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Guestwords: Summer Vacation, 1973

Wed, 08/17/2022 - 13:24

1973 — the Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade, the country found out about the Watergate tapes, and the last day of the Wounded Knee protest ended on my birthday. Everyone was looking for justice, sanctuary, and safety. Or law and order and the “good ole days.”

Yet, I did live in a kind of bubble. I am one of the survivors of “The Wonder Years,” and though slightly jaded, I’m still eager. I was indoctrinated by TV with dials and antennas, to Popeye, Batman, Gumby, and Pop Tarts. Shaft, Sweetback’s Badass, Jiffy Pop, Pam Grier. And Black was Beautiful. More than less. Depended on where you went.

The world, far outside my window, was pumped into my home via television, radio, and an unwelcoming neighborhood. I had long discovered how I stood out in one of the whitest neighborhoods in New York City, Howard Beach. Though H.B. had a handful of Black families, my neighbors had no difficulty maintaining its status. In 1973, I turned 13, entering the adolescent phase of emotional blitzkriegs and hormonal supernovas.

That summer my family discovered Long Island’s East End and “the Black Hamptons.” My parents learned about Sag Harbor through friends and colleagues — Black professionals who drove from the New York/New Jersey metro area 100-plus miles east for summers and weekends. The homes were from modest to stylish to something like today’s McMansions. They saw an opportunity to be in a traditionally Black vacation enclave with fresh air and a slower pace, for my mother’s health, my father’s respite, and my safety.

To my teenage relief I could invite a school friend to accompany me on my family’s adventure. Amelia was my hangout buddy, which entailed using every waking hour outside of school on the phone talking about the most superfluous items. Now we could do that in the Hamptons!

After we picked her up in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Amelia and I settled down in the back seat of the Plymouth, chattering and giggling. By the time we looked up we were entering Southampton. Somehow, we caught sight of the double arches off the main road and Dad made the turn. He pulled into the parking lot. I scanned the scene. It was a typical McDonald’s a la early ’70s. A mom with her toddler was ahead of us in line, ordering burgers, fries, a shake, and a large Tab (old-school Diet Coke and no kids’ meals then). The cashiers appeared to be high schoolers from town. No familiar faces. Dad said we weren’t far. We ordered “to go.” As Dad pulled out of the parking lot, negotiating the oncoming traffic, I saw a Black man and woman walking down the street.

Black folks!

We drove by the couple. I waved.

“There’re Blacks out here!” I squealed with delight.

“Of course there are Black folks out here,” my mother replied. “We’re everywhere.”

“Except Antarctica,” Amelia interjected.

The two of us burst out laughing. My parents kept their poker faces.

It would be a few years before I could appreciate how close we were to a Black Hampton landmark.

We passed rows of farmland, some with corn but others with fields of flowering, low-growing plants.

“What are these?” I asked Dad as we drove by.

“Potatoes, that’s the plant.”

Amelia and I opened the window for our introduction to Suffolk County’s agricultural commodity. Our introduction was to the aroma of fertilizer. Even so, I was impressed that there were farms just a couple of hours away from Prospect Park.

McDonald’s was history by the time we turned onto Eastville Avenue to a doll house, sitting to the right of a small “Little House on the Prairie”-type church with a belfry. Dad got out of the car, as did Mom. They went to another house, a little bigger. A few minutes passed, Mom came to the car and instructed us to take our bags into the bungalow. We followed orders through our giggles. Dad carried the cooler. Mom opened the door.

The space was bright, clean, and rustic; you were expected to “rough it.” Bring your own food. No dishwasher, stereo, or color television. Like not coming with your phone or tablet. Mom refrigerated the food. We made the beds. We all took our necessary “turns.” When Amelia and I realized we would be living in 1947, we went into adolescent anaphylaxis — our bodies grew stiff, our eyes rolled up into our heads, our teeth sucked in air and exhaled acrimony.

“No TV?”

“We’re doing the dishes?”

But I had a teacher/educator and a clinical psychologist for parents: “C’mon, girls. Let’s go to town.”

We bounced out to the car.

Quaint and eclectic are the words that described Sag Harbor. I had never seen a postcard-like Main Street before. As we entered the village, I realized Main Street wasn’t even a few “city” blocks, ending at a windmill with a long wharf, called, appropriately, Long Wharf. What I saw of Sag Harbor made me think of Andy Griffith and the small, gentle town of Mayberry R.F.D., but “by-the-sea.”

Did Mayberry have any Black people?

Dad parked the car. Amelia and I strolled down the street, my parents in tow, passing artsy shops and the cool Art Deco facade of the movie theater. We crossed the street to walk past the historic American Hotel. I loved the architecture. As I studied the beauty of the town, I occasionally felt the invisible velvet rope or recognized a stare that was eerily familiar. At times I caught the squinting eyes of well-toasted mannequins in seersucker, linen, and Docksiders. Some became human when they smiled. I smiled back.

The Wharf Shop had everything we had no business buying. Amelia and I bounced in. We marveled at the old-school toys, penny candies, and the popular sweets as seen on television. When we got our fill of Mary Janes, Dots, and Tootsie Pops, we bounced out to my parents waiting outside.

Coming up the street I almost stopped in my tracks. Two gorgeous, sun-kissed, brown-skinned women in sundresses and espadrilles, followed by two Black men in polo shirts and khaki slacks, strolled like peacocks in full plume down Main Street, examining window displays, moving as if they were accompanied by a soundtrack. Young, gifted, and Black, they looked like they were out of Essence, Ebony, or Jet magazine.

“Look!”

Tugging Amelia’s arm, I tilted my head toward the couples. I might as well have pointed. They caught my glee, which amused them, as well as my parents. I wasn’t sure if Amelia understood my expression of joy sighting Black people. For me, it was just an extension of seeing how many Blacks were on a television show or in the cast of a movie or play. Or trying to find Black kids in Howard Beach.

She leaned over, took my hand, and said in a patronizing voice, “Don’t worry, there’re enough Black people here.”

Did she know what she was saying? I looked at my fair-skinned, “good hair,” slender friend as if she had jabbed me in the neck. Shaking my head, with a grin, I thought:

I’d been to the Borscht Belt and heard of Fire Island, but who knew I had the Black Hamptons?


Lora René Tucker is the poetry editor of African Voices magazine and the author of “Writes of Passage.” A leader of anti-racism and cultural empowerment workshops and a facilitator of poetry therapy for Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, she lives in Sag Harbor.


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