Evidence in the Hamptons

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New York, there’s so much to do in it’s environs, no wonder we’re always on the run.

On 124th Street, George Faison’s block party, outside of his performance studio in an Edwardian firehouse, brought out Congressman Rangel, the great actress Clarisse Taylor and a throng of neighborhood people.

We were all delighted by this chance to see and hear entertainment legends and young groups of kids from all over the world aspiring to join their ranks.

New filmmaker Kirk Shannon-Butts hosted a dinner not long after. A big part of its success was the provision of excellent bottles of champagne, in as great a quantity as the candles decorating the mantelpiece.

Some parties are yearly events that one anticipates months in advance. Such exquisitely attired patrons, such an extravagant display of décolletage, such delectable refreshment, prepared by Norma Darden: such exceptionally amazing talents, are all always in store at the Evidence Dance Company’s annual Hamptons’ benefit extravaganza.

Inaugurated 5 years ago, by Susan Taylor and dapper Reginald Van Lee, Evidence on Our Toes, has become the highlight of high-life among Blacks on Long Island’s posh Eastern end. It’s in effect a stupendous last hurrah, where straw hats and white linen finery may be sported to good effect before the onset of Autumn.

Summer’s now all but over, like the loveliness of golden youth, when one knew too little to worry about troubles to come.

At the season’s crescendo, the week before Labor day, I’m in elite East Hampton. Out here, although fashion decrees that everyone wears t-shirts and flip-flops, the rich are still different from you and me.
Take a closer look at those casual looking shirts, ribbon belts or bright bead necklaces. The colors, the tailoring and workmanship are impeccable. What often appears to be a string of mere beach-glass, turns out to be aquamarines or uncut colored diamonds.

From a distance, especially to uninformed observers, the difference between these luxury versions of what everyone wears and what Target sells, is imperceptible.

Ah, but what a remarkable thing such opulent subtlety is. More than ever, the supposition is, that we are all equal in America. Whether just barely getting by or making a killing, everyone insist that they are middle class.
But no matter what we wear or where we wear it, we aren’t now, nor have we ever been equals.

Today, Tiger Woods, Puffy Combs and Star Jones each have impressive country places in the Hamptons. Why have they, and a growing number of less well known affluent African Americans, folks who could live wherever they wish, chosen to spend summers here?

It’s because this is where others celebrated as the most wealthy and powerful in the land also reside. Flocking here, highly privileged Blacks are only following the example of earlier, once excluded groups, seeking a place in the sun.

Take well-to-do Jewish New Yorker’s of almost a century ago. As recently as the 1960's, Jewish home buyers were barred from acquiring seaside Hampton’s houses, as well as from purchasing cooperative apartments in New York, on Park or 5th Avenues.

Was it such unspoken but ironclad discriminatory policies that made emulation of the polish and trappings of aristocratic White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants so imperative?

Notwithstanding Nazi theories of genetic purity, there are still Jews, mostly of an older generation, like Joan Rivers, who speak enviously of , “WASP-good looks”; parents who boast of their children being, ‘so fortunate, to be blue-eyed and blond’. In an extraordinary ploy to blend in, many Jewish immigrants once changed their names and some their very physical appearance.

Blacks too have played this game. How perversely ironic it might seem now. Often, as I have, one might easily mistake a White Hamptonite, with a fabulous tan, for an African-American. Intentionally and laboriously they’re just that dark. Admittedly, we’ve come a long way since the days of skin bleaching creams.

Yet, short of revolution, change ordinarily takes lots of time. Even now, encountering Jews and Blacks as equals in the worlds of business, culture and philanthropy, organized WASP's revel in the assured exclusiveness of a few surviving bastions of tradition.

The Hampton’s venerable Maidstone and Bath and Tennis clubs, remain WASP rarefied retreats. With still only a handful of unusual exceptions, one needn’t fear ever being disquieted by a fellow member there who is either Black or Jewish.

At the root of upper class anti-Semitism lies a fear of equality. Having to share, and grant access to elite schools and executive boardrooms.  
What was once taken for granted as an exclusive prerequisite of social rank, and with someone else, perceived as being “different”, by turns, seems to terrify and enrage many WASP.

Senator Obama has been called, “different”, and many of us say in reaction, halleluiah! But just what is the nature of this kind of distinction? What ought one to do to reassure those who find diversity uncomfortable?

It was working as a waiter, in Sutton Place, for Luther Greene that helped to provide the best answer to this quandary. Christmas Eve and I am new to the city. Two tables, lighted by tall red candles are festively bedecked by scarlet and white camellias, holly and ivy. Within Greene’s wonderfully weird, shell grotto, fountains are gushing, orchids are in bloom and some expensive wafting fragrance obscures the hearty aroma of the perfectly rare roast beef.

Discreetly elegant, Greene’s worldly guest engage in general conversation. To begin with, it’s wholly genteel and unexceptional, until a distinguished man declares, “Naturally, I despise Jews!” There was no mistaking the contemptuous vehemence of his bitter challenge. It inspired a momentary pall and a pause of any other talk.

Such a cultivated, well brought up and carefully educated assembly, absolutely disdained such ugly remarks, made in company. But, on the other hand, politely, what was one to do, to properly respond? Surely, any direct confrontation, contradiction or censure, would represent the height of bad manners?

Led by their host, the party’s solution was oblique instruction. ‘Did not their friend so offended by Jews, know of lovely Mrs. X, or charming Elizabeth Y? Yes, yes,’ several joined in at once, so pleased at hitting upon this particular paragon, ‘poised, elegant Elizabeth Y, there undoubtedly was a grand lady irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Why when as a widow she wed George “Oldname”, selflessly she’d insisted he continue to lunch daily with his friends, even knowing as a Jew, she’d be banned from his club?’

The absurdity of prejudice is its irrationality. No matter whether women or Blacks first earn equal pay for equal work in relation to White men, is immaterial. Joining forces, this elusive achievement will only come that much sooner for both.

Except, divide and conquer is the oldest tactic of the powerful to oppress and disadvantage the majority. Yet another is making people feel that they must transform themselves, in order to warrant acceptance.

Unable to literally become White, many Blacks nonetheless once struggled through outdoing and self hatred, to mitigate our loathed color. This is the fools errand some have set for candidate Obama, insisting that, “ he‘d better do or say something to make “people” think that he’s capable, or else”

Luther Greene’s offended Christmas visitor showed that even if Obama walked on water, some would remain unimpressed. This fastidious bigot’s pronouncement about irreproachable Elizabeth Y, “ Her?, She’s the worst kind of Jew that there is!, the kind who tries to pretend that she’s not even really Jewish…”shows how both for Jews, Gays, Obama, or anyone else condemned as being “different”, the only correct response to prejudice is acting true to who you are and to what you believe in.

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