We took a few days of vacation on Cape Cod last week. It was cloudy and cool, so we traded sitting around our house for sitting around our hotel room. Still, there was ocean and beach and pool and lobster rolls and friends to see, so it definitely qualified as vacation. Almost any change from pandemic-induced home confinement would have qualified.

We stayed at a nice resort hotel. It was pretty much what I expect from Cape vacation spots: a few young couples, a few families with young children, a few older couples, one or two with grandchildren in tow. Familiar scenes: kids splashing and laughing in the pool, a couple’s intimate moment on their balcony, a mother and a small child walking the beach and delighting as the water washes in and out, a dad carrying kids on his shoulders one day, loading the beach gear into the car the next.

It also was pretty much what I expect from a Cape Cod vacation resort in another respect: More or less all of the vacationers were white. The only black people in sight were housekeeping maids, workers installing a lawn irrigation system, guys cutting the lawn. Were there any black guests (other than my wife) in Cape Cod hotels this week? I’m sure there were a few here and there, just enough to stand out in the crowd. Just enough for the black person to feel that, to many, they are just a curiosity.

In fact, since the cod are largely gone and white people have taken over, doesn’t truth-in-advertising require that we rename the Cape? How about Cape White?

Cue the protests from the Cape Cod lovers in the crowd: “Anyone is free to come to the Cape.” “Blacks aren’t beach people.” Or the all-purpose “I don’t see color.” Plenty of white people on the Cape are reading the New York Times and self-righteously decrying police violence against blacks, but they don’t seem to be talking about racism on the Cape. They don’t seem to notice that, by and large, the only black people on the Cape are servants.

(Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a whole colony of wealthy African Americans living somewhere on the Cape. Maybe in several years of going there I just haven’t stumbled across it. I doubt it.

(And yes, there’s Provincetown, but the residents there aren’t black – they’re primarily white people with their own discrimination issues. And without at all intending to demean those residents, why do I always get the sense that the rest of the Cape thinks of Provincetown as something like a leper colony?

(And you Martha’s Vineyard folks may point proudly to Oak Bluffs and the long history of blacks on the island. I don’t know; I haven’t been to the Vineyard in decades. But the Vineyard is still New England, and I know New England. I would be surprised if there’s much serious discussion about racism going on among white vacationers on the island.

(Nantucket? I can barely afford a cup of coffee on Nantucket, so I’m guessing the joint ain’t teeming with black folk.

(Hello, Newport, Narragansett, Jamestown? You listening?)

I don’t want to argue about whether the vacationers on Cape White (or any other iconic New England vacation spot) are racists or not. Just think about the Cape I saw, the Cape with white vacationers and black workers, the Cape that looks more like Savannah, Georgia than most would like to admit. Think about today’s Cape White without thinking at all about how it got that way or whose fault it might be. Just recognize that, for whatever reason, Cape White is segregated. Seriously segregated.

There are plenty of wealthy African Americans living in New England. They’re doctors and lawyers and business people. They’re college professors and authors. Wouldn’t you think that some of them would find a week or two or a summer on the Cape attractive? So why aren’t they there? I’d bet it’s some combination of white people not welcoming them and black people not feeling welcome.

The servants on the Cape, the people who work in the restaurants and the hotels, the people who do the gardening and pick up the trash, are black and white. The servants are nicely integrated. However, the young blacks looked to me to be beginning a lifetime of servitude, while the young whites were college students who, twenty years hence, will tell amusing stories over lunch about their summer on the Cape waiting tables.

Look, the Cape is populated with wonderful people, almost all of them well-intentioned, fair minded, and sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged. None of them intentionally participates in segregation. If none of them is responsible for segregation on Cape White, then the only logical conclusion is that all of us are responsible. Segregation on the Cape isn’t an accident.

We need to start noticing that we take for granted the absence of blacks as guests at the hotel. We need to start noticing that we take for granted the predominance of blacks in the most menial service jobs. They are there because those are the jobs reserved for them. They aren’t prepared for better jobs because they went to segregated schools intended for them – schools that don’t meet their needs. We need to recognize that since 1619, American laws, customs, and mores have operated to keep black America in perpetual servitude to white America. That perpetual servitude leaves African Americans underpaid, undernourished, under-cared-for, under-appreciated. It leaves them as servants on the Cape. Just like in Savannah.

Look around your neighborhood and ask yourself this: “Are there black people in the world I live in? Are they my peers, my colleagues, my friends? Or are they my servants?” Then remind yourself that there are reasons your world looks the way it does. Remind yourself there’s a system at work keeping it looking the way it looks. Ask yourself what you can think, what you can say, what you can do to begin making America look the way it should.

All of us are responsible.

2 Replies to “CAPE WHITE”

  1. Mark – Very well written. Thank you. Marcy and I have been going to South Orleans 3 or 4 times a summer for the last half dozen years. We have a small sailboat we keep there. It is usually a one or two night trip and we stay in a motel.
    Every year we remark to each other about the lack of black vacationers on the street. I have no idea of whether they would be well received or not. But we usually say to each other that probably few blacks would feel like they were comfortable vacationers if they were the only one on the street. Maybe we can invite several of our friends at the Windsor Art Center to go with us some year and see how they react.

  2. Perhaps the folks to ask would be the “plenty of wealthy African Americans living in New England”. Do they get discriminated against in any tangible way, or is a beach, seafood and leisure vacation on the other side of the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges just not appealing?
    One factor that certainly contributes to a beach vacation having appeal for whites is an effort to increase their skin melanin and achieve a healthy bronze glow and I’ve seen a lot of folks working hard at what has become a standard of beauty (at least among Western Europeans). I would think that sunbathing would not be a desirable pastime for most blacks. I offer this as only a possible contributor to your observations, but I would like to hear why a Cape vacation does not seem to appeal to blacks, as mini-golf, whale watching, fishing etc. are probably universally enjoyed

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