American history, coming from where I'm from, Els' Rabbit Trails, Florida History, politics

In which I wax political but not too much.

This is as political as I am willing to go here, but this tweet is both funny and true:

Given the current state of limbo surrounding the Florida senate race, I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw that. It seems as this is the normal course in every major race our state has voted in since the Great Electoral Fiasco of 2000.

What many of you may not realize is that we have a history of election upheaval here that reaches back much further.

Our illustrious electoral history started at least as far back as 1876, when Florida, via a back room deal, handed her electoral votes and the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Electoral shenannigans are as naturally Floridian as retention pond alligators and key lime pie.

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American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams

al black highwaymen book

The Highwaymen Murals: Al Black’s Concrete Dreams, by Gary Munroe. Published in 2009. Hardcover, 160 pages.

Despite being officially 160 pages, The Highwaymen Murals is only 27 pages of text, all the author needs to detail the turbulent life of unlikely artist Al Black. The remaining 133 pages are color photos of the murals Black painted throughout the two prisons where he served time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s for drug possession and fraud. The particulars of this book must necessarily be preceded with a short introduction to the Florida Highwaymen. Gary Munroe’s book opens with this paragraph:

In 1960, in Ft. Pierce, Florida, a group of young African-American men virtually stumbled into lucrative careers as landscape painters. These men had no schooling, nor were they part of any art movement. At night, because they had no studios, they painted feverishly in their own backyards, often with barbecues flaming and beers flowing. By day they would peddle these scenic paintings up and down the Atlantic coast. Actually, they did not care that much about art, and they cared even less about the recognition that they might receive as artists. What did motivate them was basic to their very survival- financial gain.

That’s the short version of the story of the artists known as the Florida Highwaymen (the group did include one woman, however).  This book is the third of several books that author Gary Munroe has written about the artists. His first book, published in 2001, catapulted these men, their story, and their contribution to the arts into the spotlight when the New York Times devoted a lengthy piece to them in its Lively Arts section:

Wind-bent palm trees, sand, surf, billowing clouds and vivid sunsets were the essentials of Florida landscape painting that emerged following World War II. Occasionally moss-draped cypress trees in the still water of a marsh presented a more contemplative view, while a royal poinciana in full, flaming red bloom or a storm-tossed shore provided dramatic relief.

From the late 1950’s into the early 80’s these colorful landscapes were ubiquitous decorations in Florida homes, offices, restaurants and motel rooms. They shaped the state’s popular image as much as oranges and alligators.

Little known, however, is that such paintings were largely the creations of a loose-knit group of self-taught, African-American artists from what was called Blacktown in the little east coast city of Fort Pierce, about 55 miles north of Miami, said Gary Monroe, professor of visual arts at Daytona Beach Community College. (The writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty in Fort Pierce in 1960.)

Munroe’s first books highlighted the classical, more artistically pure work of Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, the first highwaymen. During his research and travels he discovered the story and prison murals of Al Black, and couldn’t rest until he had written this book which tells Black’s story. He recounts his rise, fall and redemptive work painting murals on prison walls which injected a dose of hope into the life of his fellow inmates and brightness into the shifts of the correctional employees who spent their days and nights supervising their charges.

Al Black’s Concrete Dreams explains how Black, who initially didn’t paint at all, went from  the smooth talking, silver-tongued salesman for the Florida Highwaymen, to becoming a celebrated artist in his own right.

Because the Florida Highwaymen painted as much for volume as aesthetic value, Black often stacked his cars full of paintings that were not completely dry. He is actually quoted as saying he “never sold a painting that wasn’t wet”. When he arrived at office complexes, banks, hotels, medical facilities and other places to sell the paintings, he’d often find that the paintings had been smudged or damaged in transit. As a result, he learned to carry art supplies with him to fix the paintings while he was on the road.

He was never much interested in painting because he was making a handsome living selling the paintings of the Highwaymen. Over time however, he became quite skilled. He did paint on occasion, and on occasion passed off unsigned works by other artists as his own work.

