Nantucket Essays

Centuries of Silence

by Robert P. Barsanti

Two years ago, Someone spray painted racist graffiti on on the front of the African Meeting House on Nantucket. Two years later, that Someone is out there drinking coffee and waving at the cops when they drive by. The police department “will vigorously pursue the perpetuators of this hate crime,” which, I suppose, they are still doing.

Someone spray-painted a “N’s go home message” and then signed it with a cartoon penis. Then Someone had a beer and blunt with their friends and took pictures of it. Those friends told other friends when the sun and the outrage rose in the morning. Someone’s parents probably did the math and figured out when Someone wasn’t home. They may even have seen the pictures. In the cold light of a March morning, words were said, phones were erased, and the silence descended like the fog. We hid Someone in our hearts and mouths.

So it continues to this day.

The Police Department goes on to say that “Crimes like this are not what Nantucket is all about.” On one hand, that statement is clearly true. Very rarely does the racism on island get broadcast as clearly and loudly as it was on the front door of the African Meeting House. On the other hand, this island is all about the silence. We have kept quiet about heroin, about suicide, about abuse, and about a host of others. Silence is our strength.

Small, tight knit communities like Nantucket exist because of that silence. We go along to get along, and, if it means conflict, we ignore it. We let crimes slide because it would be inconvenient to acknowledge them. Football players were called monkeys and apes. Ugly words said over beers. Names chanted at retreating buses. We know about these things, and we have not acted. Just as we know who did the graffiti. We have heard. We aren’t saying.

This silence rises from understandable fears. We live on an island that requires hot financial yoga as rent. So, if you are bartending at a summer restaurant that never has African American waiters, you aren’t going to go out of your way to point that out. If you are working on a crew that sends the “monkeys” up to the roof, you are going to take your paycheck and smile politely. If the homeowner says that she doesn’t want black people cleaning her house, you are going to rearrange your cleaning crews instead of giving up her money. If your mortgage depends on your silence, no words will be said.

The racism has been built into the brick sidewalks and cedar shingles. The lines of segregation remain clear, even though the tide of wealth has washed out the walls. New Guinea, the section of town where the African Meeting House stands, wasn’t called that for nothing. Downhill from the Three Bricks and Hadwen House, the island ghetto grew. Thanks to the trickle-down wealth of whaling, that land got developed by the POC mates and sailors of the ships that white Nantucketers owned. But they didn’t go to school together, didn’t worship together, didn’t marry each other. And they didn’t die together. People of color weren’t buried at Prospect Hill with the white folks. They were buried with the dead horses, out beyond Mill Hill in the Colored Cemetery. It’s all right there. You just have to look.

Unseen and unheard, the Unimportant People of Nantucket did the actual work of wealth building. They went out on the whaleboats with oars and harpoons while the owners remained on-island. They farmed, they fished, they carried bricks up the ladders to build the lovely Federal homes. And they probably heard the same slurs, were kept out of the same rooms, and were shoved with the same prejudices. I doubt that this is the first time that the African Meeting House has had those words painted on it.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass began his speaking career at the Nantucket Atheneum. And the next year, he was chased from pulpit to pulpit until he wound up in the big shop outside of town. Later, in another town where he was fundraising, he addressed the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society and asked those lovely women, wearing cotton dresses in a room lit by spermaceti, to listen through the silence. He asked them to consider “what, to a slave, is the fourth of July?” To a slave, the Fourth of July did not invoke freedom from tyranny, it did not celebrate the virtues of “all men created equal” and it did not even bring a day off. The Fourth of July says what the quiet part aloud; “reveals …, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Looking at slavery, Douglass claimed that we no longer needed quiet discussion and polite letters, “but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake…”

The silence of Nantucket has followed down the centuries. We have allowed any manner of sorrow to grow in the corners and edges of the town in order to keep peace, make money, and exercise mercy to the Important Ones. The Important Ones have the money. The Important Ones have the power. The Important Ones stay on the ground and watch the shingles get nailed to the roof. They stand, fold their arms, and say nothing. In the silence, they tell how it was, and how time came along, and how it happened again and again.

Silence falls. Across the Sound, the march of masked millions beat a new tempo. Statues are pulled down, politicians run, and a deep cry calls for justice, not mercy. We, the people, the Unimportant People of Nantucket are standing, speaking, and ripping the silence apart.

It’s time to listen. It’s time to speak.

Articles by Date from 2012