Interview by Kyra Steck
I’m not originally from the Island. I’m originally from Brownsville, Tenn., which is a really small town in Tennessee, predominantly Black. I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 2012. I was halfway through my seventh-grade year with my younger brother Myles and my mom. I’m back in Tennessee now, actually; I’m a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Where I was from before, it was definitely more on the violent side. There was a lot of stuff going on there. My mom really didn’t want my brothers to have to worry about that, or to get involved in anything such as gun violence, which was at a peak down there. She just really didn’t want us to have to go through that. She really felt like Martha’s Vineyard was a great place to be. It was different, and a chance to have brighter futures, because Martha’s Vineyard does have better schools and things like that. So she really just wanted to do it for us. She just wanted us to be in a better situation.
When I first got there, it was kind of hard trying to — not find my identity, but to keep my Blackness. Especially when I first moved there, I tried to prove to myself and others that I was still Black. So I definitely played into some stereotypes. The only thing people on the Island knew about Black people is what they hear in rap music or see on shows like “Love & Hip Hop.” They would ask me certain questions. I remember in the eighth grade, we watched the movie “Freedom Riders,” and it showed a really terrible high school. And they said to me, “Oh, that’s basically like where you were, right?” And I was like, “Oh no, not at all.” First of all, I didn’t get to go to high school down here. Second, we definitely have our problems out here [Tennessee], but it was nothing to that extent of what was going on in the ’90s. A lot of the Black people that I did meet up there were born and raised, and even they didn’t really know much outside of “Martha’s Vineyard Black,” which is very different from growing up like me in Tennessee with mostly Black people.
Luckily I was with my mom, who was obviously a very strong Black woman, so she wasn’t going to let me forget that I was also a strong Black woman. My mom was a huge help for me when I was trying to find and figure out my identity, my Blackness. I would try to constantly remind myself, “You don’t have to prove yourself to anybody or prove how Black you are to yourself or anybody else. You’re Black, that’s just who you are.”
There’s so many things that I feel I let slide that I definitely shouldn’t have from my peers. Like, I remember when “ratchet” became a big thing, everyone was saying “Oh my God, that’s so ratchet.” I was in the gym, and I remember one girl told another girl, “Oh my God, girl, you’re so ratchet,” and she responded “Yeah girl, I’m basically Black.”
And then, during my sophomore year of high school, I was with a group of people, most of which are my friends and my friends to this day. But certain people said we needed to come up with “hood” names, or something like that. Some people called me Laur-isha or something like that, and some people were called Keisha. I don’t know why I let that happen. I’m suddenly thinking about that a lot. Like, why did I let these people call me that? There were even some of the guys up there who loved saying the N-word. A lot of people definitely said the N-word all the time around me. At first I thought, “OK, that’s cool, you’re just singing a song.” But then I was like, “Wait a minute, actually, no. You don’t get to say that.” And there was some specific rap song, where the rapper has been selling drugs since he was in fifth grade or something like that, and people would ask me, “Oh, did Nick do that?” Nick is my twin brother. Or a lot of people think Oak Bluffs is the “hood.” They say “Oh, O.B. That’s our hood girl, you already know that.” There is nothing about Martha’s Vineyard that is even remotely hood. Even for me, I’m not even from the “hood” in Tennessee. I lived in the country with my dad.
I remember we had a whole debate on Facebook. For some reason, a few students from MVRHS were debating whether or not they could have a Confederate flag. They told us, “It’s my heritage.” You were born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard. Like, Southerners can’t even say that in Tennessee because it’s not part of their heritage. What’s not clicking? Like, what are you not understanding? They would say, “Oh it’s fine, obviously we’re not racist.” Or even we had a Black Lives Matter assembly, and it was after the death of Michael Brown. One boy came in school with a Blue Lives Matter shirt on, and then tried to debate with me on Facebook about it. He asked me, “what about Black-on-Black crime? You guys kill each other all the time.” Stuff like that would happen quite often, and people would say, “It’s just one person.” But you can’t say that it doesn’t exist here, or that it’s not something that we need to discuss, because obviously these things that are going on outside of this bubble, like we need to discuss, because obviously people just don’t know what they’re talking about.
I wouldn’t say I necessarily experienced overt racism. I think it was more like microaggressions and more subtle. I’ve seen overt racism. I am from the South, you know. Obviously, we know it exists down here. On the Island, I think a lot of people think that just because they don’t have Confederate flags on the back of their trucks, or they don’t use the N-word with the hard r, they think they’re not racist. But that’s not necessarily true. I remember a lot of people saying they didn’t see color, and I would just sarcastically say, “OK, that’s great. That’s helpful.” If you’re saying you don’t see color, that means you don’t see me, and you don’t see the struggles that people who don’t look like you go through. Obviously a lot of people out there are white, so if they don’t see color, then they don’t see the other struggles that Black people and Brazilians and everything had to go through there, or even outside of Martha’s Vineyard.
I went and looked at some of the articles in The Times and the comments, and a lot of people said, “That doesn’t really exist here. This is a place to vacation and get away from all that.” That really went to show the privilege that most people in Martha’s Vineyard have, like you can just vacation or just say that it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t matter. But I’m Black everywhere I go. If I’m down here in Tennessee or if I’m up there, I’m Black. I can’t see things like what happened to George Floyd and not have it affect me just because I’m on Martha’s Vineyard.