The New Black Migration

“It was the perfect mix of everything we were looking for”

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A New Wave of Prominent African-American Retirees is Enriching and Changing Our City.

A welcome wave of African-American retirees is making its mark on our city.
On a chilly Saturday night last February, the valets at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota were scurrying around as usual, parking the long line of shiny Lexus, Mercedes and BMW lined up for yet another black-tie gala. What wasn’t so usual was the crowd. More than 500 guests were arriving for the inaugural fund raiser for the Sarasota chapter of the black fraternity Gamma Xi Boule’, and about half of them were African-American. That’s an unfamiliar sight in Sarasota County, where 5 percent of the population is black (the national average is 13 percent) and only a smattering of African-Americans appears at most high-profile events. But it wasn’t just the range of skin colors that felt novel. Many of the African-Americans in the ballroom were recent newcomers, part of an influx of retired black professionals who are beginning to make a mark on their new hometown.

A New Wave of Prominent African-American Retirees is Enriching and Changing Our City

Black professionals are not new to Sarasota, of course. There have been black teachers, doctors, attorneys and business people here for generations. Many of them were born and raised here, and they retire here as well. But the new arrivals have increased black professionals’ numbers and visibility. “It’s a definite critical mass,” says Eleanor Merritt-Darlington, 82, an African-American artist from New York who has lived in Sarasota since 1982. “I’m glad to see it happening, and I’m really pleased to see Sarasota grow up.”

The newcomers include college professors and administrators, doctors, corporate executives, ambassadors, politicians and journalists. They’ve lived in major cities, mainly in the North and Midwest, and enjoyed impressive careers that have taken them all over the country and world. They come with wealth, talent, experience and connections.

Among their ranks are Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and her husband, Ronald, a retired banker; James A. Joseph, former ambassador to South Africa and his wife, Emmy Award-winning television journalist Mary Braxton-Joseph; former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and his wife, retired Michigan District Court Judge Trudy DunCombe Archer; Donald Reaves, a director of Amica Mutual Insurance and formerly the CFO of Brown University and the University of Chicago; Robert Wood, a past CEO of Chemtura (formerly Dow) Corporation and now a board member of the U.S. Olympic Committee; and retired Harvard Business School professor James Cash Jr., who has had board positions with Microsoft and Wal-Mart and is a member of the Boston Celtics ownership group.

Why are they coming? Most say that’s simple: It’s for the same reasons other successful people retire to Sarasota.

“It was the perfect mix of everything we were looking for,” says Michelle Davis, 57, who moved to Sarasota from New Jersey five years ago with her husband, ABC executive Preston Davis—the first black divisional president in the ABC network. (He died in 2013.) “It had direct flights to Newark at the time, an excellent hospital system, close proximity to the beach, good restaurants, arts and theaters. The icing on the cake was no state income tax.”

Greg McDaniel, 64, who retired as president of Chemtura AgroSolutions, moved here in 2011 with his wife, Hannah, who was the director of fund development for the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership. They had considered Charleston, Savannah and Hilton Head, but St. Armands Circle reminded him a bit of southern France, where his work often took him. “But it was more affordable here,” he says. “And Sarasota had the arts, jazz and civic activities. It’s a small town with big-city attributes.”
And McDaniel found one more asset. “I caught the bug to get involved in civic affairs again after being so involved in my corporate career,” he says. Active in the local Boule chapter and its scholarship program, McDaniel says, “Sarasota is a city where you can make a difference.”

Reaves, the university CFO, and his wife moved here from Vero Beach last year. “Being African-American, there was a big cultural void there,” he says. “[In Sarasota], there’s a welcoming atmosphere for African-Americans. We’ve lived all over—Boston, Chicago, North Carolina. This is the best move we’ve ever made.”

Black Muse: Powerful African American art at Art Center Sarasota

Sarasota County’s black population grew by 3.5 percent from 2010 to 2014, while the county’s overall population grew by 2.9 percent. Many of these black newcomers, like many white newcomers, are retirees—all part of the massive wave of baby boomers across the country who are now retiring, and in many cases, moving south. But their relocation to Sarasota is not only part of the baby boomer demographic shift; it’s part of a larger pattern of African-American migration in the United States.

