Lisette Williams: Here is my hope

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Lisette Williams — Kyra Steck

Interview by Kyra Steck

My name is Lisette Williams, and I have been coming to Martha’s Vineyard since I was about 6 years old. It actually started with a group of my mom’s friends and their daughters deciding to come to Martha’s Vineyard for a weekend mother-daughter trip. We had never been to Martha’s Vineyard before, but loved it. We came back, and we were telling my late father about our visit, and told him that we thought he would enjoy it. He was an avid golfer, and we essentially told him, “You can golf to your heart’s content, and we’ll hang out on the beach and see you when you’re done.” So we decided to come as a family for a weekend that grew into a week, which grew into two weeks, to several weeks, to a chunk of the summer, to spending some time here during the off-season. And about about 10 or 11 years ago, my mother retired and purchased this home here. And so I’ve always seen Martha’s Vineyard as a second home, but it officially became one when she retired here. And home for me is Cambridge.

It’s interesting because my mom, she was born and raised in New Orleans, La., and I went to college down there. And I always found that racism here is much more covert. That’s not to say that some people won’t say certain things, if they feel they have the courage or the conviction to do so. But I always felt that up here, it was much more nuanced. It’s walking down the street and seeing a woman clutch her purse closer to her, or having somebody cross the street to avoid me. Especially because so many people come to the Vineyard from other places, and so whatever their beliefs are, unfortunately, they still bring that with them. I think that’s what the racism on the Island looks like — it’s the surprise and disbelief that a black person could own a home here. Because I’m pretty sure if a white person were to say that they own a house, they’re not going to get anything other than “oh my God, when can I come and visit?”

When I spoke at the Juneteenth event, I had mentioned an incident that happened on-Island when I was a teenager. Prior to that, I always thought that the Vineyard was exempt of those racist thoughts and beliefs and behaviors. But when I was a teenager, I was pulled over, and that to me was like, “OK, your little bubble has been burst. Racism is everywhere.” The Vineyard is great, but also has its flaws. So what happened to me was, I was leaving our rental home in Oak Bluffs and I was traveling down County Road. And when you get to the end of County, you can either make a left to go toward the hospital, or you can make a right onto Towanicut Avenue and head into town. And so I made the right turn onto Towanicut and continued down that road. And when I got to the stop sign, I turned right and headed into the center of Oak Bluffs.

That’s when I started to [be] followed by a police officer. I was driving my parents’ Volvo. I remember driving with a hoodie on. I remember driving with music on. But I hadn’t broken any laws. I kept driving down New York Avenue, and it wasn’t until I started passing the Ocean View Restaurant that the lights were flashing. I had just passed the open field where the artisans fair takes place — that’s where I was pulled over. And that was probably one of the scariest moments that I’ve had on-Island.

When I was a teenager, my parents had the talk with me about how to respond if I’m ever in a situation involving police. And so, immediately all of those lessons were just coming right to me. I immediately put my hands on the steering wheel. I rolled the window down. I asked the officer very politely, you know, “Can you please tell me why you pulled me over?” I asked him if I was speeding, and he told me he pulled me over because I failed to stop. Which I did not. Channeling what my parents had told me, I knew that I couldn’t argue with him. I just had to say, “OK, sir,” and, “Officer, can I please reach into the glove compartment to get the registration?” and “Officer, can I please reach for my purse to get my wallet to give you my license?” In that moment, I had no power. And I also knew that no matter how polite I was, how slow and deliberate I was with my hand gestures and my movements, I knew that I had no control. And I felt powerless and helpless, as well as embarrassed, because, you know, if there’s one thing we all do when we see somebody get pulled over, it’s “What did they do?” And I definitely had that as cars were passing Our Market and looking at me. But I also know that the officer was surprised to see my face, because he thought that he was pulling over a Black male, because I had my hoodie up.

I was finally able to leave with a ticket for failure to stop, and I went straight to my adopted uncle’s house — the late Mandred Henry — who was the president of the NAACP on the Island, and who happened to have been having dinner with my parents and my other adopted uncle, Professor Charles Ogletree, who was a law professor at Harvard Law School. So I went to my Uncle Mandred’s house and told my parents and my Uncle Charles about what just happened, and needless to say, they were furious about the situation but equally relieved that I was physically OK, even though I was emotionally scarred. Then it became a conversation of, OK, now it’s time to write a letter and fight this ticket. And ever since then, my eyes have just been open to the fact that racism on the Island is a thing.

I think that a lot of people think that just because Barack Obama was elected president, that kind of wiped the slate clean. But no, people are still being mistreated. Police brutality still exists today. There are wage disparities that exist today. There’s the school-to-prison pipeline that exists today. You know, there are all of these issues that especially impact Black people that exist today. And so when people try to say that we are living in a post-racial society, I just think that they’re in that bubble that I was in when I was a teenager, thinking that racism didn’t exist on the Island.

There’s just a long way to go before I think we will finally have equality for everybody. My hope is that this collection of oral histories — I hope people take to heart, and they learn from them and realize that people of color are, at the end of the day, people. Our lives should matter. Our lives should have mattered a long time ago. And I hope this will inspire people to get involved. That’s my only hope.