A PLACE OF OUR OWN


The Film

“The commonality was: we’re middle class, we’re moving up, we’re trying for the American dream. To look in each other’s eyes and say ‘Darn it, you know we’re making it. We’re doing good…. let’s have a drink.’”
—Olive Tomlinson, Oak Bluffs resident

Located a mile off the coast of Cape Cod, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, is the town of Oak Bluffs. For generations, upper middle-class black families like award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s family have vacationed here. As Nelson says, “It's been a place where, at least for the summer, the world did not look at us and define us solely by race.”

A PLACE OF OUR OWN is a bittersweet portrait of a New England beach town that holds a special meaning for not only Nelson’s family, but for many other upper middle-class African Americans. In the 1950s and ‘60s, an era when demands for racial equality would explode on the national stage, Oak Bluffs provided a crucial reprieve. Nelson and his Oak Bluffs friends grew up in mostly white neighborhoods, went to mostly white private schools, and often felt out of touch with "black culture." Oak Bluffs was a place where they made lasting friendships and met their future spouses, a place of warm childhood memories and frolicking adolescent adventures. But while summers in Oak Bluffs brought community and celebration, it also served as a reminder of the price of African American affluence in a racist society. Weekends filled with dinner parties and tennis tournaments were often a fleeting victory that faded for many on Monday mornings, especially for the men who returned to their professional lives back in the real world, outside of the sanctuary of the island.

Filmed during the summer following the death of Nelson’s beloved mother, a renowned Oaks Bluff hostess and the glue that held the family together, A PLACE OF OUR OWN uses the family's odyssey to explore the complexities within this privileged community: conflicts of class, color and age. For men like Nelson's father, Stanley Sr., the community at Oak Bluffs was a defiant stand against the constant oppression of racism. As Stanley Sr. recalls, "The legend that I wanted to create was that I—a Negro—wanted to own waterfront property on Martha's Vineyard, and let that alone stand for my determination. We wanted to be in a place that made a statement: we too like it nice, we like it in the brightest sunshine, we like to be right at the beach too."

Filled with recollections from well-known Oak Bluffs residents including Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Professor Lani Guinier and Dr. Manning Marable, the film also examines the age-old issue of intergenerational conflict. As more and more young people come to stake their claim as a part of the community, some of the genteel older residents, fondly recalling the endless rounds of moonlit cocktail parties during Oak Bluff's halcyon days, feel that these newcomers are bringing unwelcome change to their beloved community. By turning his talents on the complicated tensions within his own family, and the place in which they were happiest, Nelson's latest work becomes a rich, poignant and perceptive examination of the struggle for the American dream and our common search for a place we fit in.

Group photo in someone’s living room – having fun with drinks in hand

Playing around on the beach:  group building human pyramid

“Part of what racism does in the U.S. is deny black folk notions of celebration, of leisure, of creative cultural space to do your own thing. I think what black folk for several generations have tried to do is to carve out those niches where they can find their own voice, where they can celebrate with their friends, and you don’t have to explain a damn thing.” 
—Dr. Manning Marable, historian and Oak Bluffs resident

Ladies sunning themselves on the beach

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson with his father, Stanley Sr.

Learn more about the community of Oak Bluffs >>

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