Hidden beneath the bosom of Alabama, right above the warm current of the Gulf of Mexico is the Florida panhandle. One of the most naturally stunning landscapes of the Florida peninsula, it’s a place with a complicated culture and history. There’s a grittiness about north Florida—that’s one of the first lessons that you learn when you step foot on one of its chalky, red clay dirt roads. There’s a tight sense of community, while at the same time a detectable degree of tension.
This tension is a racialized tension, an inheritance from an earlier century when the “color line” determined everyone’s life-prospects.
In north Florida, an unbelievable amount of guilt occupies the average person’s mental space. Most white folks wear their guilt like an uncomfortable piece of clothing. Many refuse to admit that their skin color not only presently gives them an advantage but that it always has. Others aren’t so oblivious. No matter where you fall, however, your identity as a white person in the cherished “Redneck Riviera” is tied to the bones and burdens of Black folk. Their culture is a touchstone for who you are. And without it, the feeling of being white would be unrecognizable.
Most Black folks tuck their guilt beneath their pride.
Daily resistance makes them this way. After all, we’re talking about the ones who stayed. A nuance missing from the American imagination of the Great Migration narrative is an awareness of the realities of the Blacks who remained in the South during the Jim Crow regime. There is also a pervasive ignorance about the Black spirits who evolved into Ford-tough expats of this mass exodus, eventually returning home to the Dirty South to reenlist in the struggle with much more liberal sass and blue-collar cash.
That was my family. My grandmother, Rosa, was a daughter of the turpentine trees, a “swamp child,” let her tell it her self. Etched in her memory are images from her childhood of she and her siblings slaving in the cotton fields of white sharecroppers for not much more than a few pennies a day. Nathaniel, my grandfather, saved her from that manual labor. But she saved him from a great deal of spiritual labor, a divine fortification for the racial struggles that were to come.
The day after he graduated from Jackson County Training School, the “colored” high school in Jackson County, Florida, my grandpa fled “north” to Newark, New Jersey. He was a pipe-layer and worked unbelievable hours to support his immediate and extended family. He helped cousins, friends, and strangers.
He had one goal, and one goal only: he wanted Black people from his community to experience what it’s like to focus on the formation of their identity, absent of the dehumanizing gaze of the specter of Jim Crow. In other words, he was invested in a project of showing Black youth, primarily from the slums of rural north Florida, what it’s like to come alive in their blackness, liberated from the corrosive containment that help create it.
There are no “metropolitan areas” in north Florida—only small cities and even smaller towns. But Hurricane Michael found us—and like my grandfather over 50 years ago, I felt the same pinch pulling me back to support another phase of muddy integration in the panhandle.
When this natural disaster hit, the “Black-White” binary suspended for a few hours. Color didn’t matter, class didn’t matter, and the history in which both these categories are mired seemed to blow away in the 154 miles per hour winds.
It was like mother nature needed to vent to us. For the deeply religious, this was a test for our common faith. The more secular-minded, however, seemed to think that this was an opportunity to reaffirm our regional identity as one of the most economically impoverished areas of the state of Florida. Despite whether or not either one of these judgments is true, both reflect a deep-seated need to make sense of this catastrophe.
In my opinion, this is more than just a search for an explanation. It is a psychological symptom of the moral cyclone that displaced us ever before Michael infiltrated our beaches—it’s the data point of our shared racial guilt. Down here, race and wealth are tied together, no doubt—but probably not how you think. Like most rural areas in America, poverty in north Florida is a universal burden. Despite the narrative pitched by many conservatives, most welfare recipients in the panhandle are not “Black” or “urban.” They are as white as Rick Scott. However, they exist outside his blanket of cushy capital and political prestige.
This is not to say that their whiteness is worthless. It’s not. It is a valued inheritance in the rural South. A superficial wealth, it won’t prevent you from being the target of a hurricane’s horror but it will enable you to stay afloat while the floodwaters of its aftermath are still high.
In north Florida, white people feel guilty for not telling the truth about their privileged civic status, about their rocky but attainable entry into the American Dream. When disaster strikes, they lift each other up, disguising this conspiracy as a joint patriotic effort to uplift the entire community.
On the other hand, Black folk in this part of Florida feel guilty for not expressing to white people their awareness of this deception. They feel guilty for masquerading their resistance, finessing their way through the good ol’ boy system as neglected step-children in a space that demands their labor, food, laughter, and spirit but declines their status as equal members of the shared social arrangement.
Let me guess.
You’re probably wondering why I wove a criticism about race relations into a narrative about a colorblind disaster, like Hurricane Michael.
What most Americans don’t understand is that a great structural amnesia dictates this segment of the rural South—and this amnesia is parasitic to the souls of whites and Blacks alike.
Now, faced with widespread adversity, we must discard our assortment of hand-me-down lies. Lies about equal respect and lies about equal status.
At the heart of these lies is a false consciousness about racial progress, a civic tragedy that is necessary to overcome, if we ever hope to heal from this disturbing attribute of our cultural narrative.
This kind of deception can instill us with Christian values, but these values won’t be capable of motivating us to practice the moral truths that empower them. It may nudge us toward a politics of respectability but only at the expense of abandoning an inclination toward human decency. This spiritual commitment can even contribute to the establishment of a sense of community. However, this community will always function as polarizing space void of belonging.
So, where do we go from here? Some will say that this question depends on the material recuperation of the Gulf coast—that the continuation of our community rests on the scraps of support that the Trump administration perceives sufficient for appeasing our charity case.
Many more will insist that the burden is on local communities. Prideful enough, they will rally “the community” to steadfast in the beliefs, practices, and traditions that ironically make the panhandle the most “Southern” thing about the state of Florida.
But maybe the most appropriate response is that we can’t go anywhere until we wrestle with our pre-established human disaster. Predicated on the structures of the past, this disaster is anchored in a guilt-oriented relationship between white people and Black people—the first being frightened to live with the attitude that their group identity depends on the domination of their darker brothers and sisters. The second group, on the other hand, is disillusioned from the spiritual two-ness of balancing a basic respect for all lives affected by poverty with the particular set of obstacles generated by the white gaze.
Our road to recovery not only presupposes a revitalization of the area’s physical appearance but, more importantly, a socialized removal of the preexisting moral infection that debilitates the region’s cultural anatomy.
Ultimately, restoring the public health of northwest Florida will be a project about mending the social fabric of its communities so that the tragedy of Hurricane Michael doesn’t amplify the guilt already festering in our hearts.