For the love of Florida pine trees

Readers of the three books in my Florida Folk Magic Series heard a lot about the piney woods because pines (Sand, Slash, Spruce, Longleaf, Eastern White, Loblolly, and Japanese Black) own the Florida Panhandle. We had forty pines in our yard. I grew up with them, came to love them, so that’s what my characters see.

Wikipedia photo

When the fourth book in the series, Fate’s Arrows, is released in the near future, you’ll find more pines, beginning with a quotation from Gloria Jahoda (The Other Florida) that sets the stage for the book:

“Everywhere. . . there were pines, their long needles shimmering in a faint wind under the hot subtropical sun. In the country there were empty dirt roads, rutted by mule carts. In the towns sprawled rows of unpainted shacks without windows. Ancient Negro women sat fanning themselves with palm leaves as they stared drowsily from rickety porches at their zinnias and coral vines and heavy-scented honeysuckle bushes. Moss-draped oaks and lacy chinaberry trees shaded sandy dooryards. Scrawny dogs, the flies buzzing at their noses, slept among ragged-feathered chickens pecking for scratch feed. Locusts whined from tall magnolias with the steady pitch of power saws. But mostly there were those pines and the tang of their resiny branches and the dark straightness of their trunks. All of it looked like the south of the novelists and the poets, heavy with antiquity, romance, and misery.”

Jahoda wrote this in 1967. Living in Florida between 1950 and 1968, I saw the evolution of the world she describes. The panhandle world seemed, even then, to be the complete opposite of what snowbirds found in the peninsula and what people outside the state expected to see anywhere. The appalling Jim Crow racism was hidden away by the exuberant beauty of the land.

Malcolm

 

Parents aren’t supposed to like one of their children more than the others

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Southwest Airlines used to raise eyebrows during the flight attendant’s monologue about the plane’s safety features when s/he said, “If the masks are lowered during a flight put yours on first and then put the next mask on the child most likely to support you in old age.” Or, “The child you like best.”

I thought of this when a friend asked several days ago which of my novels I liked best while acknowledging that that might be impossible to do. I can pick one even though that doesn’t mean I’m discounting all the others. I told her it’s Conjure Woman’s Cat.

Here’s why.

  • It represented a change of focus for me in that I finally decided to address a hot-button issue for me: racism, Jim Crow, and the KKK as it was in Florida during my childhood.
  • After focussing on contemporary fantasy and one satire, I embraced magical realism with a story that would give rise to two sequels (soon to be three) while exploring the folk magic that was all around me in the Florida Panhandle.
  • While two earlier novels, The Sun Singer and Sarabande, focused on the somewhat esoteric themes behind the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey, Conjure Woman’s Cat focused on backyard magic with a lot of folklore and a lot of ingredients close at hand.
  • I had a chance to do something unique and that was using a cat as the narrator. Why did I do this? Because, after having one or more cats in our household at all times for thirty-five years, I thought it more likely I could accurately write from a cat’s perspective than that of an African American woman who was (as she puts it) “older than dirt.”
  • My publisher, Thomas-Jacob, and I were lucky in that we found a wonderful and highly talented narrator in Wanda J. Dixon for the audio edition. She’s gotten rave reader reviews on Audible and a coveted Earphones Award Winner review from AudioFile Magazine. (“Most distinctive is Eulalie’s recurring sigh, which conveys her frustration with Florida in the 1950s, when Jim Crow laws and ‘Colored Only’ signs were routine.”)

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m partial to Virginia Woolf’s statement in her novel Orlando: “In short, every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” I think that’s a given if an author is true to himself/herself. Yes, parts of me–my experiences and approach to life–live on in all my novels. But they loom the largest in Conjure Woman’s Cat.

The novel takes on more significance in my thoughts as riots and racism are looming large in the national consciousness–and major cities’ streets.

Malcolm

Our writing takes us back to our childhood

“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?” – St-John Perse from “To Celebrate a Childhood”

Perse is not well known today. I know his work because my mother bought a copy of one of his books in 1944, and I found his memories of childhood to be similar to mine in tone as I left home, grew older, and thought back to those formative years before I grew up and started losing my innocence.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

If my parents were still here today, they would tell you that I was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Pacific Northwest into the Florida Panhandle just before entering the first grade. If the acronym had been around in those days, I would have been shouting WTF–and probably incurred the wrath of everyone!

Oddly enough, Florida won me over. I “blame” the Boy Scouts and their camping trips for this as well as friends who had beach cottages, and my mother, too, who organized family day trips to all kinds of tempting places.

Florida has been showing up in my work of late. I set my first novels in Montana and then placed a satire in Texas. But I finally came home, and I guess I think of Florida that way now, and concentrated on the world where I grew up. My childhood in Florida was actually quite good once I started looking around at the neighborhood and finding an environment I liked. Basically, I grew up on the beach and in the piney woods.

Now, as those days draw me back now in my fiction, I wonder how many other authors discover that not only can they go home again, but that that is where their most powerful inspiration can be found. Childhood is such an impressionable time that it variously haunts us or inspires us for the rest of our lives. So many people are writing memoirs these days as though the writing itself helps them understand where they came from and what happened there. We do that in our stories as well.

Then, as now, I was struck by the conflict between the land and its beauty and the politics of Jim Crow. That disconnect still makes no sense to me. So, I write stories about it and try to figure it out. I have a feeling a lot of other writers are doing the same thing in fiction and nonfiction. We want to understand what turned us into the people we are today. Nature? Nurture? Probably both. For all I know, fate dragged me to Florida so that I would one day write Conjure Woman’s Cat.

