Facing the past, shaping the future

Truth and Joy came to the Tabernacle over the weekend.

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The Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition (MVDC) organized an extraordinary two-day event last weekend, Truth & Joy, to learn about some new findings regarding the Island’s racial history and celebrate our rich diversity. The event accomplished just what the press release stated, starting with the question, “How does one create a beloved community? It starts with bringing people together to learn our collective racial history and truths, and moves towards celebrating the rich racial fabric of those who carry those truths through art, food, music, dance, and poetry.”

Sandra Pimentel, the acting chair and board member explained, “The idea started with the founders of MVDC, which had it planned for last year, but had to put it off because of COVID.” This year’s event was in collaboration with the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association and MVY Radio.

Friday’s evening of Truth was hosted by freedom Cartwright, a MVDC member and faculty at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. The night opened with contributions by Aquinnah Wampanoag elder Carole Vandal playing the flute, and a sobering land acknowledgment by Aquinnah Wampanoag elder David Two Arrows Vanderhoop in which he reminded us that we on the Vineyard “are living on stolen land.” 

The bulk of the evening was devoted to Andrew Patch, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, who presented his extensive research into the experiences of the earliest Camp Meeting Association members of color. There are records from the early 1870s of Wampanoag and Black community members having cottages in the Campground, although segregated into a peripheral area known as Wamsutta Avenue. In 1910, Wamsutta Avenue and the cottages were removed, and subsequently, people of color were excluded from membership in the association well into the 20th century. Cartwright shared that some of the families’ descendants were in attendance. She said about the evening, “It’s a sacred space, and the truth that is being told at the place where it occurred is a powerful thing. We can’t ignore that our community is struggling with a lot of issues around inclusion and exclusion. Only by looking at those things and seeing where we’ve come from as well can we say, let’s all be together and appreciate what we have.”

Earlier that evening, the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard had held a beautiful dedication ceremony of a plaque bearing the known names of the families whose homes had been eliminated. Along with speeches and moving music was a powerful, interactive performance by Chanon Judson of the Urban Bush Women, in which she called to us, the audience, to shout out the names of our own ancestors who made a difference in our lives. 

Saturday was truly full of joy, with a focus on inclusivity that started with a Diversity Fair encircling the Tabernacle. Organizer Chrissie Laury, MVDC board trustee and a program coordinator at Island Wide Youth Collaborative, said that the idea was to have a marketplace that highlighted and promoted the variety of Island-made artwork and products — as well as foods from Jamaica, the Caribbean, and more. She added that it was also “to give a lot of nonprofit organizations and local businesses an opportunity to share information about the services that they provide to Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) on the Island.” Mid-afternoon, the Cousen Rose Gallery hosted a wine reception at which Andrew Patch was available to answer questions about his research, and the proceeds from the sale of the artwork at the gallery went to support MVDC.

Topping off the day was a glorious diversity concert sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, featuring live music and entertainment curated by Laurel Reddington, community outreach director and producer at MVY Radio. Some of the amazing acts included a rousing singalong, fascinating decoding of the true meanings in slave songs, jazz sax music spliced with stories, reading of a powerful poem for an accompanying artwork, and gospel and jazz singers who brought the house down and literally had folks dancing in the aisles.

“It’s been a wonderful experience working with everybody,” Reddington said. “The concert is this great exclamation point where everybody can celebrate with music. I feel an overwhelming amount of gratitude that we live in this community, and we’re able to organize something of such depth and importance with so many people coming together to represent their humanity on this level.” She added, “We usually focus so much on the negativity and defensiveness in this arena. We seldom concentrate on Black joy. As a society, we’re so divided now. This is being brave in the face of truth, and celebrating the joy of how we can move forward together.”

Reflecting on the dual nature of the event, Cartwright said, “In order to really celebrate joy, it isn’t something that you feel because you’re ignoring the truth. Joy is what you feel in the face of the difficulties. It’s realizing that no matter how challenging or difficult something might be, joy is always available, and we need each other to find it. We decided to present the challenges and the history so that we didn’t just skip over that part, but rather say, Let’s really open our hearts and recognize the work that has been done, is being done, and needs to be done — then when we celebrate joy wholeheartedly because we’re not in denial.”

For more information about the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition, visit mvdiversitycoalition.org.