Sunday, May 03, 2009

Black at the Beach - Shore Time Again

Traveling out to the Hamptons over the weekend I was reminded that summer shore communities in the eastern United States can be weird places if you're a member of an ethnic minority.

Let's face it, historically they are coastal regions where generations of white people of all classes took their families to vacation, sometimes to escape the heat of the cities; and for some, to spend time where they felt "comfortable".

I have to admit that over the years I harbored some pretty narrow-minded views of the racial atmosphere of the Hamptons, and was suspicious of the people who live and vacation there. As a black guy raised in the suburbs I'm probably guilty of having envisioned everyone out in the Hamptons as a member of the country-club sect, riding horses and talking like Thurston Howell from Gilligan's Island (pictured above)

But times have changed, middle-upper class African-Americans frequent a lot of beaches, Martha's Vineyard for example is a favorite destination for black people with means.

For many years I spent most of my weekends down on Long Beach Island on the New Jersey shore with friends from my high school. Places like Beach Haven, NJ or Seaside Heights, NJ aren't exactly overflowing with people of color and there were occasional instances in which I encountered white residents or vacationers with outwardly hostile attitudes towards me based on my skin color.

Speaking frankly it was always kind of odd to me that SOME of the same white people sitting out on the beach in the sun trying to tan their skin darker, harbored prejudice against people with dark skin.

But the positive experiences I've had at the beach far outweigh the negative ones if I felt isolated at the beach, maybe it was my own problem. The people who made me feel welcome dwarfed those who did not - but that doesn't mean there are not problems with racial tension at beaches in the US - case in point Virginia Beach.

The shore in West Hampton was still quiet over the weekend, too cold and overcast for the summer crowds, but the people (including a local police officer) I met out there seemed cool enough.

I was a guest of artist Steven Colucci and his girlfriend and besides being treated like a king in his amazing beach-front home it was beautiful out there and I realized, I had my own prejudices about people in the Hamptons. I'm not talking about the Hip-Hop elite who go out there for exclusive star-studded catered affairs hosted by Puff Daddy.

There are many liberal-minded people, of all races who've lived out there for years.

There are black people who live out there, the LIRR train stopped for 5 minutes at a station and I stepped out and had a smoke with a young black guy in a do-rag who seemed interested in my going out to shoot a documentary. It really eased my anxiety level to see that there were not just black people out there - but people of different economic backgrounds and races.

There are a number of Hispanic people and quite a few American Indians of the Shinnecock Nation; one of the oldest self-governing Native American tribes in the US, 60% of whom live below the poverty line.

During the 2008 presidential elections, many residents of the Hamptons came together to protest two racially insensitive newspaper columns in The Independent written by editor Rick Murphy in January, 2008. Actor Alec Baldwin was there and spoke out.

Regardless of our race I suppose that each of us carry "baggage" with us when we head down to the beach; the next time I go up to the Hamptons, I'll leave my own internalized prejudices, real and imagined, behind.

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