Bold Vineyarders celebrate election with a plunge

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s election inspires a chilly Sunday swim. 

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For Angella Henry, Sunday morning’s plunge into the water at Inkwell Beach was an opportunity to wash away the politics and divisiveness of President Donald Trump: “I think we have seen over the past four years a lot of hatred, hate speech, and you know, this is a multicultural community of wonderful people, so this is a great way for us to come together and shed that and have a common experience.”

Henry and about two dozen other people, some members of the Polar Bears of Martha’s Vineyard, gathered Sunday morning at the Oak Bluffs beach to celebrate the election results with a bold plunge into Vineyard Sound.

The Polar Bear season was canceled for the first time in 75 years this summer, due to the pandemic. This event was not organized by the group, which was started around 1945 by African American men and women who would swim and do exercises in the water every morning early at Inkwell from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. In more recent years, that group has become a more diverse group of like-minded people. Though Sunday’s event wasn’t an official Polar Bears event, they were well represented at the swim, which was prompted by a social media post Saturday calling for a celebration of the historic election results.

The warm and golden sun shone generously through the almost cloudless sky as community members gathered on the Oak Bluffs beach. With barely any wind, the sea was calm and inviting, despite it being Nov. 8. 

It was a perfect morning, and people were eager to jump in. Being able to celebrate together, and jumping into the chilly water, was a way for people to let out pent-up political anxiety.

“It is a celebration of America coming back to where it was, and the world knowing that we can do the right thing,” said Elaine Cashin. “So a plunge this morning is just cleansing the last four years away. That is what it represented for me.”

After community members chatted for several minutes on the sidewalk, the group descended to the beach and promptly ran into the water. In the sea, the group screamed — both out of joy and cold. “To a brighter future!” and “To democracy!” could be heard. Some sang, while others danced, many holding their hands up in the air. Most people exited the water soon after entering, but a few more courageous ones swam several laps before rejoining those on shore. 

Jill Gault, a Vineyard resident and regular member of the Polar Bears who typically swim daily at Inkwell, said Biden’s victory offered something better for the country.

“I think the demagoguery is over. The people, you see them happy again. It feels like there is not as much oppression. I think that heaviness and that oppression has lifted,” Gault said. “There is just a joy in the air, because I think people are feeling freer. It almost feels similar to me as when Obama got into office.”

For many, however, Biden’s election meant more than just saying farewell to the politics of the past four years. For them, a Biden-Harris presidency heralds the possibility of a brighter future for the country. “We are here to celebrate … because we know that this [election] can only mean a progression, because we have been on a plateau,” said Frances Gaskin. “Now we are moving forward with the two in office.”

This joyous hope for real change to occur is buttressed by Kamala Harris being the first Black woman and Asian-American elected vice president. 

“That is historic. The time has come,” Gaskin said. “She stands on the heads and shoulders of others of course, such as Harriet Tubman. This is our time.”

Cashin said it was amazing to see Harris’ face next to all the other uniform faces of previous vice presidents. But beyond representation, Cashin said, having a woman of color in office could contribute to real policy change. “My thinking is that having that voice, that thinking in the White House, is going to make a huge difference in human life,” Cashin said.

Henry also noted the importance of Harris becoming vice president, suggesting this event was more historic than Biden beating Trump. “To see that the country has chosen a woman of color to be the vice president is incredible, and it’s something to be celebrated not just today but moving forward, you know, it’s an indication of the change that’s coming.”

Though much is still uncertain, one thing is clear: People once again feel that something good can be achieved if all Americans work in unison. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done, but I am hopeful people will come together in a positive light to work together to create positive change,” Henry said.