In Marita Rivero’s view, whoever defaced the Museum of African American History on Nantucket last weekend is a lousy student of history.
The would-be artist urged black people to leave the island, using the n-word in place of “black people.” For good measure, there was also a piece of crude artwork depicting a sexual organ.
Leave Nantucket? Black people have been on Nantucket since the 18th century. So has the Meeting House itself. It was first established, in what was then Nantucket’s black community, in 1827.
“When you don’t have a sense of the reach and range of American history, it’s easy to spray-paint something on the building that says ‘leave,” ” said Rivero, the executive director of the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill, which owns and operates the Nantucket property. “The irony there is very strong.”
When her organization acquired the property, in the early 1990s, it had fallen into severe disrepair. It took about a decade to restore it.
The hate crime set off a predictable round of hand-wringing about how unlikely something like this was to happen on a place like Nantucket. It is true that the community, before and since the attack, has often rallied around the center as a unique piece of the island’s history. But perhaps we are too easily shocked when racism comes to Massachusetts, too smug in the conviction that this behavior is the exclusive province of the less-educated and less-sophisticated.
That is a theme that plays out over and over in Massachusetts, as when Adam Jones was called the n-word at Fenway Park last season. We simply aren’t as different as we think we are, not when it comes to race.
But tragedies can also present opportunities. When activist Adam Foss heard about the defacing, he threw out a novel idea on Facebook.
Foss is a former Suffolk County prosecutor who now heads a national organization urging district attorneys to use their authority — specifically, their sentencing influence — more judiciously. He happens to be giving a speech on Nantucket later this month.
He posted a picture of the defaced building on his Facebook page, along with an invitation to the perpetrator to attend his talk about racial justice. He wants, he wrote, to start a conversation about understanding, accountability, and healing.
Foss quickly started a conversation — the post had more than 4,000 “likes” as of Tuesday — but it wasn’t the one he sought to initiate. Many commenters ventured that the picture was Photoshopped. Or that the whole thing was “fake news.” Some suggested that the perpetrator could well be an African-American seeking attention.
“This was a specific location and a very targeted message,” he said of the graffiti. “We’re never going to get anywhere if we can’t have a conversation.” By which he meant a larger conversation about why these events happen, and what they tell us about ourselves. Foss would like to see a town hall meeting, or more than one. So would I.
When events like this occur, there’s often a tension between looking for deeper meaning, or ascribing it to one bad actor — one crazy kid, one bigot in the stands — who somehow comes to define a community. The problem is that these events do define us, like it or not. The urge to look away should be resisted, because no progress comes of it. It’s a mistake to assume this is meaningless.
To Rivero, an incident like this just underscores the importance of the museum’s mission. Which as she sees it, is to tell a story of what this nation is really about.
“I think we are emboldened and required by incidents like this to speak out forcefully and firmly against that version of American life and to speak firmly in favor of the America we want to see,” she said. “That’s the story we are interested in telling and speaking about.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.