Starting in the 1970s as just a trickle, black people began to move out of the Northern and Midwestern cities where they’d fled decades ago in hopes of finding a better life. That first exodus, between 1915 and 1970, saw 6 million African-Americans pack up and head North to avoid the poverty, violence and Jim Crow laws of the South.

That movement is often called the Great Migration, something journalist Isabel Wilkerson, who spoke in Sarasota in 2015, chronicled in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

Now those Northern cities and states are losing African-Americans of all ages, from young professionals to retirees, to the Sunbelt. For young and working people, no matter what their color, economic opportunity is the major attraction. The South is growing and prospering while many Northern and Midwestern states are losing population and jobs. But the South also holds emotional ties for many African-Americans. They have family and memories in places where the tea is sweet and the air is soft and languid. In their retirement years, African-Americans often want to go back to those roots.

Members of the West coast Black Theatre Troupe

As demographer William Frey documents in his 2015 book, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America, this latest African-American migration—called the “reverse migration”—will change the United States politically, culturally and economically. “It’s a large, broad-based movement that’s been going on for a long time and it’s come into its own,” he said from his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

But Florida, he says, is not a traditional homeland for African-Americans in the way that Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama are. “I would say that [the arrival of new retired African-Americans in Sarasota] is a part of this movement but not the core. Wealthy, well-connected elites are going to Florida, and this is a strand of that broad black movement.”
Bernard and Lois Watson moved here from Philadelphia, where he was a well-known educator and philanthropic leader.

Retired educator Lois Watson moved to Sarasota from Philadelphia in 2002 with her husband, Bernard, now 87, who is well known in cultural circles for relocating—some say saving—the legendary art collection of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation when he chaired the foundation’s board. (See “The Remarkable Doctor Watson” in our Platinum 2015 issue.) Lois Watson remembers when a friend, Sarasota orthopedic surgeon Randall Morgan, told her to consider retiring here.

“I thought he was nuts,” she says. “Florida was never on my list. Historically, it did not have a welcoming atmosphere for African-Americans.”

But when the Watsons visited in 1996, they liked what they saw. “It was beautiful,” Lois Watson says. “People were warm and friendly. And because Bernie was traveling a lot, I was here, and I found other people with the same interests as me.”
Even before the current wave of African-American baby boomers, some black retirees found their way to Sarasota. And back in the 1980s, one of the main reasons they came was a dynamic black real estate agent, the late Alice Peggy Hairston. Her former friends and clients say she was known as the Pied Piper for her ability to lure prominent out-of-state African-Americans to Sarasota.

Hairston worked in accounting for a law firm in her native New York before moving to Sarasota in the early ’80s with her husband, Robert, says Sarasota attorney Sylvia Taylor, who handled most of Hairston’s closings. Outgoing and vivacious, Hairston had a huge network of friends and relatives in New York. “She was an extremely social person and very caring,” Taylor says. “And she could sell anything. She started with her relatives and then all of her contacts.”

Black Theatre Troupe

Many people Hairston brought here knew each other from their summer homes in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard, says Taylor. That’s still true today. Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 74, who bought a home in Sarasota in 2013, says she and her husband often run into people they know from Martha’s Vineyard, where they spend their summers. (The town of Oak Bluffs on the Vineyard has long been a vacation retreat for wealthy black people.) “We call Sarasota Martha’s Vineyard South,” jokes Hunter-Gault, who says she and her husband enjoy the town’s arts and restaurants (they own a vineyard in South Africa). She also has spoken at events for nonprofits such as New College and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

James Taylor, now president of Boule and a financial planner, came to Sarasota in 1982, but he wasn’t a retiree lured here by realtor Hairston. Instead, he was something rarer in those days—a young African-American banker from Ohio who came here to work for Barnett Bank. “When I went into a restaurant every head turned as if no one had seen a black person walk into a restaurant before,” he recalls. Still, he adds, “I’ve never had anyone approach me antagonistically or offend me because of race issues since I moved here,” and he says he felt like he belonged from the beginning.

Like many other new retirees, Michelle Davis decided to start a business–Zumba Sarasota–after she moved here from New Jersey.

Many of the African-Americans retiring to Sarasota today are pioneers, the vanguard of their race to move out of poverty and away from centuries of enforced segregation. They were often the first in their families to go to college, to become professionals and to achieve upward mobility.

