Martha’s Vineyard

Weddings take us to interesting places… Martha’s Vineyard– What images do these two words connote in your mind? Democratic presidents on vacation, summering with their families, daring to wear shorts? — Perhaps you think of Jaws, which takes place on the wonderfully named Amity Island and was shot on location there in the 1970s, bringing a healthy dose of bloody horror to the unsuspecting and childish American masses? What about one of the several incarnations of the Kennedy “curse” that precipitated on the island’s backwaters or neighboring seas? What of Melville’s Moby Dick and brave Tashtego, one of the harpooneers on the crew of Ahab’s boat:

…Tashtego, an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men, which has long supplied the neighboring island of Nantucket with many of her most daring harpooneers. In the fishery, they usually go by the generic name of Gay-Headers.

Nantucket, the island from which the Pequod sets sail is of course only an afternoon’s sail from the Vineyard, eastward, against the movement of the sun, deeper into the dark of the Atlantic. Gay Head is now known as Aquinnah (its original name in Wampanoag) and one can arrive there from a hotel in one of the more populated eastern cities of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven, or Edgartown after a 45 minute bus ride on the cheap and convenient public transportation system. There is a wonderful beach walk under the gay and colorful clay cliffs, which smear and crumble under your feet while the coarse pebbles in the sand also attest to the recent rawness of the island whose terrain still shows the scabs from those glacial events only several thousand years old–This is no rooted igneous rock, this is not the brittle volcanic crags of Hawaii, nor the ancient and glowering cliffs of the Hebrides, but a malleable, morphic, sliding terrain–a conglomerate of colors, a marine moraine.

Perhaps you were one of the few (like this author) who saw the 1994 film The Inkwell  in a theater when it was released and were curious about the depiction of a beach on an island that was populated by successful African-American families? Today a vacationer can buy a sweatshirt on Martha’s Vineyard with one’s preferred region boldly emblazoned, such as the ridiculous “Chappy” (Short for Chappaquiddick, an island just a stone’s throw away, but safely ensconced due to the purposeful lack of a bridge; one must put one’s Range Rover or Mercedes SUV on a ridiculous ferry that holds maybe four cars and shuttles across the 400-foot wide channel)–There are thus a handful of “Inkwell” tee-shirts and sweats for sale–Argent letters on a sable field… It so happens that this movie, which takes place in 1978 and cleverly depicts an African-American left-leaning couple and their hapless son who visit the mother’s sister, who is a proud and successful Republican (with Reagan posters) and who owns a house on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband. The Black-Panther endorsing father clashes with the Black-but-privileged posturing of the sister’s husband, the son attempts a sexual awakening, etc– It has been a long time since I have seen this movie (which is incidentally available on You Tube), but not only does the film provide a document of the unique diversity of this island, but also is a document of a diverse African-American experience, which is for the most part neglected in the American culture machine which prefers depictions of Black culture that reinforce a narrative of redemption, uplift or one-dimensional and muted “struggle” as opposed to a polyvocal and contentious inter-Black diversity. (Please read my article on the play Clybourne Park, which I argue reduces the diversity of African-American experience in A Raisin in the Sun to a clichéd, bifurcated, and ultimately false argument that is literally “Black vs. White”) . Despite YouTube, I haven’t been able to watch this movie since 1994 and Armond White’s review of it is not anthologized in his The Resistance, although he does mention it in his negative review of Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, saying that at least in Lee’s film “The seventies are seen more perceptively than in The Inkwell as the roots of nineties pop culture and social temperament.”

Nevertheless, Martha’s Vineyard remains somewhat of an enigma, and a large one at that. I was expecting something more akin to the Hamptons: Crowded, rich, dresscodes, traffic, drinking, debauchery–And instead was met with sparse, wilderness, diverse, Puritan, quirky, workers, religion, buses–Perhaps it was a fluke of visiting in October with all the summering types departed that allowed me a glimpse of what year-round living entails.

