Black shoppers matter


I’m back on the Vineyard after a hiatus of about three years. Despite the sad news that my favorite Vineyard stores, Bramhall & Dunn and Alley Cat, have closed, I yield to temptation and stop in Bananas, a boutique in West Tisbury. Judy, the owner, is white, but lives year-round in the historically black Vineyard community of Oak Bluffs.

“I wouldn’t be any other place,” she says.

Judy tells me that recently there was a theft in her shop. I ask to use the restroom.

“It’s up the stairs,” Judy says, pointing.

Upstairs I observe hundreds of dollars in inventory.

I tell Judy that I am surprised she would trust someone up there after her recent theft. She shrugs and says shoplifting is a rare occurrence.

The next day, I go to a jewelry shop in Edgartown, where years ago I had purchased a pricey bracelet. The shop is teeming with black customers. Sales clerks guard the treasures like junkyard dogs. I finally get one’s attention. Right away, I notice she seems ill at ease, sick; something’s wrong. I ask her if she is all right.

“I’m fine,” she snaps, forcing the smile that Judy in West Tisbury gave so effortlessly.

“OK. I would like to see this bracelet.”

She fetches it from the case.

“May I see it in the mirror across the room?” I ask.

“No,” she barks. “Store policy.”

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I am not going to steal this bracelet. I bought one like it a few years ago.”

It appears my salesperson was in training, so a different, presumably more experienced, clerk waits on me. I ask to look at some pins. I am surprised that this woman sells this jewelry, but does not recognize the iconic visage of the legendary Josephine Baker smiling up from the $400 French bijou. The mounting ignorance I experience in this Edgartown shop is staggering. Adding insult to injury, the clerk has a hard time correctly pronouncing my common, multicultural name. “Loo-EE-suh,” I articulate.

Edgartown gave me my initial, positive passport to Martha’s Vineyard in 1976. I was working in Boston. My family from Detroit wanted to vacation on the Vineyard, so I went to the Island, purchased a Vineyard Gazette, saw an ad for a rental (about $325 a week!), went to the house, peered through the window like Goldilocks and saw a charming antiques-filled room. I was smitten. Looking around Edgartown, I saw no blacks in 1976, so I called the owner and said I would love to rent the house. “And,” I added, “I am African American. Do you have a problem with that? If so, I will go elsewhere.”

My beautiful saint of a mother had migrated from Georgia to Detroit in the ’30s to escape Jim Crow. If I could help it, I was not going to bring her further north to hop on a ferry only to encounter more of that same racism. From 1936 to 1966, black travelers would have had access to safe havens through listings in the Negro Motorist Green Book, but in the absence of this storied guide to welcoming accommodations, Sheila, of the talented Muldaur clan, became my human Green Book. Sheila is a homeopath in Chilmark; Geoff Muldaur is a globetrotting singer; Maria, Geoff’s former wife, recorded the 1970s hit song “Midnight at the Oasis”; and Diana was Dr. Katherine Pulaski on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“No problem,” the owner said. And although I would never meet Sheila, for the next 15 years, my family and friends would comfortably stay in her family’s home in Edgartown.

My experience with the sales staff in the Edgartown shop reminded me of Oprah’s experience in Switzerland, where she blamed ignorance for the shop girl’s refusal to show her an expensive handbag. The shop girl didn’t recognize Oprah with all her billions, just like the Edgartown clerk didn’t recognize Josephine Baker’s image on the pin.

White ignorance of blacks engenders so many of the racist micro-aggressions that black people endure daily, blacks who come to the Vineyard form an elite class. My husband, Sam Chapman, was the first black ShopRite Supermarket owner in the exclusive Wakefern Food Corp. My niece, Veronica Chapman, was on the Island to deliver her timely children’s book, “I Know I Can,” to that destination Oak Bluffs shop C’est La Vie. (Delightfully illustrated, “I Know I Can” encourages little black girls to dream big, learn their history, and explore their culture and others.)

But our economic and professional status is no guarantee of routine courtesy. And it should not be. Courtesy should be extended regardless of a person’s skin color or station in life. Be they black, white, or any other race or ethnicity. Be they residents of gated suburbs or denizens of city sidewalks. Blacks come to the Vineyard to see other black people. Many of us live in integrated neighborhoods, strangers in a strange land, where the rare sight of one another can be cause for celebration. Yes, we enjoy privileges not always available in urban black communities. But those privileges do not remove the visceral need to embrace one another and our shared cultural history.

We are not so naive as to think that we can credential our way out of racism or ignorance, or believe that economic prosperity offers an escape from the burdens of blackness. Blacks everywhere — from those in the most impoverished ghettos to the most sequestered second homes on the Vineyard — are yet again under siege. If even the black president cannot command the respect that he deserves, what makes the rest of us feel that we can?

A white shopper said to me at Allen Farm in Chilmark, “I can look in your eyes and see a good soul.” Too many whites avoid the opportunity to know black people beyond safe and distant archetypes or, worse, stereotypes. Too many whites break out their blackish dialects when addressing black people, oblivious to the reality that many African Americans fluently speak the King’s English, and that to address us in Hollywood-inspired buffoonery is a rank insult. In the brief time I was in her store, Judy and I engaged on a very human level. I knew her politics.

“Things must change,” she said, alluding to the current state of race relations.

But those two women at the Edgartown jewelry store could just as well have been in 1930s Georgia. What do we do about ignorance? What I am not going to do is indict an entire town for the offenses of two individuals. Edgartown has a well-deserved place in my heart. However, given that store was teeming with elite black shoppers, it may be time to give those shoppers alternative outlets to compete for their dollars. As our history has shown, ignorance miraculously engenders enlightenment when the bottom line is threatened.

Luisa Washington Chapman is an interior designer, seamstress, entrepreneur, and world traveler who writes about travel, theater, and art. Her essay “Trailblazing in Traverse City, Michigan” won a Solas Travel Writing Award. Currently, she is writing a memoir about her large Detroit family and looking for a compound on the Vineyard to house them. She lives in Cheshire, Conn.