In Defense of Enclaves

{N.B. This is a guest post by Antonio Haynes, discussing his love of Fire Island Pines.  He was prompted to respond to this article that appears in the New York Times.}

Antonio here. I am the other black man whose photograph the Gray Lady featured in Zach Stafford’s tendentious and self-indulgent recounting of his experience in Fire Island Pines. The narrative was peculiar to me because it was written by a black man who, by his own account, was a stranger to Fire Island. While I do not own property on the Island, I am a black gay man (effeminate, sometimes) who has not missed a summer there for more than a decade.  It is the only place on Earth where I am comfortable being all of myself. 

In every imaginable sense, Fire Island is a beautiful, inclusive place. Summer 2011 was the first time I ever lived in New York. As unknowledgeable and as unsophisticated as I may have been, all I knew is that I wanted to go to Fire Island.  To get there, I depended on my instincts, the kindness of strangers (often white), and my ability to figure it out.

Everyone who is still alive made difficult choices during the worst of the pandemic.  I too escaped to Fire Island: it offered a place of respite where I could be in natural beauty with the friends I had cultivated for more than a decade, many of them black, Latino, Asian, some straight, some trans, and some non-binary. 

“So, when the world turned upside down and everything seemed to no longer make sense, I escaped to Fire Island to hide,” Mr. Stafford wrote. This is curious, because how much could any person, especially a black person, escape, hide, or feel seen in the Pines during the worst of the pandemic?

To my mind, there are basically two ways to think about this. On the one hand, maybe the pandemic forced us all to accept that we were hiding from ourselves and each other, by which I mean our own humanity? On the other hand, maybe it’s as simple, and yet profound as my grandmother’s old quip: “Baby, you’re the only fly in the buttermilk.”  

Put differently, escaping to a rich enclave, was never going to cure what ailed anyone, especially during the pandemic. From whom is one escaping, or hiding? Of course, some people perceive  “micro-aggressions” on Fire Island. And yes, I am aware that it might make some feel less alone to see others who “look like them.” But I sincerely believe that  Fire Island is a welcoming place, for any person who wants to be welcomed and who takes the time to try to get know others.  I wouldn’t return every year were it otherwise. 

It’s only those of us who learn to get over ourselves and accept that all people “use what they got to get what we want” who can receive the beauty that I have described. Some, including me, would call that dignity and self-respect.  

I hope that anyone who found last week’s article confirmatory gives The Pines a chance.  If they do, they might find other flies, even if they aren’t black.