The African-American experience on the island has its roots in Black fishermen and whalemen, but also in a legacy of vacationers that defies a conventional vision of 20th century American experience. Clinton as the “first Black president”, or at least according to Toni Morrison, perhaps shrewdly decided to add the already idiosyncratic tang of the island to his unique and hypocritical political smorgasbord– But one result of this surge of awareness that his 1993 vacation created and the surge of the stock market in the 1990s that accompanied his eight years in the White House was a building boom on Martha’s Vineyard in which many new mansions were built and the local economy soared.To meet this demand for labor, as elsewhere in the US the contractors on Martha’s Vineyard use sources of “illegal” labor from undocumented immigrants–But in this case almost all of these menial and day-laborers are Brazilian. The history of this unique encounter between the already-diverse community of locals, thousands of vacationers (many of whom are rich liberals) and a foreign migrant labor force is strange and contingent.

In 1986 a Brazilian dishwasher named Lyndon Johnson Pereira was lured to Martha’s Vineyard by the owner of the restaurant where he worked to help with another restaurant there. The bleakness of the winter ferry ride he took across the channel did little to impress the Brazilian, but after two summers working Pereira had saved tens of thousands of dollars and decided to return home, “rich”. Word quickly spread, with 40 Brazilians, many from Pereira’s town in Brazil, showing up to work in 1988. Long story short, if we can trust a recently printed statistic that Brazilians are responsible for “one third of the births on the island” and with the birth rate between 2005 and 2011 vacillating between 138 and 180 babies born each year, then somewhere around 50 babies are born of Brazilian parents each year. Assuming a low crude birth rate (of perhaps 10 to 20 annual births per 1000) due to the precariousness of the immigrant status, this would corroborate the roughly 3500 Brazilians who are thought to live among the roughly 15,000 year-round residents.

With the economic downturn, however, animosity, anti-immigrant feeling and outright racism have begun to more and more become part of Martha’s Vineyard life– As less tourists and second-home owners decide to spend less money on vacations and improvements the work dries up, leaving many of the American-born English speaking working class of the island blaming the immigrants for stealing their jobs, not paying taxes, utilizing public services, and draining the local economy by sending large amounts of money back to Brazil. To read the comments section of articles on the Martha’s Vineyard Times is to take a peek at the growing resentment of many residents towards their “illegal” neighbors.

Preparing to board the ferry several weeks ago, I was amused to see the Martha’s Vineyard High School football team departing the ferry and boarding buses to play under the Friday night lights of some other Massachusetts high school– With only a crude and barely conscious awareness I noticed that many of these teenagers appeared to be “foreign” in some way. I guess a part of me was not expecting a remote vacationing island to have a high school football team at all, let along one that appeared to be so diverse. Taking a late-night public bus ride that Friday night also led to another encounter with teenagers who were speaking Portuguese, having fun, flirting, getting from Point A to Point B– A recent incident in which a Brazilian born immigrant without a driver’s license was involved in a car crash that killed a “white” American-born woman, the racism and intolerance on the local message boards escalated to dangerous levels. Although the woman was later found to have been quite drunk and guilty of driving recklessly, the Brazilian community felt under siege for weeks, and probably still does.

In the 20th chapter of Volume 2 of Marx’s Capital, “Simple Reproduction”, Marx becomes obsessed with accounting for the exchange or circulation between the different exchanged values that are realized in the flow of capitalist goods– Marx divides up all capitalist commodities into two departments, with Department I containing the value of all of the means of production necessary to create commodities and Department II containing the value of all of the articles of consumption that workers and capitalists buy in order to live and live large. The main problem of this section is illustrating in a theoretical way that the wages spent in department I can be spent by those workers on commodities in department II, and that the surplus value realized in each department which equates to capitalist profits can be spent in Department II on commodities as well. Back and forth the numbers run with simple math with the result that the reader, if not convinced by this unrealistic and simple schema, will at least consider the problems encountered with realizing profit, that circulating commodities entails complex arrangements between producers of means of production and producers of simple life-sustaining commodities. Because this is “Simple Reproduction” which means that this is a simple exercise in which the capitalists will spend all of their surplus value, their profit, in commodities (and not in reinvesting in new materials and workers, which would be “Expanded Reproduction”) Marx is forced to account for these large expenditures that the capitalists would make, and which we call luxuries.

