To the Editor:
As a child, when money in our family was short, luxuries like camp were but a wish, and little girls and boys who looked like me were missing and murdered, I could not go outside to play until my mother came from work. I spent many hot summer days escaping to places far more exciting than our apartment through books and watching the “stories.” Starring in my favorite soap opera were a hopelessly romantic couple, Nina and Cliff. When the weight of the world overwhelmed them, they would “escape” to a place called Martha’s Vineyard. As the “M” encyclopedia had been lost during one of our many moves, this place remained a mystery to me until college, where I had the pleasure of reading “The Wedding,” by Dorothy West. I was overjoyed to read of that place, and thrilled to learn that black people were there too with Nina and Cliff. They were domestics, schoolteachers, doctors, and lawyers, and like so many communities in Atlanta, its people were as different as they were alike, but the desire and common thread of community bound them, one to another. The town of Oak Bluffs, more than 1,000 miles from Atlanta, reminded me of the community I used to know.
Over 30 years after I first imagined being there, I was able to visit the Vineyard and experience its peace, beauty, and culture, with a family of my own. Like me, my children too were smitten with Martha’s Vineyard at first sight, and long to return each year, as it is a place that allows them to truly experience being kids. They are not stifled by schedules, irritated by traffic, and terrified of crime. Instead, they walk to church and the library, play in the park, ride their bikes, watch butterflies in the gardens at daybreak, sell lemonade on the sidewalk at high noon, and walk onto porches and make new friends during their evening strolls. For them, the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard is a beloved community.
My mother says the Vineyard reminds her of growing up on Elm Street: In her words, it reminds her “of what Atlanta used to be.” Long before it infamously became known as the Bluff, heroin robbed families of hope, and neighbors were dispersed for the sake of new apartments, Elm Street was a place where everyone knew each other by name, neighbors cared for one another, and the elders were not fearful of correcting wayward children. As we were walking past houses on the Vineyard once, my mother laughingly said, “On Elm Street, if you got in trouble, walking home was like walking down the street of shame. As you passed each house, someone would yell, ‘I heard what you did at school today. Your mama is going to get you when you get home.’” Elm Street was a beloved community.
I was reminded that God dreams dreams bigger for us than we can for ourselves when just a few years after our first visit, my husband and I were able to purchase our very own home on the Vineyard. While our home has been a fulfilling investment for our family and a place of joy for our children, to many of the families on the Vineyard who struggle to make ends meet when the tourist season ends and rates of alcoholism, depression, and suicide rise, the beloved community my family enjoys is not a beloved community for all.
Although many miles and states separate Atlanta from Martha’s Vineyard, the dichotomy of life is very much the same. Like Atlanta, it is a tale of two cities, where communities prosper just a stone’s throw from families that struggle. Undoubtedly, there are picturesque communities throughout Atlanta where kids are allowed to feel like children, and neighbors know and care for one another, out of concern and not just circumstance. But it is not enough that there are such communities … our city should be full of beloved communities. Communities where the plight of the least of these become the battle that we all fight daily to win.
Whether life or simply our dreams take us from Oakland City to Oak Bluffs, East Atlanta to Edgartown, Vine City to Vineyard Haven, Cascade to Chappaquiddick, I truly hope that during my service on city council, our work together as a community has taken us many steps closer to achieving the goal of becoming a beloved community. For a beloved community for just some is not a beloved community at all.
Keisha Lance Bottoms, member
Atlanta City Council