Aquinnah Hill: Grew up in Aquinnah; works year-round on-Island

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Aquinnah Hill — Kyra Steck

Interview by Kyra Steck

I’m Aquinnah Hill. I’m 22 now, and I’ve been on the Island my whole life. I have a lot of roots here. My dad’s Native American and a barber, and he’s lived here all his life. My mom isn’t from here. She was actually born in Cape Verde, and moved to the States when she was 6 or 7, and then came to the Island after she was pregnant with me. I’ve been in Vineyard Haven with my Nana for a while, but I lived in Aquinnah for most of my life, within the tribal housing, so I grew up with that community.

The Wampanoag tribe is almost at the Cliffs, at the tip of Aquinnah. I went to the Turtle program, and went to that camp for most of my life as a kid, so I started learning the language and the dances. I learned how to make dream catchers. When I left, I was still very involved, but I think I hit a certain age where that wasn’t interesting to me as much.

When I mentioned this interview with a few of my friends, they were like, “What are you going to talk about?” I was like, “There’s a lot I could talk about, what do you mean?” Because that’s the thing, people don’t think there’s racism here. There’s absolutely racism here. It’s happening.

The other day, I went to some party in Edgartown. I was with a friend, and we were sitting in our other friend’s truck just smoking a cigarette. She was kind of uncomfortable at the party, and I was sober. So we’re sitting down, we’re smoking a cigarette, and some guys in front of us are about to shotgun beers, but they’re staring at us. I was like, “Do you have a problem?” One of them said back, “get out of the f______ car.” Apparently, someone there had drugs, and he assumed someone was selling something. I went inside and told my friends I was ready to leave. We come back outside, and he keeps yelling, “Keep f______ walking.” And then he said, “Someone’s f______ selling drugs or something.” But he’s looking at me. And I’m like, “Why are you arguing with me, though? Would you like to accuse me of selling drugs? Please, please do so.” I was literally the only Black girl there. The only Black person in general. I was upset, and we left, and my friend said to me, “I feel like you’re thinking this was a race thing.” Was it not, though? Was it not?

I now look at situations a lot differently. I’m a little more on edge. I have a lot of friends that, if I get upset about a situation or an interaction with someone, will say “I feel like you’re thinking it’s a race thing.” But I feel like everything’s a race thing now. I have to look at things differently because they are different now. But it was different before, too — I’ve always been someone of color in a highly white community. I should always be seeing things that way, but I feel like growing up, I was blinding myself through it.

Working in Edgartown, it’s different. I’m behind the counter, obviously, and I’m a server. And some of these people in Edgartown do talk down to you, like you’re their server and not a person. You just do what you need to do. It’s the worst. I’ve had some women talk to me like I’m not a human. It’s something that you feel. You can see it in the way she’s looking at you, and the way she’s tossing her card down at you. I’m trying to be nice, but no person wants to be nice back to someone that isn’t looking at you the way she’s looking at your white coworker. It’s a race thing. I can’t say s___ about it, but it’s happening, and it’s uncomfortable. And it’s stuff like that, and it happens day-to-day.

We had this one customer with a lot of money, he came in all the time. He was creepy as f___, and would call me sweetheart. One day, he said I had a lot of color going on. I was really confused, and I thought he’s talking about my outfit, but I was wearing head-to-toe black. He’s not talking about my outfit. And I asked him, “What are you talking about?” He asked me, “Where are you from? What are you?” Straight to my face. I was like, “I don’t need to explain that to you, I don’t know you like that.” That’s disgusting to ask a person, it’s not a question that you should think is OK to ask someone. My coworkers didn’t know what to say, either. You don’t really know what to do, and feel like it’s escalating the situation if you have to go tell your manager what happened. I pushed it away. I didn’t want to think that that’s actually happening, but it is. It changes things when you are a woman of color and in the service industry. It’s hard. You’re on edge 24/7.

I went to work the other day wearing a “Protect All Black Lives” shirt with big red letters. I had a lot of people staring at it. We’re wearing masks, it’s just eyes, like, I know what you’re looking at. And I got a lot of people that are like “I like your shirt,” and it feels like they’re scared to breathe. I had a dude with a Trump mask order liquor from me, and it was just the most stale conversation I’ve ever had with a man in my life. No eye contact. We were both very numb about it, like we both knew it was not a conversation we wanted to confront.

That same day this awesome group of Black people came in, and the guy in the front of the group said, “I f______ love your shirt and I f______ love your boss for letting you wear that shirt.” He held my hand over the counter, and it was just a moment where, like, with these people, it honestly brought tears to my eyes. Going back and forth between these moments, having all these people and seeing it in their eyes when they look at the shirt, and then finally having this group of people be like “f___ yeah,” was so great. And as he left, he said to me, “Be safe.” That’s also the thing. Every time I interact with a Black person at the counter, when they leave — I always say “Have a good day” to everyone, but they always say “Stay safe out there.” I think the fact that we know what’s going on, and we genuinely mean it.

Be safe. God only knows what will happen out there. It’s really scary to know. Like, it’s a sheltered community here, but I have a little sister in Boston, and I think about it every day. Like, God. If she meets just that one wrong person — it’s just so scary. And having those interactions with people, and them being, like, “Stay safe” — we should tell everyone else to stay safe. We’re so blessed to be here and have a community like this. I think I just want people to be more aware and not afraid to be like, apologetic for their past. It’s the past. We’re trying to move forward. It’s day-to-day, no one’s perfect.

This essay was sponsored by John Abrams and Kim Angell.