That’s probably not the case. For one thing, I don’t believe in fate. But I do see that childhood wields a lot of power over us and that try as we might, we can never really escape it–supposing that we want to. I don’t want to, though I once did. Stories from a writer’s childhood are always there waiting to be told, to influence what s/he writes many years into the future. Those stories hold a lot of power over us and, frankly, life is much easier if we listen to them and share them with others.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racism: old, ugly, and inexcusable

The Florida Folk Magic series is set in the fictional town of Torreya 53 miles west of Tallahassee in the “other-Florida” world of the panhandle of the 1950s when the Ku Klux Klan, police officers, church elders, city fathers, and your next door neighbor were hard to tell apart. The sunshine state advertised itself as a playground and that’s what northern snowbirds saw. Residents, especially African Americans, saw it as a world of terror.

Unfortunately, racism is still with us in the new century. Progress has been made since the years when these stories are set. But inequality still exists, hate groups still urge Americans to return to the Jim Crow era, and even the discussions about how to bring about quality change are often divisive. This trilogy of novels was written with the hope that the voices for love, trust, and true equal rights will prevail. – Conjure Woman’s Cat Website

During the 1950s, it never occurred to me that the racism I saw around me during the Separate-but-Equal, Jim Crow era would still be suffocating our country, ruining lives, and causing violence 70 years later. I’ll confess that I was naïve in my outlook then, but I thought we as a people were better than that. I still hope that someday soon, we will be.

I have no intention of spinning the good, the bad, and the ugly of politics here or engaging in a discussion in the comments about whose fault the resurgence of racism debates is. What I see in the news and in social media is making things worse. Charges and counter-charges are not an informed debate, much less a route toward a united country where racism is no longer an issue.

To some extent, some of the news outlets are at fault because they are selective in what they show since what they show supports their agendas. Those who watch different networks and/or view different online news sites get radically different versions of the news. When news organizations have agendas, that is, loyalties to one political party or the other, we all end up with corrupted versions of what’s happening in our country and the world.

As a former college journalism instructor, it saddens me when reporters and their networks/newspapers throw objectivity out the window. Bias is the first indicator of a newspaper or news channel that cannot be trusted. Yet people are trusting them and basing their opinions on horrible reporting.

The social media further disseminate these erroneous and twisted views. People believe what they hear on their selected news outlets without bothering to check other sources for more information, much less alternative views. Most people–as evidenced by their social media comments–don’t seem to realize that many programs on CNN and FOX are not news shows, but opinion shows. Yet, these viewers think they’re getting real, objective new coverage.

Among other things, racism is being perpetrated for ratings and votes

To my mind, that’s like yelling fire in a crowded theater. One-sided coverage about nasty white cops is fueling the fire. One-sided coverage about black crimes is fueling the fire. This isn’t dialogue, it’s propaganda. It’s making people fearful of each other rather than bringing them together.

I saw news stories like this during the Jim Crow era. I don’t expect to see them now. But, political parties and sullied news organizations are doing all they can to ensure that the United States remains racist. This approach is old, ugly, and inexcusable. Blacks and Whites deserve better than this. Instead, we’re being fed propaganda that keeps us at odds with each other.

The best question I can ask is: “Who is profiting from the discord?

I think we need to find out and vote them out of office, stop buying their products, and stop seeing them as saints with words of wisdom. They are morally, spiritually, and ethically bankrupt.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

Looking back at ‘The Florida Terror’

Florida KKK in 1952, Florida Memory Photo.

Progressives in Florida registered 100,000 new African American voters in 1951 and branches of the NAACP challenged Jim Crow laws at swimming pools, libraries, golf courses and libraries. The legislature passed an anti-mask ordinance.

As PBS notes, “The Klan responded with a rash of cross burnings and floggings from the Florida Panhandle to Miami; Hendrix [who chartered the latest iteration of the Klan] declared war on ‘hate groups,’ including the NAACP, B’nai B’rith, the Catholic church, and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ; and then declared himself a candidate for governor. By the summer, the Klan began trying to roll back progress with sticks of 60 percent dynamite, with so many bombings, or attempted bombings, that the northern press dubbed it ‘The Florida Terror.'”

In many communities, the sheriffs, police chiefs and city fathers were members of the Klan. Meanwhile, the same people associated with themselves with policy gambling operations aimed at African Americans because–in exchange for protection and looking the other way–they got rich from their cut of the action.

Still a community blemish in the 1970s.

The KKK was a fact of life in the Florida Panhandle as well as the peninsula when I was growing up. I saw burning crosses, knew people who were threatened, and sat in my car in down town Tallahassee waiting for their disgusting parades to get off the streets. And, unfortunately, I knew influential people whom I strongly believed were members of the Klan.

The state advertised itself as a paradise, but that reality didn’t extend to everyone. “The Ku Klux Klan was at least as violent in Florida as anywhere else in the nation, and the sheriffs, juries, judges, politicians, press, and citizens, for the most part, as culpable in its murderous history,” Michael Newton wrote in his 2001 book The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida.”

“The bed sheet brigade is bad enough, but the real threat to Americans and human rights today is the plain clothes Klux in the halls of government and certain black-robed Klux on court benches.” ― Stetson Kennedy, author of  “The Klan Unmasked.”

My novels Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman focus on the dark era of the 1950s. The first novel tells the story of a white-on-black crime that the small town police force refused to investigate. In the second, the police turn a blind eye toward policy gambling and the threats against those who couldn’t pay their gambling debts. In my fiction, I have a powerful conjure woman named Eulalie with a very helpful cat named Lena.

I didn’t have the grit to tell these stories years ago, but I’m hoping that the better-late-than-never axiom is true.

–Malcolm