Over time his fast-talking, risk-taking, high-life way of living  cost him everything, including his freedom. During the resurrected interest in the Highwaymen’s art, the warden of the Central Florida prison where he was incarcerated recognized his name, and that was the beginning of Black’s return to art and the celebrated prison murals which adorn the walls of two Florida state prisons.  Most are not available for public viewing except in this book, but a couple were published in Florida newspapers. This is one example (photo credit):

al black mural

Black’s ascendancy, free fall from grace, and re-emergence from the ashes is a fascinating tale. What I enjoyed more than the short biography however, was the art, so I am glad that this book was composed chiefly of Al Black’s artwork.

As for how the Highwaymen art lost its grip on the imagination of Floridians old and new, the answer is actually pretty simple. As the Florida landscape changed, bulldozed and covered with more concrete and overrun with more cars, the idyllic natural beauty that drew the likes Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone to the Sunshine State gave way to Mickey Mouse and mass marketed tourism efforts. The magic captured by the Highwaymen paintings was not within the imaginative reach of new generations of Florida residents and visitors. Their time had come and gone.

four out of five stars.

 

American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History, homeschool

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark

joseph E Clark book

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark: From Slavery to Town Father, by Olga Fenton Mitchell and Gloria Fenton Magbie. Published in 2003, 112 pages.

This is the biography of the man who founded the oldest incorporated black municipality in the United States of America. It is definitely a niche book and topic, one that interests me on a purely personal level. I almost declined to review it because I know there is no universal appeal attached to it. However, it matters to me, so I decided it was worth reviewing.

Joseph Clark was born into slavery in the year 1859. He was the son of slaves, but his father William was a man of keen sense and a deep desire to see his children be as successful as life would allow. So after the Civil War ended and his family was freed, he moved them to East Tennessee (a Union friendly southern area) and began working in earnest to see to it that his children were educated. Always a man of hard work and frugality, the authors of the book recount that 1870 census records list William Clark as a drayman with a net worth of $400, a financial feat rarely accomplished by the newly freed African descended slaves!

With this as his legacy, Joe Clark grew up and stepped into the part of his story that I was mostly already familiar with. The founding of Eatonville was a momentous and ground breaking event in the South. Joe Clark’s dream of a town founded, inhabited and most importantly governed by freed black men became a reality in 1887:

 

eatonville-founded.jpg
Joseph Clark 4th from left. Photo Credit.

Covering every aspect of Joseph Clark’s life including the tragedies and hardships as well as his victories, The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark filled in some of the blanks of his history that I was unaware of. Knowing much of the information beforehand didn’t make the book any less enjoyable to me.

This was a good little book. It covered a lot of ground in a very succinct and matter of fact way. It eschewed political commentary and stuck to the facts, and was well done overall. I am glad I stumbled on it while doing some research in our local library branch.

5 out of 5 stars.

Florida History, intriguing authors, marriage and relationships, philosophy, Uncategorized

Zora Hurston confirms Solomon’s declaration.

There are a couple of book reviews being drafted, but in the meantime, I was recently reminded of this story from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men.

In 1935, ZNH laid bare what was obvious about relations between the sexes and where they were headed even back then.  It has only been amplified over the past 50 years. Totally worth grasping the dialect.

You see in de very first days, God made a man and a woman and put “em in a house together to live. ‘Way back in them days de woman was just as strong as de man and both of ’em did de same things. They useter get to fussin ’bout who gointer do this and that and sometime they’d fight, but they was even balanced and neither one could whip de other one.

One day de man said to hisself, “B’Iieve Ah’m gointer go see God and ast Him for a li’l mo’ strength so Ah kin whip dis ‘oman and make her mind. Ah’m tired of de wa things is.” So he went on up to God.

“Good mawnin’, Ole Father.”

“Howdy man. Whut you doin’ ’round my throne so so dis mawnin’?”

 “Ah’m troubled in mind, and nobody can’t ease mah spirit ‘ceptin’ you.”

 God said: “Put yo’ plea in de right form and Ah’ll hear and answer.”

