The state of our state of Florida — in literature


Florida is the star of several books that will be presented at the Miami Book Fair this week. Here are excerpts from three:

Michele Oka Doner: “Into the Mysterium”

Magical Miami has always been a stage set, a site rendered mythic.

Perhaps its position at the tip of a peninsula serves as a device, removing Miami from the rest of civilization, a separation from the continental mainland of mind, so to speak, as well as the country’s physical body.

Adding to this unique geographic setting is a force of nature, the Gulf Stream, a heated engine that roars past Miami Beach at about four miles an hour. Two thousand feet deep and a thousand times the size of the great Mississippi, the Gulf Stream is home to over 600 varieties of fish as well as many other pelagic treasures. Almost 100 years ago the National Geographic Society sent John Oliver La Gorce to survey this “gift of fishes.” La Gorce concluded that practically one fifth of the entire fauna of the American continent north of Panama was contained in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

A century later I opened two steel doors on Virginia Key at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School and entered the silent world of the Marine Invertebrate Museum. It jolted my senses. Row after row of glass specimen jars occupy the shelving systems in a coded, specified manner, almost a million amorphous forms merging into harmonic cacophony, floating in mysterious fluids. This vast universe of underwater creatures is dramatic, even cinematic, chimeric: monster squids and octopi with sucker bearing arms, poetic sea anemones flaunting multiple, uncountable tentacles, gelatinous medusas evoking primordial memory, divine translucent abstractions seemingly dredged from the deepest and darkest unknown.

I then met the Museum’s venerable Director, Professor Nancy Voss. She arrived on this then isolated barrier island in 1951 as a graduate student to study marine biology and met her future husband, noted marine biologist Professor Gilbert Voss. Together they travelled our surrounding waters, collected, catalogued, and published. The resulting archive of Miami and our region’s natural, and mostly unseen endowment is a priceless gift to our community, the field of science, and world patrimony. It is a wet seed bank.

With Nancy Voss’ generous permission I returned with a camera and began to penetrate, and to reference the Marine Invertebrate Museum as the Mysterium. Subsequent photographs began to peel away the scrim that separates us from the mystery. The submerged, aquatic world the camera captured contains a primal essence, a fragrance. It perfumes our lives.

© 2016 Michele Oka Doner

Cathy Salustri: “Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida”

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration created the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which, in addition to documenting folk life and oral histories, left an exhaustive legacy of tour books to every corner of the United States: the American Guide series.

The Florida project sent writers — mostly anonymous writers, but also Zora Neale Hurston and a still-wet-behind-the- ears Stetson Kennedy — into the depths of Florida to reveal its splendor to the world. What they found wasn’t always splendid; they encountered mosquitoes, slave-like working conditions, racism and poverty. But these writers also detailed Florida’s beauty. They wrote about thick green forests, white sand beaches and waters teeming with seafood. In 1939, the FWP and the state of Florida jointly published the work of those writers as “Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State.” The guide included 22 driving tours of Florida’s main roads.

The brilliance of these WPA tours became apparent after Eisenhower built the interstates that encouraged drivers to bypass small town after small town in favor of making good time. Today, those main roads now serve as our back roads, and the absence of the American Guide series is keenly felt, especially in Florida, where most guidebooks barely scratch the state’s surface. These roads lie forgotten by all but the local residents, a few commuters, and dedicated road-trippers actively seeking them.

It is far too tempting to see Florida only in snippets of vacation. Every time I read another condescending account from an online columnist ridiculing our notable oddities, my soul cracks a little bit. That’s not Florida, I want to scream. That’s not who we are at all! Those writers don’t know Florida, don’t hold in their hearts the Florida of our dreams, the one we seek but rarely find.

I have fallen hopelessly in love with the weathered corners of Florida, the bits that don’t fit with the convention and visitors bureaus’ image. The chambers of commerce and tourism boards want quite keenly to present a fresh and clean land of white beaches and sparkling waters. In turn, we have convinced ourselves that we need to make sure our guests never see the other side of Florida: the Florida that is the skeleton, the backbone of all the others.

I, like my parents and countless settlers before them, have not tried to claim Florida. Instead I have let the state claim me. Almost 40 years later I travel Florida still, looking for parts I may have missed, seeking them out before they fade away under the heavy blight of franchises, strip malls, and rented Jet Skis.

Today I explore Florida on roads that parallel the interstates, rattling along with the same excitement that thrummed through me that afternoon in our maroon Buick. My beaches have changed, and the strip malls may one day win, but as I troll the backroads, I remain forever in search of that secret backwoods state with its sun-bleached roadside shacks. I feel the quickening inside as a sense of the familiar envelops me. It is that same sense of simultaneous longing and recognition I first felt when the salt water of the Gulf opened itself before me.

It is the feeling of coming home.

Tameka Bradley Hobbs: “Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida”

The lynchings of Arthur C. Williams in Quincy in 1941, Cellos Harrison in Marianna in 1943, Willie James Howard in Live Oak in 1944 and Jesse James Payne in Madison in 1945 are a small but important part of the United States’ bloody lynching legacy. Each incident elicited varied responses of the local, state, and federal government, as well as the American public.

With the onset of World War II, and its portrayal by the Roosevelt administration as a war to preserve democracy in the world, more Americans became keenly aware of the injustice lynching represented and its glaring inconsistency with U.S. war aims. Shifting priorities at the national level, especially achieving the moral authority necessary to command respect abroad, demanded that America directly address the issue of civil rights for all Americans. As a result, public servants and politicians attempted to balance the traditional acceptance of lynching and the relation of black oppression with the fascism the United States fought against in World War II.

The lynchings examined in this study outline shifting trends in antiblack violence, particularly how the practice of extralegal murder transformed after the 1930s and, perhaps more important, how the response of the American public changed in response to continued lynching.

Moreover, these lynchings are significant for what they reveal about the struggles and tensions that characterized the modernization of Florida during the era of World War II, especially within the broader context if international affairs and shifting national priorities. As examined in the pages that follow, public responses to these lynchings in Florida during the 1940s flooded into the state from around the nation, manifesting in letter-writing and telegram campaigns as well as blistering newspaper editorials that criticized the state’s leaders for not putting a stop to extralegal violence. Elected officials in the state contended with this unwanted attention as they thought best, defending the state’s reputation against the criticism while carefully avoiding direct intervention into the jurisdictions where these lynchings took place.

The gubernatorial administrations of Spessard Holland (1940–1944) and Millard Caldwell (1944–1948) employed the force of their office, and that of their attorneys general, to give the appearance of pursuing appropriate reactive measures in the aftermath of lynching violence. In some cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice also completed their own inquiries. While the results were less than satisfactory — no one was indicted in any of the four cases, and no law enforcement officers were found guilty of malfeasance — taken together, these responses clearly demonstrate a change in the posture, from passive neglect to increased responsiveness, of those responsible for maintaining law and order in the state and the nation.

When adjudicating the case of Cellos Harrison, even justices on the Florida Supreme Court seemed to adjust their stance in response to the ideological ground shifting beneath their feet. During the era of World War II, the wall of silence that lynchers in Florida depended on to shield them from being held legally responsible for their extralegal activities steadily eroded in the face of social and political pressure from outside of the state.