachusetts, a primarily white, suburban town where about 1% of the population is black when Stanley Nelson's A Place of Our Own was made. Gates was arrested years later in his home—practically on Harvard's campus, a short walk away from the center he runs—in the City of Cambridge where about 11% of the population is black.

  • Mike | July 10, 2014 11:38 PMReply

    A historical and educational cinematic treasure that I would love to see! It's gems like these that makes our history se rich.

  • Alias | July 10, 2014 7:11 PMReply

    What a thoughtful, lovely, piece and homage to a very special place, and time, in our history. Mr. Nelson is an amazing documentarian and this is one of his best works, EVER! ...If visitors to the site haven't seen it, they should rent it. It's a timeless historical document.

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