“Ole Maker, wid de mawnin’ stars glitterin’ in yo’ shin crown, wid de dust from yo’ footsteps makin’ worlds upo worlds, wid de blazin’ bird we call de sun flyin’ out of you right hand in de mawnin’ and consumin’ all day de flesh and blood of stump-black darkness, and comes flyin’ home every evenin  to rest on yo’ left hand, and never once in yo’ eternal years, mistood de left hand for de right, Ah ast you please to give me mo’ strength than dat woman you give me, so Ah kin make her mind. Ah know you don’t want to be always comin’ down way past de moon and stars to be straightenin’ her out and its got to be done. So giv me a li’l mo’ strength, Ole Maker and Ah’ll do it.”

“All right, Man, you got mo’ strength than woman.”

So de man run all de way down de stairs from Heben he got home. He was so anxious to try his strength on de woman dat he couldn’t take his time. Soon’s he got in de house he hollered “Woman! Here’s yo’ boss. God done tole me to handle you in which ever way yo’ boss please.”‘

De woman flew to fightin’ ‘im right off. She fought ‘im frightenin’ but he beat her. She got her wind and tried ‘irn agin but he whipped her agin. She got herself together and made de third try on him vigorous but he beat her every time. He was so proud he could whip ‘er at last, dat he just crowed over her and made her do a lot of things she didn’t like. He told her, “Long as you obey me, Ah’Il be good to yuh, but every time yuh rear up Ah’m gointer put plenty wood on yo’ back and plenty water in yo’  eyes.

 De woman was so mad she went straight up to Heben and stood befo’ de Lawd. She didn’t waste no words. She said, “Lawd, Ah come befo’ you mighty mad t’day. Ah want back my strength and power Ah useter have.”

“Woman, you got de same power you had since de beginnin’.”

 “Why is it then, dat de man kin beat me now and he useter couldn’t do it?”

 “He got mo’ strength than he useter have, He come and ast me for it and Ah give it to ‘im. Ah gives to them that ast, and you ain’t never ast me for no mo’ power.”

 “Please suh, God, Ah’m astin’ you for it now. jus’ gimme de same as you give him.”

God shook his head. “It’s too late now, woman. Whut Ah give, Ah never take back. Ah give him mo’ strength than you and no matter how much Ah give you, he’ll have mo.

De woman was so mad she wheeled around and went on off. She went straight to de devil and told him what had happened.

He said, ” Don’t be disincouraged, woman. You listen to me and you’ll come out mo’ than conqueror. Take dem frowns out yo’ face and turn round and go fight on back to Heben and ast God to give you dat bunch of keys hangin’ by de mantel-piece. Then you bring ’em and Ah’ll show you what to do wid ’em.”

So de woman climbed back up to Heben agin. She was mighty tired but she was more out-done than she was tired so she climbed all night long and got back up to Heben. When she got to heaven butter wouldn’t melt in her mouf.

“0 Lawd and Master of de rainbow, Ah know yo’ power. You never make two mountains without you put a valley in between. Ah know you kin hit a straight lick wid a crooked stick.”

 “Ast for whut you want, woman.”

 “God, gimme dat bunch of keys hangin’ by yo’ mantel befo’ de throne.”

“Take em.”

So de woman took de keys and hurried on back to de devil wid ’em. There was three keys on de bunch. Devil say, “See dese three keys? They got mo’ power in ’em than all de strength de man kin ever git if you handle ’em right. Now dis first big key is to de do’ of de kitchen, and you know a man always favors his stomach. Dis second one is de key to de bedroom and he don’t like to be shut out from dat neither and dis last key is de key to de cradle and he don’t want to be cut off from his generations at all. So now you take dese keys and go lock up everything and wait till he come to you. Then don’t you unlock nothin’ until he use his strength for yo’ benefit and yo’ desires.”

De woman thanked ‘im and tole ‘im, “If it wasn’t for you, Lawd knows whut us po’ women folks would do.”

She started off but de devil halted her. “Jus’ one mo’ thing: don’t go home braggin’ ’bout yo’ keys. jus’ lock up everything and say nothin’ until you git asked. And then don’t talk too much.”

