On Location: The Florida Panhandle, AKA ‘The Other Florida,’ in another era
“The Other Florida’s pines will survive too, I think. Often among them I remember the person I was before I came to them and what I thought was important then, and the landscapes I have since known, and the history I have since learned, and the friends I have since made. Whatever the fates may take me in the years to come, I shall not be the same again.” – Glorida Jahoda in “The Other Florida” (1967)
The Other Florida, as viewed by anthropologist Gloria Jahoda, was raw and wild and distinctly different than the peninsular part of the state which was being taken over by developers and snow birds and the others who indulged in the kinds of vandalism that destroyed the natural beauty of the state in order to present a man-made, safe and sanitized version of sunshine, flowers and paradise.
In folklore, fantasy and magical realism, other denotes that which is not only different from ourselves and our kin, but is also dangerous, potentially malevolent and probably beyond our comprehension. In the hero’s journey motif made famous by Joseph Campbell, other is the unknown world outside the city gates. Other, in the Harry Potter books and movies, was the forbidden forest next to the school. In psychology, other is the part of ourselves–often called the shadow–that we do not know and do not want to know. Other can also be used to dismiss and/or subjugate peoples, places and ideas that we see as inferior to our comfortable way of thinking.
The Apalachicola River Watershed
I chose Liberty County and the world adjoining the Apalachicola River in Florida for the setting of my novella Conjure Woman’s Cat because historically–and psychologically–it was highly other to everyone, including most of the population of Tallahassee fifty miles away, but more so to those who lived outside the state and/or in the peninsula.
This world felt other to me when I first saw it, the family having moved to north Florida from Oregon when I started the first grade. I was used to mountains and the Pacific coast, all of which formed what I knew of the world. The pine forests, blackwater rivers, basin swamps, savannahs, sheepshead ravines, cypress trees and sweetbay magnolias, Spanish moss and saw palmetto, and white sand beaches seemed fictional. I grew to love them though it’s taken me a lifetime to wrap my consciousness around a place where Southern Gothic was a way of life.
The Other Florida
My bible was a book written by family friend Gloria Jahoda, another outsider who described in detail the world between Jacksonville and Pensacola with the detailed and poetic accuracy alien eyes often bring to new experiences. She called this world the “Deep South with a difference, worlds from homogeneous Alabama and Mississippi and even rural Georgia. Though you can never realize it as you speed through the pinewoods to get somewhere else, 20 miles in any direction may bring changes in the country’s life and essence that are dazzling in their variety. Oystermen, cotton planters, millionaire quail hunters, moonshine-makers, vocal conservatives, doctrinaire liberals, scientists, game wardens, fortune tellers and hermits inhabit a land that is above all things deceptive because it looks as if it offered hardly any variety at all.”
En route from Tallahassee to the “forgotten coast” we drove through, economically speaking, the poorest county in the country with miles of pines tapped for turpentine, miles of unpaved sandy roads through scrub oak, sink holes with seemingly no bottom beneath the cold clear water, and that sign that said it all: “Impeach Earl Warren.” I don’t remember who coined the phrase or when, but Southerners were said in those days to like individual Negroes (the terms Blacks and African Americans hadn’t yet been invented) but dislike them as a group while Northerners were said to dislike them as individuals but like them as a group.
Suffice it to say, Sunshine State tourism brochures did not highlight the active and volatile KKK presence nor the fact that Florida had more lynchings, torture, fires and explosions than just about anywhere else. Proper people knew better than to talk about the Klan even though the group was as integral to the state’s politics and culture as Tupelo honey and grits were to meals cooked and served by Negro maids. The brochures also didn’t say that turpentine camps and orange groves used Negro convict labor, conscripted under false and fanciful charges, to bring us paint thinner and orange juice.
The maids who–as we said–“pert near” raised white children weren’t allowed to eat in our restaurants, attend our churches, use our restrooms or drink out of our water fountains. Negroes were in every possible way, other. Since I wasn’t born in the South and didn’t have a Southern accent, I was called a Yankee and a “N”-lover.
Hell, as a six year old from Oregon, I had never heard of the Civil War and then when my parents told me it happened one hundred before, I didn’t know why folks talked about it as thought it were yesterday. Seeing the war as yesterday was a way of life and the KKK made sure nobody forgot that segregation as by no means gone with the wind. My parents were very liberal and we went to a liberal church, one of the first in town to allow Negroes to attend. The pastor had a cross burnt on his front yard for opening our sacred place to the others and a fair part of our congregation left in a snit and started their own church which was kept Ivory Snow white. My best friend was among those who left. So were my grandparents. I still haven’t forgiven them for that.
I tell you all of this because it’s the impetus behind Conjure Woman’s Cat, a novella set in a Jim Crow era in a violent state that tells the story of a granny and her kitty using folk magic to fight the Klan. Hoodoo was, of course, about as other as you could get and the bond between it and the congregations of Negro churches (praise churches, the were often called) could not be comprehended. The blues told the stories because the blues and Negroes and hoodoo and praise churches and troubles were all wrapped up together. Perhaps I loved the blues because I was an outsider, that is to say, other.
I was other watching other. My childhood had little innocence in it. Eulalie, my ancient conjure woman in the novella is modeled after the maid who worked for years at my best friend’s house, and I expect I learned more from her than my grade school teachers. Eulalie’s friend Willie Tate is modeled after an elderly Black gentleman who (like many) used a mule-drawn farm wagon for transportation. His family brought their produce to our door every week. Stopped by my best friend’s house around the corner as well. They didn’t come to the front door because that just wasn’t done. Lena, the cat in the novella who travels between words is, of course, me.
Magical realism thrives on people, places and things considered other. Readers believe magic is possible wherever the other is and less likely in the worlds they know. Perhaps so. Perhaps I found magic in the other Florida because I went there as an outsider like the writer of my bible. Like her, I was changed by the pines, landscapes, experiences and friends. Inevitably, writers write about what changes them, what impacts them–what they find, so to speak, on location.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Cora’s Crossing,” set in Marianna, Florida, “Moonlight and Ghosts,” set in Tallahassee, the “Garden of Heaven” trilogy set, in part, in Tallahassee, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell and Florida’s “Garden of Eden” near Bristol, “Emily’s Stories,” set in Tallahassee and St. Marks, and “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” set in Liberty County, Florida.