African American heritage celebrated at the Oak Bluffs library

"Flute Player" —Photo by Nate Luce/Painting by Cutie Bowles

There is arguably no U.S. ethnic group that has more spectacularly transformed our arts and cultural scene than African Americans. The Smithsonian pays tribute to this development with its dazzling new five-floor National Museum of African American History and Culture. And amid this creative flourishing, Oak Bluffs is the summer jewel in the crown of Island black heritage. At the Oak Bluffs Public Library, wunderkind program director Nate Luce for the second year has mounted an homage to African American literature and culture, held this year on August 4 and 5.

There are more than a couple of books that describe the African American connection to the Vineyard. As Harvard and M.I.T. historian Robert C. Hayden writes in his book “African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard,” “A black leisure class increased steadily in every decade from the 1920s onward, especially after World War II to the present.” This new demographic vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard, renting and buying property centering in Oak Bluffs, “coming in large numbers from Hartford, New Haven, New York City, northern New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Washington, D.C.–Maryland area.”

“Strolling Nuns” —Photo by Nate Luce/Painting by Cutie Bowles

Another wholly readable book, more recently released by Vineyard author Thomas Dresser, “African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard: From Enslavement to Presidential Visit,” unravels the epic history, starting with slavery during Colonial times, followed by escape to the Island as a sanctuary during the Civil War, to the many blacks arriving as servants, then entrepreneurs. The roster of renowned African American visitors, summer folks, and year-rounders is impressive, and it includes Scott Joplin, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and, of course, our most celebrated V.I.P., President Barack Obama.

The weekend features the Friday, August 4, 6 pm opening reception for Olive (Cutie) Bowles’ painting retrospective. A lustrous catalogue of the late Ms. Bowles’ work is available, with color photos and text by Cheryl Finley, Oak Bluffs Highlands summer resident and associate professor and director of visual studies at Cornell. Ms. Finley writes, “Cutie had a sense of humor and purpose in her visual storytelling. One painting shows a man hiding a bouquet of flowers behind his back, who seems poised to propose to a reluctant woman standing before him.”

Another particularly fun painting is of a trio of bespectacled ladies in bright outfits, sitting disconsolate before glasses of wine, the 1980 acrylic titled “Three Bored Whores.”

Cutie was a member of the Shearer Summer Theater group in Oak Bluffs, a founding member of the Cottagers, and a member of the NAACP. The Bowles paintings, lent by daughter Olive Tomlinson, much loved in our community, and by Deborah Dixon, will hang in the community room for the duration of the summer, but you’ll want to attend the reception for two reasons: 1) The excitement at the unveiling of the largest collection of Cutie’s work ever displayed in one setting; and 2) Hors d’oeuvres such as conch fritters and tostones served by Island celebrity Chef Deon.

On Saturday, August 5, come with notebook, snacks, water (well, the library will provide all that you’ll require to stay vibrant and hydrated) to enjoy the following:

10 to 10:45 am: A talk by Jakki Hunt of the Oak Bluffs NAACP, and proud member of the local community and the Polar Bear Club that meets and swims every early morning at Inkwell Beach.

10:45 to 11:30 am: Author, journalist, and entrepreneur Skip Finley will address the exciting subject of “Black Whaling Captains.”

11:30 am to 12:15 pm: Hugh B. Price, past president of the Urban League nationwide, will read from “This African-American Life.”

12:15 to 1 pm: Light refreshments will be served during this lunch break. (See? I told you the library will take care of our basic human needs, in fact, I’m going to see if they’ll buy me a Mini Cooper.)

1 to 1:45 pm: Dr. Nicole Aljoe will lecture on “Early Caribbean Literature.”

1:45 to 2:30 pm: A rising star (shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize) the young poet from Jamaica Safiya Sinclair will present a poetry reading from her collection “Cannibal.”

2:30 to 3 pm: A conversation between Nicole and Safiya about Jamaican/Caribbean culture.

3 to 4 pm: We’ll call it a day — a glorious day — with hymns from the Martha’s Vineyard Spiritual Choir under the direction (and booming baritone voice) of Oak Bluffs year-rounder and local treasure Jim Thomas.

This upcoming event was made possible with support from Library Friends of Oak Bluffs, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.