De woman went on home and did like de devil tole her. When de man come home from work she was settin’ on de porch singin’ some song ’bout “Peck on de wood make de bed go good.”

When de man found de three doors fastened what useter stand wide open he swelled up like pine lumber after a rain. First thing he tried to break in cause he figgered his strength would overcome all obstacles. When he saw he couldn’t do it, he ast de woman, “Who locked dis do’?”

 She tole ‘im, “Me.”

 “Where did you git de key from?”

“God give it to me.

He run up to God and said, “God, woman got me. locked ‘way from my vittles, my bed and my generations, and she say you give her the keys.”

 God said, “I did, Man, Ah give her de keys, but de devil showed her how to use ’em!”

“Well, Ole Maker, please gimme some keys jus’ lak ’em so she can’t git de full control.”

“No, Man, what Ah give Ah give. Woman got de key.”

“How kin Ah know ’bout my generations.

 “Ast de woman.”

So de man come on back and submitted hisself to de woman and she opened de doors. He wasn’t satisfied but he had to give in. ‘Way after while he said to de woman, “Le’s us divide up. Ah’Il give you half of my strength if you lemme hold de keys in my hands.”

De woman thought dat over so de devil popped and tol her, “Tell ‘im, naw. Let ‘im keep his strength and you keep y’ keys.”

 So de woman wouldn’t trade wid ‘im and de man had to mortgage his strength to her to live. And dat’s why de man makes and de woman takes. You men is still braggin’ ’bout yo’ strength and de women is sittin’ on de keys and lettin’ you blow off till she git ready to put de bridle on you.

Yes, I realize it’s not Biblical but, this is folklore. It still proves that there really is nothing new under the sun. Which is why it is so vital to read books. They are not a substitute for THE Book, but still. The older, the better.

 

children's books, Florida History, novels

Strawberry Girl

strawberry-girl

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski. Originally published in 1945. 194 pages. Winner of the 1946  Newberry Award for Children’s literature.

We’re reading this to my 4th and 5th grade Florida history  co-op class and they seem to be enjoying it a great deal. Readers may recall that last semester we read The Lion’s Paw, another Florida classic children’s novel built on the life and topography of 1940’s Florida.

Strawberry Girl is probably one of the least childlike children’s book I have ever read (by post modern standards), but it’s a good book and not too heavy for children to read and enjoy.

Lois Lenski put a lot of time and research into the lives and culture of what are known as Florida Crackers. That is, native Floridians whose roots go much deeper than World War II. As described by Florida Backroads Travel:

He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War Two. He or she is almost always Caucasian.

They and their ancestors lived in Florida and prospered before the days of cars, highways, mosquito control, air conditioning, medicare, social security and government welfare.

It is with this backdrop that Lois Lenski wrote Strawberry Girl, a tale of two Central Florida families whose heads bump heads. The new family in town, the Boyers, are farmers while the Slaters, who had lived on the neighboring property for generations, were cattlemen.

Before the Florida legislature passed a fencing law in 1949, cattlemen let their cows and other livestock roam pastures unhindered to graze wherever they desired. Florida was  very active cattle country at the turn of the century and is still a big cattle raising state. These free roaming cattle often proved to be quite a nuisance to adjacent homesteaders whose income was derived primarily from agriculture.

When the Boyers, wearied by the Slaters cows and hogs trampling their strawberries and eating their other crops, decide to build a fence around their property, a feud breaks out between the two families. Since the Slaters found the Boyers’ “biggety’ ways distasteful from the very beginning, it was a long simmering fight which boils over when Bihu Boyer puts a sound whipping on Sam Slater after Slater poisons his mule. Things escalate even further after that, until Lenski wraps up the book with a neat and tidy religious conversion at the end leaving the reader to surmise that afterwards, the families will live side by side in peace.

