florida · oral history

trip home brings serendipity

I just returned to Tuscaloosa from  South Florida. The main goal of the short visit was to see my mother for her 71st birthday. We celebrated with writer-artist Alejandrina Cue and her husband Michael. I first met Alejandrina, who made a lovely authentic Cuban meal, in Havana during a 1996 tour coordinated through the U.S. State Department and the then- San Francisco based Global Exchange.

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While in Miami, I also enjoyed fried conch. Conch is a shellfish I grew up eating in Miami, my hometown. It is very popular in Bahamian communities.

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Another highlight of my visit was visiting Winfred and Ruby McKendrick. Mr. McKendrick is one of the interviewees in my ongoing research on the self-determination in people of African descent on the Florida peninsula. In the sixties, he and his wife purchased a house in Carol City/present-day Miami Gardens, about twenty miles north of Miami. At the time, the community was experiencing white flight. Never succumbing to adversity, this Albany, Georgia, native, had several jobs as he and his wife, an educator, put three children through college.

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Who knew, but one day after I saw them in South Florida, I learned that my oral histories with him and other South Floridians of African descent who lived in the Baa Haas, the nickname for Carol City/Miami Gardens as well as additional greater Miami neighborhoods received the PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History award.

With this grant, I will return to South Florida to conduct more oral histories with people who live or once lived in the Baa Haas, our beloved and once boondocks-like community. The grant is made possible by a substantial contribution from American author and editor Jean Stein, whose groundbreaking work helped popularize literary oral history. She passed away two years ago. Her oral histories included work with families that helped her tell the story about the development of Los Angeles. She also tackled the life of Andy Warhol and other topics unveiling early Hollywood.

My thanks to the judges Kate Bernheimer, Heid E. Erdrich, and Alessandro Portelli for their faith in this work and approach to storytelling.

I am sometimes skittish about conducting research with oral histories. I had no idea that some academics have no use for these kinds of sources. But such storytelling is deeply embedded in African and African American historical traditions. I am especially interested in using this approach alongside other so-called “more traditional” approaches  to gathering data because the seemingly lowliest people get to have some say in telling their own story. Since the slavery era in the United States and beyond, stories that were never written by people who could not read were still viable sources of information. I hope The Baa Haas, the nonfiction literary work I will complete using the grant named for Jean Stein, will help showcase the importance of such information gathering.

The Baa Haas is a project that is separate from my manuscript that uses University of Miami football as a starting place to investigate the possibilities and limitations of black life on the Florida peninsula. That manuscript also finds me exploring the experiences of Zora Neale Hurston in Miami during the winter and spring of 1950. The Baa Haas project pushes what I began in a 2017 Journal of Urban History article and fleshes out Chapter Five of the manuscript. I now feel like I am cooking a research meal. One project is on full boil. I am in the prep stages of another and thinking through the ingredients of another. They all pivot, however, from each other because of geography. Florida and South Florida are very important in each one. Using this grant, I can turn the heat up this summer on one of them.

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During my visit, my mother wanted to see Coconut Grove, a Miami community closer to the bay where we first lived before moving to the Baa Haas. Many of my relatives are buried in this historic cemetery.
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This is the intersection of Grand Avenue and Douglas Road in Miami’s Coconut Grove, which was settled in the late19th century using the labor of people of African descent. Many of them were from the Bahamas.

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I greatly enjoy looking at plant life and driftwood on beaches including Hollywood Beach in Broward, not far from the Baa Haas. I also enjoy looking at sand. When my family moved to the Baa Haas in 1972, there was plenty of white sand of a prehistoric-like beach in the area.  A stadium, shops and houses mostly cover that sand nowadays.

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I now say farewell to the holidays. We packed our decorations today. Last minute touches are being made to my Spring 2020 syllabi. Where did the time go!?

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Christmas in South Florida’s fancy Bal Harbor.

PS A final huge highlight of the holiday break was traveling with my colleagues Steve Bunker and John Beeler and Bunker’s wife Cynthia to Shreveport, Louisiana, to see the University of Miami football team play Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl. We lost, but still had a fabulous time.  My memories of my time at the university in the eighties also greatly figure into my research.

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The young men below still inspire. On the shoulders of so many we stand. Area code 305. Miami! IMG_8488.JPG

 

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