on frontiers (past-present) and surveillance

Miami Map Final
This map of Miami captures the settlement of people of African descent in my ongoing research on racial and spatial politics in Miami since the late 19th century. Map created by the University of Alabama Cartographic Lab.

This week, the graduate students in my “Gender, Race and the Urban Space” class will turn to my home state – Florida – to explore all of sorts of issues, including how the past always seems to pose amazing tensions with the present. A rundown of the “texts” before us: Gregory W. Bush’s article on  how dominant groups in turn of the century Miami marketed the city and, incidentally, their own values; Paul S. George’s article on the bumpiness of Miami’s initial real estate boom  (indeed, there was more crime in Miami in 1925 and 1926 than 1980, the year in which the city was famously known for race riots and Cuban refugees); Raymond Mohl’s essay on segregated housing known as “second ghettoes” in South Florida as the twentieth century matured; Gary Wills’ study on how Ronald Reagan seemed to renew “our past by resuming it”;  Billy Corben’s initial ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the University of Miami’s football program during its initial rise in the 1980s; and Martin F. Manalansan’s article on the surveillance of gay men in New York City after 9/11.

I am interested in how all of these “texts” encounter one another because I am a native of Miami and my current research projects addresses racial and spatial politics in the area dating back to the nineteenth century.

I am curious about how the students will invoke George Lipsitz’ thoughts on how urban space across time gets racialized amid advertising, promotion and the thirst for capital and how certain bodies are surveyed during such developments. Will Lipsitz’s thesis have new meaning if we think of the sheer diversity of people in turn of the century of Miami:  black Bahamians who taught early white settlers how to build on coral rock; the bootleggers who brought alcohol from the Bahamas; white celebrities, politicians, businessmen and others from the northeast, Midwest and the Deep South; and the  transients who came to party or work in the so-called “Magic City”?

While we think about possible answers to many questions, we should be deeply interested in the stories human beings tell themselves about the past especially when “frontier” spaces like turn of the century Miami figure into the equation.  The frontier, as Wills, harping on Frederick Jackson Turner, says, defines what it means to be American. We keep creating new spaces to begin again. To begin “what,” I ask, and why?


In new spaces, human beings compete. They push one another. UM’s once faltering football program received new life under many coaches following Howard Schnellenberger’s arrival in 1979. For a glimpse of the swag for which the program became known, see the opening of  Corben’s doc on “The U,” the nickname for the university, my undergraduate alma mater.  Miami’s hip hop mogul Luther Campbell, whose voice is heard underneath the clip, was the original poster child for “bad boy” rap. His music helped define the risque, but also a college football team and the hopes of many everyday people in Miami’s black communities.

How do we make ties between Miami’s black urban dwellers and white and black Americans (and ones of Caribbean descent) who initially settled in South Florida? For sure, in new spaces, human beings exploit one another. In urban ones they often do as much while simply trying to endure physical  congestion (the posted clip of the Williamsburg Bridge in New York serves as an example of such congestion, but there are more difficult videos and photographs we might consider, too).

And all the while, old divisions seem to hold steady, or not. The latter possibility is one that I raised in my “Bebop to Hip Hop” class yesterday (we met one last time before the students turn to completing their research papers. They make presentations on April 25th).

I asked the undergrads yesterday to juxtapose  the 1991 motion picture “Grand Canyon,” the film they saw last week, against Corben’s documentary on “The U,” and an Internet news doc on Kendrick Lamar’s childhood friends (Thank you, Alex Bauer, a graduate student in “Gender, Race and Urban Space” for sharing the Lamar video with our class last week).

What old stories about the past and present show up in these primary sources? Are there any new ones to consider?

Without question, there has been racial progress. No one can deny it. Unlikely allies manifest every day. Yes, the ties between African American young men from impoverished communities in Florida and UM former head football coach Jimmy Johnson, a man from a white working class Texas family, were real. Finding meaning in it all as we get through the day is the obvious challenge. And then comes Summer Break and we begin again. Roll Tide.

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