One of the first hurdles to get over when reading books set in the old South, is the dialect. I mentioned this when I reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was written in black dialect not long after Reconstruction. Even though this particular book explores Cracker culture which is white, it was still poorer people speaking in a Southern dialect, which takes some getting used to. However, it is well worth getting over that hurdle:

“Thar goes our cow, Pa!” said the little girl.
“Shore ‘nough, that do look like one of our cows, now don’t it?”
The man tipped his slat-backed chair against the wall of the house. He spat
across the porch floor onto the sandy yard. His voice was a lazy drawl. He closed his
eyes again.
“She got our markin’ brand on her, Pa. A big S inside a circle,” said Essie.
The man, Sam Slater, looked up. “Shore ‘nough, so she has.”
“She’s headin’ right for them orange trees, Pa,” said Essie.
“Them new leaves taste mighty good, I reckon,” replied her father. “She’s hungry,
pore thing!”
A clatter of dishes sounded from within the house and a baby began to cry.
“You’d be pore, too, did you never git nothin’ to eat,” said the unseen Mrs. Slater.
There was no answer.
The sun shone with a brilliant glare. The white sand in the yard reflected the
bright light and made the shade on the porch seem dark and cool.
“She might could go right in and eat ’em, Pa,” said the little girl. Her voice was
slow, soft and sweet. Her face, hands and bare legs were dirty. At her feet lay some
sticks and broken twigs with which she had been playing.
Pa Slater did not open his eyes.
If it isn’t obvious to my regular readers by now, I thoroughly enjoy reading books which explore the history of this state where I have lived my entire life. As it turns out, it’s a history far richer and deeper than Mickey Mouse. However, no matter where you hail from, this is an excellent book.

Grade: A

Grade level: 4th-6th

Content advisory: Violence, though mostly alluded to. Discussions of alcoholism, and killing of animals in retaliation. See full parental review of content at Plugged In.

children's books, coming from where I'm from, Florida History, novels

The Lion’s Paw

lions-paw-book

The Lion’s Paw, by Rob White. Published in 1946. 243 pages.

12-year-old Penny and her 9-year-old brother Nick live in an orphanage on the east coast of Florida. Nick doesn’t much remember living anywhere else and Penny just barely remembers a life before they came there. They hate it, and Nick dreams of running away, but his sister is terrified at the prospect. The orphanage doesn’t like it when kids run away and those who try are almost always caught and made an example of. She tries to talk Nick out of it, but he is determined.

Penny can’t let her little brother run off on his own of course so they escape together, running towards the ocean, hoping to find a boat in which sail away. They determined to start a new life away from the orphanage, which they referred to as the “eganahpro”, because they only ever saw the word written backwards through the wrought iron gates which held them captive.

After Penny and Nick make a run for it  and set off on their adventure, they have the good fortune of running into 15-year-old Ben on the wharf. Ben not only has the boat that he inherited from his father (an WWII Navy lieutenant  presumed dead after a year MIA), but life has thrown him a curve ball inspiring him to run away from his uncle’s as well. The three children set sail together on an adventure far too big for children of their age and station, yet rise to the occasion.

This is an obscure book which once enjoyed a passionate following among Florida readers and educators in the 1960’s and 70’s, and then was out of print for a very long time. I only encountered it because I was looking for books specifically about Florida and Old Florida life. Re-entering the market in 2004, The Lion’s Paw is again enjoying a resurgence among those who know enough to seek it out.

Make no mistake however, this touching, fast paced novel is good reading no matter where you live,where you’re from, or how old you are. C.S. Lewis’ admonition about the timelessness -and age defying quality- of a well told story certainly fits here. Rob White hits all the right notes as the children wrestle with trying to out run the adults searching the seas for their masterfully disguised boat, battle against nature, and grapple with their out fears and uncertainties about the future they face on a journey bigger than themselves.

If you have kids who might like a great story of children on an adventure at sea, you should try and get your hands on a copy of Robb White’s The Lion’s Paw. It might also be a great idea to print a map of Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway to track the kids’ trip from one side of the Florida peninsula to the other.

Grade: A

Content advisory: Mayhem and adventure on the high seas, but nothing the average 9-year old can’t handle. Lots of nautical terminology which provides a good opportunity for the kids to do some research on what it all means.