Martha’s Vineyard impressed me with its interesting history, but in the end it is a place of luxury consumption. In part 4 of the 20th chapter, “Exchange Within Department II; Necessities of Life and Articles of Luxury”, Marx writes of of luxury goods and those of the working class who create them. Interestingly it is the wages these workers earn that Marx finds slightly problematic as they can be realized of course only by the expenditure of a small group of people, the rich, on mansions, high-end dining, housekeeping, hotels, etc… The reasons why the rich and successful would choose to splurge are just as numerous as why they would choose to save or reinvest, thus the luxury market is a fickle trade. The fact that many Brazilian workers send large percentages of their wages home also opens up interesting territory in that the money seems to “escape” the American economy, and thus perhaps creates a “break” in circulation–A convenient scapegoat for a crisis or “lack of effective demand” that many cite as a reason for economic collapse.  This is no space to elaborate on Marxist crisis theory, which is complex, but let it be known that although flirting a bit with “lack of demand” logic in Volume II of Capital, Marx makes it clear (in a sentence directly after the paragraph I’m about to quote in full) that “It is sheer tautology to say that crises are caused by the scarcity of effective consumption, or of effective consumers.”

What follows is a paragraph from this chapter that hopefully elucidates some of the problems of these migrant workers flourishing in a luxury market and now riding the choppy and uncertain waters of the crisis.

Every crisis at once lessens the consumption of luxuries. It retards, delays the reconversion of (IIb)v [wages paid to workers in luxury markets] into money-capital, permitting it only partially and thus throwing a certain number of the labourers employed in the production of luxuries out of work, while on the other hand it thus clogs the sale of consumer necessities and reduces it. And this without mentioning the unproductive labourers who are dismissed at the same time, labourers who receive for their services a portion of the capitalists’ luxury expense fund (these labourers are themselves pro tanto luxuries), and who take part to a very considerable extent in the consumption of the necessities of life, etc. The reverse takes place in periods of prosperity, particularly during the times of bogus prosperity, in which the relative value of money, expressed in commodities, decreases also for other reasons (without any actual revolution in values), so that the prices of commodities rise independently of their own values. It is not alone the consumption of necessities of life which increases. The working-class (now actively reinforced by its entire reserve army) also enjoys momentarily articles of luxury ordinarily beyond its reach, and those articles which at other times constitute for the greater part consumer “necessities” only for the capitalist class. This on its part calls forth a rise in prices.

For sure, some of the Brazilian workers on Martha’s Vineyard have returned to Brazil to spend their saved money on houses, which perhaps in their impoverished villages are a type of luxury, not to mention the sort of human trafficking that made many in Brazil rich by forcing migrants to pay off a $10,000 transportation fee to the idyllic island. But many Brazilians remain on Martha’s Vineyard of course, and must face the violent swings of the luxury market in hostile environment.

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3 Responses to Martha’s Vineyard

  1. Tom Cod says:

    You need to unpack or deconstruct this a little more. I get that Brazilian immigrants have become part of the service proletariat catering to the super-rich of Martha’s Vineyard as workers have done for for decades going back to the Civil War in places like Newport, R.I. The obscure “expert” references to Capital with reified inside baseball references to Dept I and Dept II take this commentary off the rails after a promising start with its reference to Melville to where the commentary becomes a graduate student caricature of itself that is alien to the workers movement.

    • guavapuree says:

      The point about a service proletariat catering to the super-rich is a good one–And David Harvey has mentioned that the phenomenon of widespread use of domestic labor, housestaff in 19th century England has been understudied from an economic or Marxist perspective. There may be other places Marx mentions “luxury” commodities and those who work on them (and those as he mentions that become sort of luxury commodities themselves as servants), but I think the quote from Volume 2 is apropos and hardly alien to the worker’s movement as it describes the effect of a crisis (and boom) on luxury workers.

      I kind of like your metaphor of taking the commentary off the rails as I find there is an excess of “on the rails” analysis that fails to integrate the deep forests of theoretical commitment into a speedy and smooth transportation.

      And I am not a grad student, although I play one on TV!

      • Tom Cod says:

        OK, what I meant to say was, perhaps you could explain this, if not in plain English, then in a manner that is more understandable. Thanks.

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