It took courage and determination. Hunter-Gault, for example, faced enormous hostility as the first of two African-Americans students to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1961. Mark Jackson, a 68-year-old retired strategic marketing director for global business customers for AT&T (later Lucent Technologies), remembers interviewing at New Jersey Bell Telephone when he was a college student and initially being offered a job as janitor rather than on a professional track. His wife, Penny, started out as an AT&T operator before becoming international data offers director for Lucent and traveling all over the world.

Bernard Watson was one of the few black students in the 1960s at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, he was threatened with a gun for advocating for racial equality, an incident that only strengthened his commitment to civil rights activism. He went on to a distinguished career as an educator and college administrator and was appointed by three presidents—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—to serve on various councils.

“The worlds are very small,” says Dr. Lisa Merritt, Eleanor’s daughter, of the rarified, intimate circle of African-American professionals who have made it. Merritt moved here 10 years ago, bringing her Multicultural Health Institute, which she founded in California. “We travel in small circles,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Journalist Mary Braxton-Joseph first met Merritt at a women’s empowerment conference in Cape Town in 1997, when Braxton-Joseph’s husband was the ambassador to South Africa. Braxton-Joseph also met Doris Johnson, a retired black medical administrator from Texas, in South Africa during that time. This January in Sarasota she bumped into Johnson at 941CEO magazine’s Unity Awards luncheon. “Talk about a small world,” she says. “All roads seem to lead to Sarasota.”

Many of the African-American professionals who retire here are also connected by their membership in black fraternities and sororities, and organizations, such as The Links, an African-American-only service organization for women. Boule, which held the gala at the Ritz-Carlton, is an invitation-only black fraternity for high-achieving men.

These groups play enormously important roles in the lives and careers of black professionals. “You have to understand our history,” says Bernard Watson. Decades ago, black people were barred from joining many organizations, which limited their opportunities to network, get involved in civic affairs or socialize. They couldn’t meet in most restaurants or reserve or rent most public or private space for meetings. Black-only groups provided support, networking and a wide circle of friends who understood each other’s aspirations and obstacles.

“When you traveled you couldn’t go to hotels, so we stayed at each other’s homes,” Bernard Watson remembers.

Many African-Americans remain active in their college fraternities and sororities throughout their lives, drawing on them as a source of empowerment and advancement. And when they relocate, they often seek out their Greek brothers and sisters. These organizations make it easier to connect and get involved. “For us,” says Lois Watson, “these associations continue our commitment of service to the community.”

ASALH—the Association for the Study of African American Life & History—is often the first meeting place for new African-American professionals and retirees in Sarasota. The local chapter, Manasota ASALH, Inc., which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, is the largest of the 27 chapters in the nation, with 187 members. It’s bigger than chapters in Chicago, Atlanta and Detroit. Former AT&T exec Jackson, the current president, says that five years ago they had only about 50 members. “Everyone who comes here passes through ASALH. We’re growing exponentially,” he says.

Because of its clout and numbers, the chapter brings in big national speakers for its annual dinner. In 2015 it was author Wilkerson. This year it was historian and ASALH’s national president, Evelyn Higginbotham. Two of the attendees were Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the dean of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and United States ambassador to the United Nations and former Congressman Andrew Young Jr., who were traveling the country to raise money for the medical college. When Rice, whose son attends Ringling College of Art and Design, spoke at a fund-raising gathering at Florida Studio Theatre that weekend, she told the 200 prosperous-looking African-Americans in the crowd that she had no idea there were so many of them in Sarasota.

These newcomers have settled all over Sarasota, at the Ritz-Carlton, in Lakewood Ranch, University Park County Club, The Oaks and everywhere in between. But they haven’t chosen to live in Newtown, the historically black and poor neighborhood in Sarasota.

Tensions exist between the two communities—the black old-timers who have lived for generations in a segregated neighborhood and the new black bourgeoisie who have lived, worked and mixed socially with whites for their entire careers in major urban centers.

“When the group first started to move here,” says Ed James, the host of WWSB’s Black Almanac and a vocal, longtime activist for the Newtown community, “the locals and the newbies did not get along. The locals wanted to know, ‘Who are these people coming here when they don’t know us and telling us what to do?’ On the newbie side, some thought we were the dumbest people in the world.”

