teaching · Uncategorized

Miami: A Closer Look

Miami is once again to the city to which the graduate students in “Gender, Race and Urban Space,” an interdisciplinary course, turn. Writings by Paul S. George, Morton D. Winsberg, Alejandro Portes, Mark H. Rose and Raymond Mohl permit us, above all, to compare the settlement of people of African descent in South Florida to other groups, chief among them Cuban Americans during the twentieth century (The recent work of Chanelle N. Rose and N.B.D. Connolly are also must-read critical histories involving Miami).

Our readings make me think about how Miami is perceived in the last thirty years or so on the heels of the television show “Miami Vice,” motion pictures like “Bad Boys” (the first one and its sequel) and my favorite, “The Bird Cage,” starring Robin Williams,  music videos like Will Smith’s “Miami” and documentaries like ESPN’s two “30 for 30” programs on the University of Miami football program and the success of the Miami Heat. Sun and fun often encounter corruption, crime, drugs and racial strife.

No matter the pain and oppression exposed, since the initial boom in the opening decades of the twentieth century, the glimmer of this city never entirely fades. Miami’s glam, or swag (whatever you want to call it) persists amid a third popularity/population (which is it?) boom. The first occurred shortly after the city’s 1896 incorporation. The second following the Second World War a la Jackie Gleason and others. As I learn more about the city in which I was born, I make adjustments in how perceptions of my home town jibe with what actually happened.

The students will  be invited to take note of how scholars of varying disciplines approach their research. Indeed, social, political and economic histories meet sociology this week. We should be actively wondering how different approaches to studying the past sometimes offer different interpretations of the past – even when scholars look at  similar data.

Speaking of data, we should also be curious about the kinds of stories that get told or go untold, depending on what we look at or what we look for in Miami.

Generally speaking, prior to my growing interest in Miami, I have been a historian who has been interested in antebellum life. My earlier training in antebellum history has compelled me to dial back the parameters of my framing. This blog doubtless is an effort to be transparent about how I teach what I am still learning and how I learn. This semester’s grad students are well aware that they are sometimes sounding boards for a professor’s in-progress work (One student last week mentioned the 1983 motion picture “Scarface” as yet another cultural product that unveils postwar Miami in predictable ways. Guns, drugs, blood, rags to riches, and ethnic strife are all there in Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, a Marielito).

Just as it took ten years to finish the last project, it could take just as long to complete this one. I will think of many things as I work including the moments when I visited South Beach in the early 1990s. It had recently become the place to be (again).

This week, my grad students and I will think through many issues including:

-how the mid-twentieth century assimilation of Cuban Americans in Miami compares to the people of African descent in the late nineteenth century.

– how geographic polarization in Miami in the twentieth century compares to  urban dweller settlement in other cities, among them Cincinnati and Buffalo, New York, before the Civil War

-changes in the difficult encounters of people of African descent in Miami with law enforcement on the heels of the 1926, hurricane and the city’s initial boom

– how our impressions of Miami’s large West Indian population in the first half of the twentieth century (it was second only to New York) compare to greater awareness of the city’s growing Hispanic population since the 1950s

-and, how the late 1960s freeway revolt in Miami compares to the ones in the Bay area during the same period. What do we make of the legacy of Elizabeth Virrick, a white woman who fought the construction of a single freeway that destroyed Miami’s black Overtown community? As a child who initially grew up in Miami, I often passed a park named for her on the black side of the Coconut Grove, the first neighborhood I called home.

Elizabeth Verrick and Mohammed Ali
A 1982 photo of Elizabeth Virrick and Muhammad Ali in a gym named in her honor.

Another name often heard when I was a Miami resident what that of Father Theodore Gibson, a former Miami city commissioner and Civil Rights leader.

Father Theodore Gibson fought for improvements in the quality of life of Miami’s black community.

In thinking through the prompts above, I think of my childhood friendships with classmates of very different backgrounds. Some had names like Edelto and Lupe. In first grade, I had my first Spanish lesson at Biscayne Gardens Elementary with a teacher named “Miss Rodriguez” who went from room to room, tooting a kazoo before starting in on her Bueno dias-Como estas? sing-song like hello. The students in my class, who were distinguished by labels like black, white, Jewish, Cuban and Puerto Rican,  replied in kind. As I grew older in the 1970s and 1980s, I increasingly had classmates at Lake Stevens Middle School and American High who were from other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. My encounters with them and others doubtless affect the questions I ask myself and my students.

I hope the students continue to be curious about how local, regional and national authorities play a role in the everyday lives of urban dwellers. Earlier readings, among them, Eileen Suarez Findlay’s look at working class women of color, among them sex workers, in turn of the century Ponce, a city in Puerto Rico, and Susana Pena’s study of the experiences of arriving gay Marielitos to South Florida, should resonate. Miami’s incorporation coincided with America’s imperialist position, rising Jim Crow practices and crafted definitions about sexual identity, ideas that are worth thinking through, too, alongside of “A Florida Enchantment,” a 1914 film .

With surveillance in mind, we might also return to the experiences of African American men on the University of Miami’s football team during the program’s initial rise to national prominence, too. Last week’s attention to how the efforts of the advertising and real estate industry figure in should definitely resonate, too.

This t-shirt, a homage to Dade County in which I grew up (and South Central Los Angeles politics), is yet another cultural product hailing a particular view of my beloved Miami (and The U, my alma mater).

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