‘Blue as the Lake: A Personal Geography’

Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

Blue as the Lake - right accentIt is summer, and time to dream again of summers past. Lately, my mind keeps wandering back to the many boyhood summers I spent in Idewild, Michigan, on the edge of the Manistee National Forest.

IDEWILD WAS IN SOME WAYS a typical retreat. There was a lake of some size, a small commercial patch and a few amusements — a roller rink, a supper club, a place to go horseback riding. But in one respect, Idewild was and remains decidedly untypical.

It is an all-black town of roughly 300 people that swells to three thousand or more residents in summer months — or so it did in the 1940s and 1950s. Most of us arrived at our families’ cottages from Detroit or Chicago, but you could always spy license plates from just about anywhere within a two-day drive.

There is a story that Idewild was founded by runaway slaves who, after traveling north for agonizing weeks on end, were convinced they’d reached Canada. And so they settled and dug out a life, prosperity being out of the question for them, until, ironically, blacks with some money started to summer there and needed goods and services which the “natives” could supply.

Of course, prejudice had played a role of a kind in the creation of Idewild, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and other black summer resorts like them. Above and beyond the pleasures of fresh and clear skies, of water sports and sylvan walks, these places offered the prospect of safe harbor for one’s family. But gratification for the “patriarchs” wasn’t limited to just this.

“At Idewild, (he) relaxed in the clear, pine-scented air,” remembers Helen, the daughter of Charles W. Chestnutt, the black novelist and lawyer from Cleveland who summered here in the 1920s. “He spent his days fishing, sitting in an old willow chair at the end of his little pier, absorbing the golden sunshine and catching a bluegill now and then with a bamboo fishing pole …”

WHAT CHESTNUTT DESIRED OF SUMMER LIFE at Idewild in the mid-1920s was largely what my grandparents and their generation were seeking when they erected their cottages in the ’30s and early ’40s.

Blue as the Lake - left accentMy grandfather, for example, never fished, but he and my grandmother did go deer watching at dawn and both loved board games at dusk, and the constant cottage improvement projects that occupied the hours in-between gave my grandfather — a man otherwise cooped up in either a laboratory or post office in Chicago — great pleasure.

But by the 1950s, Idewild was noisy. The part known as the island — a focal point since the 1920s primarily because of the Clubhouse, a place for business meetings among lot owners, but also dances and meals — was by then a strip of bars, nightclubs and cafes, anchored on one end by a hotel and on the other by a roller rink from which rock and roll didn’t so much drift as charge across the lake, invading cottages a mile away.

In addition to the cacophony of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” at the rink competing with the evening broadcast of “Ava Maria” emanating from the P.A. system in the belfry of the evangelical church, there was the nerve-rattling scream of the huge horn atop of the fire department every day at six and constant din of honky-tonk-cabaret street life: Idewild was a desired booking for many black entertainers who appeared in big-city clubs and theaters, including Chicago’s Regal and Harlem’s Apollo. …

THEN THERE WAS EDDIE GRAY. Eddie is now a Chicago lawyer; he’s a buddy I don’t mind seeing when I’m back home. In the ’50s, however, Eddie was more an acquaintance than friend — we were acolytes at St. Edmund’s and because of the network of black middle-class youth clubs with its interminable schedule of holiday parties and wholesome events. But having Eddie up to our house in Idewild and sharing my room was not my idea. It was the sort of thing parents cook up.

As the days went by, I was less and less the good host. Eddie was not athletic; playing catch with Eddie was enormously about hoping that if you threw him the ball, you might see it again soon, and not after searching the woods with a stick. …

Blue as the Lake - accentBut one afternoon, I did change my mind about Eddie, unexpectedly, during reading hour. I was curious about what he was reading, was dumbstruck to realize it was poetry. I asked him who the poet was; he replied, “Paul Laurence Dunbar.” I confessed I’d never heard of him.

Eddie then told me what seemed like a great deal about Dunbar. … What I recall, too, is that Eddie rose from his chair, and, while strolling the room, recited from memory Dunbar’s “Little Brown Baby With the Sparklin’ Eyes.”

This is a memory that returns to me most every summer and certainly every fall, for it is in the fall that I teach my Modern African American Poets course, and Dunbar is the first poet encountered. A year ago, a student came up to me after the Dunbar class and said, “I must ask why you didn’t assign ‘Little Brown Baby With the Sparklin’ Eyes’? It’s one of my favorites.”

Why don’t I teach that poem? Is it because it doesn’t fit into what I want to say about Dunbar? Or is the reason less pedagogical, less professional?

The poem seems to be for me Eddie Gray’s poem. And while I could doubtlessly say more about the poem today than he did when we were 10 or 11, I seem to be willing to leave it alone, so that what Eddie taught me about it and himself may remain intact.

The above excerpts from “Chapter One: Idewild” in “Blue as the Lake: A Personal Geography” by Robert Stepto (1998, Beacon Press) are printed by permission of publisher and author. Author Robert B. Stepto is a professor of English, American studies and Afro-American studies at Yale University. He lives in Woodbridge, Connecticut.

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