Black Theatre Troupe

Like other retirees, new African-Americans can take time to get their footing in the community and find where their passions and talents will lead them. Some—like legions of other baby boomers—are starting new businesses that reflect their personal interests and passions. Michelle Davis had been a fitness trainer up in New Jersey. After her husband died, she partnered with another woman to start Zumba Sarasota, a dance and fitness studio.

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Like many other new retirees, Michelle Davis decided to start a business–Zumba Sarasota–after she moved here from New Jersey.

Others have plunged into local causes and organizations. Carol Buchanan, a former educational administrator from New York, moved here 23 years ago with her late husband, Carroll. Now 87, she started the Gulf Coast Community Choir and sits on the boards of Florida Studio Theatre, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

Michele Redwine, an artist and educational consultant from New York, moved here in 2005 with her late husband, Preston, an executive at I.B.M. She immediately found places where her expertise would be useful, including Art Center Sarasota, Gloria Musicae and Realize Bradenton. Today she serves on the board of the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Ringling Museum.

Both women have made it a mission to attract the newer African-American transplants onto boards and into the community. “I’d love to get more of these folks involved,” says Redwine.

Chief Twelfth Judicial Circuit Judge Charles Williams, who has been an important voice in race relations in Sarasota, says the arts community is feeling the effects of these newcomers. “It used to be that they were here only three months; now more of them are full-time. They’re having an impact. All of a sudden, [we’re seing more] plays dealing with race and diversity. And these new people are donors. They go to the ballet, the theater,” he says.

And each new discovery can lead to something else, deepening connections to the community. James Stewart and his wife, Caryl Sheffield, both Ph.D. college educators from Pennsylvania, retired to Sarasota last fall, attracted by the sunshine, palm trees and laid-back atmosphere. They play tennis, golf, play cards and go to the beach. “But we also knew there was a reputation of African-American culture here,” says Sheffield. “Finding out about the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe was major for us.”

In January, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County exhibited some of their collection of African-American art. Stewart, a national past president of ASALH, says he hoped the exhibition would connect not only with art lovers, but with the Newtown community. “The art exhibit is part of our African-American history,” he says. “There’s an effort to preserve Newtown and I’ve offered my services. I’d like to do something there.”

Sarasota Wedding at Ritz Carlton

Regardless of how much they may choose to get involved, these newcomers, by their very presence—on our tennis courts and golf links, in restaurants, supermarkets and on the beach, in political meetings and at charity fund raisers—are already making Sarasota a more diverse and interesting place.

“I used to be the only person who looked like me in the theater,” remembers artist Merritt-Darlington. “We’re becoming a community we can all be proud of.”

May 2016 Sarasota Magazine.

Hair Shampoo-Beyond Black & White

T​extures and properties make up hair, not races. Solicitation and sale of ethnic products is a marketing tactic used to get certain people to buy certain products. If you have hair that craves moisture, try moisture restoring and conditioning shampoos and products. Products in the ethnic aisle, many of us with curly hair can’t even use because they have a lot of grease and sometime inferior ingredients. T​here are many new brands making products that really do help our moisture craving hair, like shea moisture, coconut oils and other Ayurvedic products that add moisture to hair and skin. They don’t say or put a black name or face on the package, only that it is for curly hair.

  The First Difference is their Target

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Y​ou will find that commercial hair shampoos and conditioners are made in the form of creams or gels. They are made up of emulsions or gels, water and detergent base with other added ingredients. The first difference is their target​. Hair is actually a modified type of skin. The main difference between hair and skin is that skin is basically a living organ that replaces its outermost layer . On the other hand, hair is actually dead material obtained from several living cells deep in the skin surface.

                               Basic Ethnic Hair Groups                             

O​ur hair care is much more complex than body care and will differ according to one’s hair type and depending on processes applied to hair. Hair is a manifestation of human diversity. Please note; there are three basic ethnic hair groups: Caucasian, Asian and Black­ Afro/Caribbean. ​The structure of hair varies from completely straight to tight wiry curls and from fine and flyaway to coarse and frizzy. There is also widely different behavior patterns. W​hen you shop for shampoos you must find one that will not dry out the hair like so many shampoos do.

