Chip Coblyn: Artist and washashore

Chip Coblyn — Kyra Steck

Interview by Kyra Steck

We were seasonal residents — my parents bought a house here around 1990, and we’ve been coming steadily since then. My wife and I first came in 1980 on vacation. I grew up in Massachusetts, but I didn’t really know anything about the Vineyard. In fact, I never even knew it existed, to tell the truth. I’d go down to the Cape, and have no idea there was an island out there someplace. We finally moved here full-time about a year ago, in mid-July. We sold our house in Maryland, and live here in Oak Bluffs full-time. I came here hoping to launch a new career as an artist — but life, volunteering, and COVID-19 had other plans. I’ll get there someday.

I always knew that I wanted to live here full-time. I wanted to for longer than I care to say, probably since the first time I started coming here. I just fell in love with the place.

Coming here those first summers — well, it was relaxing, for one thing. I was never 100 percent relaxed anywhere else. When I came here, it was a different feeling. I was in Massachusetts during the horrific times that were going on racially during the ’70s, with school busing and the reaction toward these kids getting bused into school in white neighborhoods. It was definitely a national news type of event, right down to throwing bricks at the buses and mobs screaming. That was part of the reason why, when I got the chance to leave, I just wanted to get as far away from that as I could. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I got back to Massachusetts 30 years later, but when I came to the Island full-time, I realized that attitudes had changed significantly. I don’t know what it was like on Martha’s Vineyard back in the ’70s, but I felt like a physical weight was lifted when I got to the Island.

When I come here, I feel that I’m not a target. Nobody’s ever followed me around a store. None of that type of foolishness. It’s a different type of a place, because the African American experience here is one of insisting on inclusion and insisting on being a part of the community. I think where things can go horribly wrong is when you segregate yourself, and I don’t feel like that’s happened here on the Island.

I am more part of the arts community, so my friendships are with artists. And some of them happen to be Black artists. My neighbors are Black, so we have our own little micro-community here. I don’t feel any pressure to isolate myself to one particular group. I think that is the beauty of this place. If you’re in a social milieu that is so open-minded that you’re free to just do what you want to do, you don’t feel this need to shelter within one particular group.

This is the only place anywhere in the country that I’ve ever seen older people, people in their late 70s or 80s, of different races and ethnicities, who are friends and have been friends forever. You just don’t see that, because an 80-year-old white woman, when she was 40, was not going to have any Black friends, and vice versa. Because of the way the country was so segregated, it just didn’t happen. I just thought, This is the most wonderful thing about this place, that those friendships exist. We can see a couple of guys going fishing, and it’s one Black guy, one white guy — they’ve got all their gear, and they’re pals. They’ve been doing this together for who knows how many decades as true friends. Maybe that is the reason I feel lighter than air when I’m here, compared to the way it was back on the mainland. When I was first coming here, and I was on the ferry and could see the Island off in the distance, I could feel my shoulders just coming down and a physical reaction, knowing that the atmosphere here was something that wasn’t going to keep me looking over my shoulder 24/7. And if something happened, it would be an anomaly. And that’s just another wonderful, magical thing about this place.

The only time I felt discriminated against was at an establishment here, and the counter was being run by a young woman obviously not from the United States. For whatever reason, she did not want to wait on me at all. I was just standing there, and she wouldn’t even look in my direction. But then what really made me angry was that the people who were coming up behind me were just getting served and not really saying anything. And finally, I said something to her, and I remember her reply was, “Oh, I guess I’m gonna be in big trouble now.” I said I just want to get served, and at that point the management came over and intervened. But that’s the only time that I was, and that was probably five, six, or seven years ago.

The Island, though, is such a place where, if you do exhibit that type of overt racism, you’re going to get pushback from everybody. You’re not going to get away with it. People aren’t going to just quietly let it go. So I think people who can’t get over those views and those feelings just kind of keep it quiet. But the fact that you can get called out is a great thing. If that was the pervasive feeling in the country, we would move forward 50 years overnight. Given the leadership we have had, that’s going to be a tougher lift. But I do believe it will happen eventually.