By Olivia Funderburg '18
Content warning: racist hate speech
Nantucket is a tiny island off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts. Only one hundred square miles, the island is home to about ten thousand people year-round, and thousands more who flock there in the summer. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone, a place you don’t want to leave, a place you move back to when it’s time to raise your kids. A safe haven. But on the morning of March 11th, 2018, it was no longer such a friendly place.
I went online that morning and saw that someone had spray painted the n-word on the front of the island’s African Meeting House. This building has stood on Nantucket since 1827. It’s been a church, a social center, and a school. Today it primarily functions as a branch of the Boston-based Museum of African American History. Though there are over eight hundred buildings on Nantucket that pre-date the Civil War, the African Meeting House is advertised as “the only public structure remaining on the island that is identifiably central to the history of the African community of the 18th and 19th centuries.” The museum “inspires all generations to embrace and interpret the authentic stories of New Englanders of African descent, and those who found common cause with them, in their quest for freedom and justice.” It “expands cultural understanding and promotes dignity and respect for all.” Freedom, justice, cultural understanding, dignity, respect—none of these things seemed to exist on Nantucket that day.
I found myself feeling afraid to go home. The vandalism was not just spouting racism, it was urging us to “leave.” Someone painted the words “Nigger leave!” only five minutes from my house. I questioned whether I belonged there, but that seemed unfair since my dad and my brother still live there full time. Who’s going to protect them? Who’s going to protect the black kids who were strong enough to stand against the violence at school two days later?
Inevitably, I found myself thinking, I can’t believe it happened here. I used the word here even though I wasn’t actually there. Being a college student provides me with physical distance. I don’t know what it felt like to see the vandalism before the Meeting House was cleaned up or to be on Nantucket in the days after it was discovered. The I can’t believe it happened here sentiment swept across social media posts by white community members, on the island and off, as they reposted an image that I would very much like not to have seen. They were shocked and horrified and outraged. They should be outraged, but should they really have been so shocked? Do I get to ask that accusatory question when one of my first reactions was shock too? I can’t believe it happened here. Nowhere is safe. I now know this for sure. I always tell people that the bad things don’t happen on Nantucket narrative is false. It’s a pretty safe place, sure, but bad things still happen. This bad thing feels different though, because I have never seen anything like it. In my thirteen years on this island, from kindergarten to my senior year, I have always felt safe.
My parents didn’t talk to me about race growing up. I don’t think there’s a handbook on How to Talk to Your Biracial Daughter about Race. I never got The Talk, but maybe my brother did. My black dad would know that, as a young black man in the United States, my brother is particularly at risk. The bad things don’t happen here narrative says that we don’t need The Talk, that we don’t need to live in fear. Only ten percent of Nantucket’s ten thousand people are black. Even though it may seem like a welcoming community where everyone knows everyone, we’re still horribly outnumbered.
The day I found out about the graffiti, I laid in bed and cried. And then I dragged myself out and got the hell on with my day, because what other choice did I have? Just because it felt like my world had stopped spinning, didn’t mean the rest of the world had. I told some of my friends, but not all of them, because I didn’t want their “sorry”s. I started with just one person. She told me it was “disgusting” and asked how I was feeling. My response wasn’t pretty, but it was the truth: “Like I want to crawl in a hole and die. But unfortunately the world requires me to be a person.”
Later in the day, I sat in my room in the dark and I didn’t put my glasses on—maybe if I couldn’t see clearly, I didn’t have to face the truth. I wanted to run. I wanted to run far away and never go home. I wanted to scream. I wanted to know who did this and have them spew their hate to my face instead. I wondered what Malcolm or Martin would have done. I wondered what words of wisdom Alice or Zora might have offered.
I don’t know why I’m shocked. Recent United States politics have made clear that racist people are not afraid to publicly flaunt their racism. For years we’ve known black lives are disposable. This country’s racism never died, and maybe it never will, because hate and inequality are built into its foundation. But I still felt shocked because Nantucket is my home. It is the place that raised me; I thought I knew it like the back of my hand. I’m no longer fooled: just because black people have been on Nantucket since 1774 and just because the public schools were integrated a century before Brown v. Board of Education doesn’t mean that everyone is truly welcome. All I can think is at least it wasn’t someone’s home; at least it wasn’t a person who was attacked; at least this didn’t happen when my brother and I were still children, so my father didn’t have to explain to us that the world was not as kind as we believed it to be. At least. But there is no at least, not really.
The police report said it “appears” to be a hate crime, and the white police chief told the Boston Globe it was likely “more mischievous” than malicious, but nothing about the situation feels mischievous to me. This feels like an insult to my existence, but more than that, it feels like a threat to my life. Everyone is shocked, horrified, and saddened. That’s all well and good, but it’s no good if no one actually does anything. If those well-meaning white people don’t take their horror and do something about it, nothing will change, and I won’t be any safer. It shouldn’t take something like this to get people to understand that hatred can live in their own backyard and that it comes in many forms—that they too have racism to unlearn—but here we are.
Six days after the vandalism, I got a text from my brother. He had a run-in with the police. When I called him to find out what happened he was practically in hysterics, seething with anger, and couldn’t slow down for long enough to tell the story. He had just been walking home. All I could think about was some armed white police officer coming after my brother, just seeing an angry black boy. After the vandalism, when I texted him to check in about what happened, he told me it “made his blood boil.” Mine was boiling when I got his text on that Friday, and earlier that week when I saw that the high school principal made no efforts to address the vandalism incident in his Monday message. That lack of acknowledgment felt like a blatant disregard to the black students at his school and the black residents of his community.
I can’t believe it happened here. I wonder if I would think the same thing if such a crime happened in New York, where I will likely go next. When chickens come home to roost: I take these words from Malcolm X, someone whose words I have learned a lot from and think about often. He said this in response to JFK’s assassination, seeming to consider his death an instance of karma for the United States, but in this case, I think they mean something different for me. When hate reared its ugly head in a place so close to my heart, I didn’t know what to do, so I wrote. I called my dad and I told him I loved him. I had conversations with people who care about me. I found strength in solidarity with those who affirm that not only do I matter, that I do indeed belong to Nantucket.
From April 2018 issue