 Hair Care is not Based on Skin Color 

U​se products that work for your hair. For instance if your hair is dry you should use a moisturizing shampoo. Base your product decisions on the ingredients not the packaging. It doesn’t matter if it’s marketed towards black people or white people.

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H​air products are to be used according to the texture, elasticity, porosity,strength, and needs of the hair and individual.

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C​ertain cultures may use some specific products more than other cultures. Women of color, native American women, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Hispanic, Asian, Pakistani, New Zealand, or Greek women all have their preferences for certain products. These are the products used to attain the look and feel they desire. However, these products are also used cross culturally as well.

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S​hampoos have a pH of between 4 and 6. Acidic shampoos are the most common type of shampoos; they do not contain soap and their pH is closer to the natural pH of hair. Due to their pH, acidic shampoos do not swell the hair shaft or strip the natural oils. The scales on a hair follicle lay flat at a slightly acidic pH, making the hair feel smooth and look shiny. Citric acid is often used to adjust the pH down to 5.5. It is a fairly weak acid, which makes the adjustment easier. It also has a small amount of preservative action.

T​here are some specialized shampoos such as anti­-dandruff, natural, baby and animal shampoo. Anti­-dandruff shampoo contains fungicides such as Ketoconazole, Zinc Pyrithione and Selenium sulfide.

Black Farming and Wealth

Black farmers have suffered but they are still here and growing!


I close my eyes and smell the fresh southern fields as we approach my grandparents road. Once on the road there was a four mile winding stretch of picturesque corn fields, cotton fields, barns and pastures before arriving at their house. No matter what time of night it was, they were always out on the porch waiting to see our headlights arriving. There was hugs and kisses before we dropped our luggage and ran down to my grandfathers general store to get a big pickle from the barrel and some candy from the jars on the counter. We traveled from Pa to South Carolina on holidays and every summer to help with chores and visit all our family members that never left the farm or the South. My grandparents left  hundreds of acres of land and a legacy of hard work and family values. This was and is part of the picture of wealth in the African American community.

Oil Cartels and the Drought of 1976  

Beginning in 1976, serious droughts hit the South. When the droughts continued in 1977 and 1978, the price of oil shot up, forcing other costs – from fertilizer to equipment – to skyrocket. With President Carter’s grain embargo to contend with as well, American farmers were hurting; but black farmers, who had to struggle to survive even in good times, experienced an intensified crisis. By 1978 there were only 6,996 black farms left.  Farmers were also now required to pay for their supplies and petroleum by the season, every 30 days.  This created a demand for credit. If you applied for credit to pay every thirty days and the funds came in too late or you did not get any funds, everything was lost.

Pigford vs. Glickman

“In 1997, 400 African-American farmers sued the United States Department of Agriculture, alleging that they had been unfairly denied USDA loans due to racial discrimination during the period 1983 to 1997. “The case was entitled “Pigford vs. Glickman” and in 1999, the black farmers won their case. The government agreed to pay each of them as much as $50,000 to settle their claims. But then on February 23, 2010, the USDA agreed to release more funds to “Pigford.”

The plight of the Black farmer in America is a plight that has been fueled by the sting of discrimination. Once land is lost, it is very difficult to recover.  Land has been lost by Black farmers. Land has been lost, income has been lost, livelihoods have been lost, families have been lost.


An important note is that the process of discrimination in farming was a key factor in cutting the economic funding that was the foundation for Black education and the civil rights movement. As a result of this decline in agriculture and racism in the black farm community, millions of acres of land was lost. Bought by developers and now is prime land used for homes, beaches, resorts and golf courses throughout the country. Many of our  forefathers worked that land as slaves then sharecroppers and finally farm owners for generations and were discriminated against because of race alone.

Current Black Family Farmers

We are now experiencing a revitalization of urban and rural farming in which people who once were not interested in farming have a renewed interest in the foods they eat and feed their families. Black farmers are also contributing to the food source bringing organic foods to the public. Thousands of blacks (including my parents) felt negative about Black farming because of slavery.  My parents never wanted to go back to live in the south. The pain of slavery was too much for them and when they completed school they migrated to the north. However in the city with a family of nine, mom planted beans, tomatoes, greens, fruit and all kinds of good stuff in our city yards. She grew healthy foods and beautiful flowers.

