Author, cultural critic, and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes DANI SHAPIRO out for a ride on Martha's Vineyard.
I started going to Oak Bluffs in 1981 and fell in love with the light. It reminded me of the light in the south of France, near St.-Paul-de-Vence, which for me was a déjà vu experience—it evoked the summer of 1973, when I spent a wonderful time in France with James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.
Martha's Vineyard is one of the few beach resorts in the United States where black people have a long tradition of vacationing and owning property. Until 1907 Oak Bluffs was called Cottage City: The Methodist Revival movement had its meetings there, first in pitched tents, which eventually became rows of gingerbread cottages. Black people came for the Methodist meetings, and then privileged blacks—local doctors, dentists, lawyers—started to come as well. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had a house there, as did Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke. Of the East Coast beach communities, Sag Harbor and Martha's Vineyard were open to black people.
I spend every July and August in my house near Oak Bluffs. I love bicycling, and because of a hip replacement I had a couple of years ago, I had a 24-speed tricycle made by hand in Germany. Every day I write in the morning, then ride eight miles from my house to South Beach. I get off, look at the ocean, then get back on and ride home. My tricycle has a bell that sounds like the Good Humor man, and I ring it when I pass people. Everybody waves and says, 'There goes that Henry Louis Gates Jr.!'
It's peace for me, in Oak Bluffs. I haven't been able to relax more completely anywhere since I was a kid fishing on the Potomac."