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History's shadow over Obama's Vineyard vacation

Despite its tiny size, Martha's Vineyard is a microcosm of the race problem that burdens America.

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Obama could chew over these questions at length with his friend Henry Louis Gates, were he so inclined. This past Thursday, Professor Gates hosted his annual forum on race relations at the Vineyard's Old Whaling Church, built in 1843 by very wealthy and very white whaling captains.

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This year's program was entitled "Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama." None of the evening's panelists were Wampanoag.

Gates lives in a large white house on land also once claimed by the Wampanoag. When it comes to that house, he is not without awareness of racial overtones. He has held fund-raisers for Obama and for Massachusetts Gov.Deval Patrick in the house, and he once told island journalist Laura Roosevelt that he loves the irony of the building's "neo-plantation look." He also said "the Island must have the highest concentration in the world of successful, middle- and upper-class black people."

Should he feel guilty? Should he pay reparations to the Wampanoag tribe?

I ask not to make Gates wrong, but to point to a larger issue that America must eventually face head on: What is the value of knowing our history, if we cannot transcend it? How do we hold on to our history, honor those who have been disenfranchised – and still move forward confidently into the 21st century?

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," warned New Englander Robert Frost in his poem "Mending Wall" nearly a century ago.

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to knowWhat I was walling in or walling out,And to whom I was like to give offence."

Before I became a journalist, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. Since then I have returned to Africa many times. My career has also taken me frequently to Europe, the Caribbean, and Mexico. All over the world, I have had insightful and challenging conversations about race, empire, and development.

All over the world, that is, except in my own nation.

Wendy Williams lives on Cape Cod in Mashpee, said to be the nation's first Indian Plantation, on land that once belonged to the Wampanoag tribe.