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African American Farming Census

 In 2012, the number of black farmers in the United States was 44,629. This was a 12 percent increase percent since 2007, when the last agriculture census was conducted. Nationally black farmers were 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.2 million farmers in 2012. Ninety percent lived in twelve southern states. Freestone County, Texas, had more black farmers than any other county.

Black farmers have suffered but they are still here and growing! The economic base may never be restored to the same magnitude of  past African American farms,  but we are going back to our roots and falling in love with the earth again.

Sag Harbor – Black Enclave

Dan Gasby and B. Smith. COURTESY OWN
Dan Gasby has lived in Sag Harbor for 20 years. COURTESY OWNDan Gasby has lived in Sag Harbor for 20 years. COURTESY OWN Oprah Winfrey. COURTESY OPRAH WINFREY NETWORK

If Dan Gasby closes his eyes, he can remember it clearly. He was standing on the beach next to his wife, restaurateur and lifestyle ace Barbara “B.” Smith, in Bay Head, New Jersey. It was the mid 1980’s, and a woman was running down to them. She was furious. “Why are you here?” she demanded of the African-American couple. “I know you don’t belong.”

It is a moment Mr. Gasby will never forget—being hated simply for the color of his skin. He has carried it with him everywhere, since visits back to his childhood home in Brooklyn, and out to the East End.

Until he discovered Sag Harbor in particular, Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills—three distinct African-American enclaves connected by a long stretch of beach that were once a refuge from racism, and some say still are.

“Back then, it was the first time I ever saw an African-American in a summer environment, with a summer home,” Mr. Gasby said on Monday in a telephone interview. “ looking gorgeous and barbecuing, and not in an inner-city environment, not in a park listening to music. These were well-educated people who were achievers.

“As did Barbara, separately, I fell in love with the whole notion of being in a place where you could let your hair down and you weren’t judged,” he continued. “And you were not going to be treated with disrespect.”

Though lesser known than the big three communities, the historic Eastville neighborhood dates back even further, to the earliest whaling days in Sag Harbor. One of the oldest Native American and African-American settlements on Long Island, it was settled by whaleboat crews—the majority of whom were Africans, Shinnecock and Montaukett Indians—and runaway slaves. The area thrived until the economy took a downturn in the early 1900’s, forcing the residents to leave for Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of work.

But word of the beachfront destination spread, and soon black vacationers sought out Eastville, ushering in the start of African-American second-home owners on the South Fork. By the middle of the century, the first streets of Azurest were drawn up, shortly followed by Sag Harbor Hill and Ninevah. It was a typical resort town—except nearly everyone was black.

What the multi-ethnic community has grown into today, along with its changing demographics and real estate values, is the focus of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s newest one-hour special, “Sag Harbor,” which will debut on Sunday, January 25.

“We’re calling it a love story,” Sheri Salata, co-president of Oprah Winfrey Network, said on Monday during a telephone interview from Harpo Studios in Chicago. “And one of the best kinds, because it stands the test of time. [‘Sag Harbor’] takes you on a journey you might not ordinarily get to go on, unless you know somebody.”

With a “very reasonable” budget, Ms. Salata said, the OWN crew of no more than 10 infiltrated the Sag Harbor community starting in July, first casting for the special—from sommeliers and real estate agents to celebrities and longtime summer vacationers—and then shot for just a few days over the course of three weeks, leading up to Labor Day.

“When I was listening to the idea, I was thinking, ‘Wow, this sounds like something our audience would eat with a spoon, to really understand a socially and culturally relevant community that has such beautiful, historic roots,’” Ms. Salata said. “We did a development meeting with Oprah, and it was the thing that day she most sparked to, for sure.”

But in recent years, the community is slowly moving away from its roots as predominantly African-American, especially as vacationers discover the beaches, Mr. Gasby said. It is no longer solely an escape from racism and inner-city life. And some residents are sad to see that magic, and mystery, disappear.

“The reality is, the world is moving forward,” Mr. Gasby said, “and either you move with it, or it moves without you. Nothing stays static. Nothing stays.”

