Dispatch from Nantucket
A place I never thought I’d visit.
ON A MAP, NANTUCKET yearns upwards. It also boomerangs to the southeast, as if urging you away from the coast of Massachusetts. On the plane, the island’s geography comes into view suddenly. One part looks like a mouth with jagged teeth, though I find it oddly inviting.
After we hop off the plane and make it past the baggage claim (which has no conveyor belts, just three window-paned, garage-style doors that lead out onto the hot tarmac), I ask my boyfriend if he thinks I’m the first undocumented immigrant to set foot in Nantucket. “No?” he tells me.
He’s probably right. This is a haven for the wealthy, yes, but it is also a place like any other. I think I was expecting there to be actually zero people of color on this island, something that appeared to be true at first glance from our plane, on which I was the sole brown face filling a passenger seat.
According to the Nantucket Historical Association, Indigenous people first explored this place 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. Between 1,500 and 3,000 Wampanoag remained on the island around 1659, when English colonists first came to the island. Later, in the winter that straddled the years 1763 and 1764, an epidemic of “Indian Sickness” ravaged the island, killing 222 of the 358 Wampanoag who still lived here at the time. The NHA says the last surviving Wampanoag died in 1855, before the Civil War, though Indigenous people still live in other nearby places like Martha’s Vineyard, another well-known playground for the affluent.
My partner suggested we come to Nantucket to spend a few days with his family, whom I dearly love, as one of my post-bar exam trips. It also happened to be the first vacation I would take after getting my immigration papers.
In the decade I’ve spent in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, I have come to treasure travel as I would a prized possession. I remember seeing friends posting photos of their passports that announced their next destinations and being jealous of them. I remember stewing in resentment that the languages I learned in high school and college would never make their way back to their home turfs, surrounded by the right tongues. And I remember how painful it felt to decline invitations to the West Coast or Texas for fear of being intercepted at a Border Patrol checkpoint. Growing up, my vacations were limited to places we could travel to by car, so I’ve been to a few strange locations in the contiguous states (Like, Indianapolis? Why?)
I’ve made it a habit of being really observant when I’m in a new place. I’m sure part of it is a survival mechanism, but I also use it as an opportunity to get a real feeling for the place, its people, and the culture. Always I’m interested in the number of Black and brown people I spot, the professions they occupy, and the accents they have.
So far in Nantucket, the vast majority of people of color I’ve seen have not been tourists, but seasonal workers—airport workers, cab drivers, waiters, store clerks. In the summer months, the population of the island swells and restaurants come alive, driving demand for hands that can run a tight ship.
Don’t get me wrong—there are also Black and brown people among the tourists, spending their money and enjoying themselves. As a getaway from city life, Nantucket is fantastic: the seafood is delicious, the weather is incredibly mild compared to the hot and humid summers of Washington, D.C. or New York, and everyone is extremely kind. Because the wind picks up during the day, the water near the shore is cold, cold, cold, but warmer out in the open sea if you jump off a boat. The sand is soft and the individual grains are large like kosher salt. The breeze is gentle, but the mid-afternoon sun unforgiving.
I wish everyone got to take a vacation like this.
But I also wish I got to come here in December, during the off-season, to get to know the local residents. For many years, this was a whaling town, and white whalers brought enslaved people here to work for them. The island had a strong Quaker presence, however, and slavery was repugnant to their religion. An article by the National Maritime Historical Society details an early legal case that took place here:
The enslaved patriarch Boston and his family had been the property of William Swain since 1739. His youngest son, Prince Boston, was born in 1750 and would become uncle to the future Nantucket black whaling captain, Absalom Boston. In 1772, Swain hired out Prince Boston for a whaling voyage in the Friendship, expecting to be paid for his slave’s work, as he had done before with Prince’s older brothers. Boston’s performance as a harpooner proved good enough that Friendship’s captain, Elisha Folger, paid Prince directly—not his owner. William Swain died while the ship was still out at sea, and his heirs sued Captain Folger for Prince Boston’s wages, but lost the decision in the Nantucket Court of Common Pleas. Prince Boston subsequently petitioned for his freedom and became a free man.
Because this all happened before Massachusetts abolished slavery, many Black whalers did come to Nantucket to run their own businesses here, and I’m sure many of their families have remained on or around the island.
And I’m also certain that in the winter months, when tourist money isn’t flowing into the island and the shops are boarded up, many local residents struggle to make ends meet. This is the story in nearby Martha’s Vineyard, says the TikTok page of the Afro-Indigenous content creator Kara Roselle Smith, which I stumbled upon recently. I’m also extremely curious about the immigrants who live here, and how they ended up in this sleepy town. I got so stupidly happy yesterday when I walked into a UPS store and the guy behind the counter was Latino. They didn’t have the stamps I need to mail out some documents to USCIS.
Maybe I’ll have to come back.