First Lady in photos; Tom Dresser’s latest


News of Barack and Michelle Obama’s upcoming visit to the Vineyard has coincided with the continued promotion of two new books, books in which the couple are major subjects.

Thomas Dresser, author of “African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard: From Enslavement to Presidential Visit,” will speak at the Oak Bluffs Library on August 13 at 11 am. Deborah Willis and Emily Bernard, who compiled “Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs,” are scheduled to appear at Bunch of Grapes bookstore August 18 at 7:30 pm.

Mr. Dresser, an Oak Bluffs resident of 15 years, released “African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard” July 4 of this year, delivering a history of the journey by African Americans from oppression to having one of their own in our nation’s highest office.

It might sound as if this story has been written a thousand times since November 4, 2008. What makes Mr. Dresser’s account unique is his illustration of how the African American narrative played out on this isolated and often-mythologized Island. Therein lies his accomplishment: Mr. Dresser demonstrates that, despite the Vineyard’s geographical status as an island, it has not existed as such in any metaphorical sense throughout American history.

Concise in form and style, “African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard” uses documentation and anecdotal evidence to piece together the Island’s role during slavery, the Civil War, segregation, civil rights, and the election of the United States’ first black president. Tracing certain Island lineages, Mr. Dresser guides his reader through the Vineyard’s history, which was largely plagued by racial intolerance well into the 20th century.

Mr. Dresser is quick to recognize, however, the part many Vineyarders played in combating slavery and discrimination. He provides dramatic accounts of Islanders aiding the escape of fugitive slaves, and discovers an antislavery society formed in the 1830s in Edgartown. There are also several accounts of Vineyard natives traveling to the embattled South during the civil rights era, determined to put an end to segregation.

“There’s so much in history that’s right around us, and it’s so cool,” says Mr. Dresser, who also works as a limousine and bus driver on the Island. Every year, he takes sophomores from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School for a tour of the African American Heritage Trail, and he has dedicated an entire chapter to the trail in his book.

“African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard” relies on a juxtaposition of anecdotes and context. For instance, Mr. Dresser builds cinema-worthy suspense around a slave hiding in a ship off the coast of Vineyard Haven, but not without providing a full rundown of the Fugitive Slave Act and the U.S. Constitution’s mention of runaways —historical snippets about which casual readers are probably aware, whether they attended high school on the Vineyard or in Santa Fe, N.M. The method works to good effect, removing any tendency to dissociate the Vineyard’s racial history from that of the entire United States.

It was President Obama’s Vineyard visit last summer that inspired Mr. Dresser to write the book. Having documented the Island’s racial progress, Mr. Dresser is thrilled that the President is making a return next week.

“This is a very unique vacation spot for African Americans,” he says. “People on the Vineyard should be very proud that President Obama feels comfortable vacationing here.”

Accompanying the President will be his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and his wife Michelle — the focus of Ms. Willis’ and Ms. Bernard’s new book.

“Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs,” winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work — Biography/Autobiography, traces the recent several years of the First Lady’s life. Beginning with pictures of Ms. Obama in the White House and fulfilling First Lady duties, Ms. Willis and Ms. Bernard walk the viewer backwards in time through President Obama’s historic inauguration and into the middle of his momentous campaign.

The book serves as a visual account of Ms. Obama’s evolution from being considered a liability to her husband’s campaign to being the most cherished and admired First Lady since Jackie Kennedy. The photos make evident Ms. Obama’s status as an icon that transcends politics, known as much for fist-bumps and J. Crew ensembles as for the time she’s spent comforting military families.

Ms. Obama is portrayed throughout as a symbol of grace whose smile conveys compassion and whose furled brow indicates a fierce devotion to her cause at hand. She is often photographed making physical contact, whether she’s hugging elementary school kids or embracing the Queen of England, a gesture that Ms. Willis describes in her preface as extremely rare.

But Ms. Obama reserves a special closeness for the President. The First Couple are depicted making contact in exactly 40 photographs in the book, planting a kiss at campaign podiums and gazing into each other’s eyes at the inaugural ball. The pair is likely to share more intimate moments on the Island next week and, rest assured, cameras will be ready.

Max Orenstein is a recent graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia, Penn., currently living in Edgartown.