“Cutting” in the Black Community

Cutting and African American youth is a very real occurrence in our community. it is suggested that 1 in 4 youths are involved in Non-Suicidal Self Injury. Common forms of NSSI involve, cutting, hitting or punching, banging parts of the body, which could include the head, legs and arms. Also burning, biting, scratching or digging nails in skin. Picking at scars or scabs, thereby interfering with the healing of wounds.

Most youth report this behavior as a way to cope with immense emotional pain such as depression, anxiety,  and disappointment. NSSI is also used as a way to release anger, frustration and sometimes rage. Experiencing pain is the quickest way to gain control over their emotions, in their minds. Although in cases of NSSI, pain is not really felt in the sense one would normally feel. This is because  the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals (endorphins) kick in and soften the sensation of pain.

Research confirms African American youth currently are choosing NSSI as a way of coping at the same alarming rates as white youth (e.g. Hilt, Cha, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2008). Precise NSSI  numbers in the black community are difficult to get because blacks traditionally avoid formal mental health treatment. Their hesitancy to admit to NSSI is due to the extraordinary stigma in the black community, and because research has traditionally not been conducted in this under-represented population.

Many risk factors in our community lead to NSSI such as, poor relationship skills, difficulty dealing with conflict, poor impulse control, and indulging in other self-destructive behaviors (e.g. alcohol or drug use, cigarette smoking, risk-taking behaviors, eating disorders, etc.). Although much more research is needed, there is speculation that risk factors for NSSI behaviors could be different for blacks. Exposure to stressful situations and conditions that are outside of a person’s control can increase the risk for engagement in self-harming behavior. Such conditions can include abuse, violence, chaotic living environment, family discord or community upheaval. NSSI gives the person a sense of control that they do not have in other areas of their life. Lower levels of spirituality and ethnic identity have been linked to black suicide rates and may be important in understanding black NSSI, but more research is needed. Black youth living in communities with few to no other minorities nearby may suffer from feelings of isolation and place them at increased risk for NSSI. Decreases in community connectedness and formal rites of passage are considered to be playing a role in the rising rates of NSSI across races.

Warning Signs

•Withdrawing from friends and family
•Changing one’s friend circle, such as befriending other youth who are known to be involved in self-destructive behaviors
•Decrease in school performance
•Changing usual social activities
•Significant relationship problems
•Wearing long sleeves or long pants even in the hottest of weather
•Making excuses for frequent bruises, scratches, bite or burn marks, or cuts
•Collecting and hiding razors, knives, scissors, or other sharp objects
•Developing severe mood swings
•Demonstrating difficulty regulating emotions (e.g. unable to calm self down after disappointment, argument, frustration)
•Demonstrating significant problems managing stress

Tips for responding to NSSI

For parents who suspect their child is engaging in NSSI, first remember that the youth is experiencing intense emotional pain and is using NSSI as a way to cope with the overwhelming feelings. You may notice that you feel anger, hurt, disgust, fear, guilt, embarrassment, or sadness. These are all normal reactions to learning about a shocking behavior that your loved one is doing. Talk to a trusted person in your life (significant other, friend, family member, pastor) about your feelings. Do not unload your negative feelings on the self-injuring youth. Instead, approach the youth when you are feeling calm and compassionate. You can say something like: “I am concerned that you may be hurting yourself on purpose. I know it must be scary to be feeling so much pain in your life. You are not alone. I am here for you and available to talk if you would like that.” If the youth is not ready to talk right then, let them know you are available when they are ready. Do not insist that they show you their scars and wounds or do anything else that might cause them more embarrassment. If your child shows any signs of suicidal behavior (e.g. making comments about wanting to die or others being better off without them, writing a suicide note, giving away cherished items) then immediately seek emergency services. Otherwise, educate yourself about NSSI (a good resource is and locate a qualified mental health professional to help your child overcome NSSI.

Dr. Karyn Bentley, founder of the Self-Injury Treatment and Education (SITE) program, has spent the last 12 years as a clinical psychologist, author and speaker. Her new company, Psychological Solutions, LLC specializes in helping communities recognize and combat negative habitual behaviors.


International Society for the Study of Self Injury (ISSS).

Hilt, L., Cha, C., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2008). Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Young Adolescent Girls: Moderators of the Distress-Function Relationship. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(1), 63-71.