In relation to Martha’s Vineyard specifically, I am repeatedly asked about the history of the “Inkwell Beach” name as there are competing narratives. One narrative asserts that the name “Inkwell” was used as a pejorative by some whites to describe a beach in Oak Bluffs primarily populated by African Americans from the turn of the century through the Jim Crow era. Another narrative suggests that “Inkwell” honors Harlem Renaissance writers who gathered and lived on the island. This notion may gather strength from the fact that the home of legendary writer Dorothy West (1907–98) is a part of the Vineyard’s African American Heritage Trail.
Given this fraught history, it is difficult to imagine that the name “Inkwell” was not used derisively on Martha’s Vineyard. Despite the negative naming of this predominately Black-occupied outdoor space, many of the people who patronize the beach eventually chose to adopt the name “Inkwell” as a positive. This is not a novel occurrence. African American socio-linguistic history points to a pattern of transforming negative terms and names into terms of endearment (paywalled), such as the controversial embrace of the “n-word,” “boy,” “girl,” “child,” and “bitch.” However, linguistic reclamation as a means of destigmatizing negative labeling should never mean diminishing the impact of a given term’s origins.
In 2008, the City of Santa Monica erected a monument at the now-former Inkwell Beach’s location, recognizing the space’s historical significance and the pain former Black beachgoers endured from forced segregation. To my knowledge, no similar restorative justice effort has been officially enacted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or Dukes County, where Martha’s Vineyard is located.
“The Inkwell” commemoration plaque in Santa Monica, CA Credit: City of Santa Monica & Blackpast.org
Many scholars assert the importance of hard histories. With the recent attempt to reshape the history of slavery in Florida, we must elevate the real histories of racialized nature spaces like Martha’s Vineyard’s Inkwell Beach. Stories of triumph over the tragedy of segregation warrant further study—not attempts at historical erasure.
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