For all the pomp and circumstance around what we were taught about American exceptionalism in schools, there’s a massive gap. We are taught that among our founding principles is the concept that all people are created equal, but the truth has proved far different.

You can see this every day, in every corner of life. There’s so much inequality: economic, racial, gender and sexual orientation. If we’re being honest, truly honest about it, it would be hard to make a serious argument that such inequalities don’t exist.

Photographer Cornell Watson is sharply aware of these inequalities. He’s seen it his whole life. And a recent vacation he took to Martha’s Vineyard made him reflect on that. While there, he was able to put aside some of the anxieties thrust upon Black people to the side for just awhile.

With his camera in hand, Watson observed Black people doing what so many take for granted — hanging out on the beach, having parties, cruising about town. The photos he took show us all of that in vivid detail.

Here’s Watson in his own words:

“As a Black person in America, every day is a fight for our existence, a fight for our humanity. Recently our family took a vacation where we didn’t have to fight as much to be here.

For almost a century Martha’s Vineyard has served as a sanctuary for Black people. It was a stop on the underground railroad and during Jim Crow. It was one of the few beach areas Black people were allowed to vacation.

There’s a sense of freedom for us here we don’t get to experience anywhere else in America. It feels safe enough to occasionally pull off the mask we wear daily for protection. Seeing Black people on the beaches watching the sunset while listening to Frankie Beverly and Maze, Black kids swimming freely in backyard pools, teens hanging out on Circuit Avenue, and grown folk partying under tents outside with no police presence seems like a fantasy world.

For a moment, we get to be at home, the home Maya Angelou described as: “The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

During our family trip on Martha’s Vineyard, a Black man with his family in tow looked at me and said, “Happy to see you here.” He said it with intention, and I knew exactly what he meant.

When you acknowledge all we’ve been through to experience this oasis, the happiness you feel to see other people that look like you here is indescribable. This photo series is an ode to that happiness, the peace and joy of Blackness on Martha’s Vineyard.”

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