Like most east coast natives, I’ve been to Florida on countless occasions, frequenting the state’s most common destinations. I’ve even ventured to the lesser-known subsets and towns which make up our “Sunshine” state or as I’ve deemed it, ‘Yankee’s California’. This spring break, our team decided to revisit one of America’s top vacation spots and explore it through an entirely different lens – history and culture. We thought, “there has to be more Florida has to offer outside of the watered-down touristy activities we’ve all become familiar with”. Don’t get me wrong — Splash Mountain and South Beach are still my favs but I’ve made it a point to ingest culture when and wherever I vacation. There’s a deeper and more significant connection that results when one practices edutainment. It just so happens that Florida serves up history and culture like grilled hotdogs at a family reunion.
Orlando – More than Mickey
Our search for substance commenced in Orlando. Roughly six miles north lies Eatonville, which was one of the first self-governing all-black municipalities in the United States and the home to famed author, Zora Neale Hurston. Bet you didn’t know that! Slightly adjacent to Eatonville, you’ll find Winter Park where we had a run-in with Rollins College’s Coordinator of African American Studies, Professor Julian Chambliss or ‘Dr. Jules’. His expertise lies in Urban Development and Pop Culture. Julian has received national attention surrounding his most recently published works, Future Bear, a child-friendly comic book which explores an imagined future based on historical knowledge and present-day practices along with his film White Scripts and Black Superman, a documentary on how early Black superheroes played into common stereotypes of Black men. After our walk around America’s most beautiful campus, according to Conde Nast Traveler, we headed over to Enzian Theater. This non-profit art-house hosts true diversity in film, an outdoor bar and year-round events for the entire family. Enzian Theater Director, Henry Maldonado discussed the ‘baked-in’ diversity within indie films and how Hollywood will have a tough time catching up on the necessary changes that need to be made in the film industry overall. Finally, we danced in the sun with America’s Got Talent, Season 5, Top 5, singer and dancer, Marlee Hightower. Yes, we literally danced in the sun! I know she was hot. The talented Bloc LA dancer was a great sport about the heat and shared the originality Floridan’s both young and old offer. Marlee believes in being her unique self and isn’t afraid to share it with the world. Her family owns and operates Motiv Dance Studio which shares in that spirit of inclusion. The studio conducts beginner to advanced dance courses which are available to the public on a weekly basis.
Miami – Beyond The Beach
Bienvenido a Miami or something of that sort. Before getting ‘Jiggy’ with our elementary comprehensive skills in Español, we journeyed back into the not-so-distant past with a guided tour through the Black Police Precinct Courthouse and Museum. There, Sergeant Jackson reminded us of the racial discrimination that historically Black Overtown suffered at the hand of the then all-White Miami Police Department resulting in a self-contained ad-hoc system of Black Policemen who solely served Overtown residents long before integration became a Miami mainstay. But Overtown isn’t all ‘doom and gloom’. That night at the Lyric Theater, we witnessed an Apollo Theater style amateur night. Yup! You either landed big notes or became the recipient of big jeers from the audience. Locals frequent Live at the Lyric Theater’s Amateur night where attendees are welcomed to sign-up on the spot and perform. The next day, Corinna Moebius and Ariel Fernandez met us in front of the Los Pinarenos Fruteria to demo their newly customized Black/African Diaspora Heritage Tour of Miami’s Little Havana. Recent attempts at restoring American relations with Cuba and the history behind how it all started made this meet-up even more meaningful. Our journey through the Little Havana neighborhood coupled with Corinna and Ariel’s commentary made for a spiritual, inspirational and informative experience. We capped off our tour with a communal cup of Cuban coffee. It was difficult for us to part from our tour guides but Chef Wilkinson, “Ken” Sejour, owner of Chef Creole was awaiting our arrival in a section of Florida south of Little Haiti or as the locals call it, “Black Power”. Don’t ask [laugh]. This spicy chef is no stranger to the limelight. Ken’s Haitian revolution has been televised many times over and his clientele includes a host of notables but with that he maintains a humble demeanor. We found the successful chef in the kitchen of one of his five Chef Creole establishments. For Ken, cooking is an experience not just a list of ingredients prepped via a recipe. He believes in continually working hard on what he has built and serving people his best. The ‘best’ makes one happy and Hector Mendoza aka DJ Happy Colors has no shortage of fulfillment in that arena. This free-spirited Miami-based musician has found a way to mix Latin traditional musical genres with EDM and stretch the boundaries with his personal invention of “Bachata Trap”. This fusion is not necessarily a new trend but DJ Happy Colors spins with an energy that transcends his counterparts. Hector’s nods to moombahton, merengue, and bachata for keeping his sound authentically ‘Miami’.
Florida Keys – Unlocked Culture
Narrow is the way that leads to the Florida Keys. The long stretch of a one, sometimes two-lane highway will transport you into Caribbean-like weather and an ultra laid back lifestyle. It’s true that things seemingly slow down in The Keys and nothing says slow like the patients who reside in Marathon, Florida’s Turtle Hospital. The environmental impact humans caused by our negligence and leaving waste on the beach and in the ocean leaves these sea turtles experiencing a ‘hard knocks’ life. The sanctuary for these battered and infected animals is funded majorly by the daily tours made open to the public. Just a few doors down you’ll find the Adderly House at Crane Point Mueseum and Nature Center. In the late 1800’s the Bohemian Adderly immigrants, spongers by trade, established the first town in The Keys known as Adderly Town. The Adderlys lived off the land and created a settlement of which architectural remnants are still standing today. The African Diaspora runs deep, thickening as we ventured further south. Corey Malcolm, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Mueseum shared one such story as it relates to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Key West. His team recently uncovered nine graves of what’s believed to have been some three-hundred Africans whose ship was rerouted to Key West due to a blockade enforced by President Buchanan around 1859. The African Refugee Cemetery located at Higgs Beach moved me to yield and reflect on my personal ancestral roots. The beauty of the expansive sea coupled with the tragedy that spanned some four hundred odd years made me appreciate our progress as a nation but realize how far we still have to go on our journey to true equity and justice. Commissioner Clayton Lopez chimed in on that same train of thought as we communed in front of The Forgotten Solider memorial at Bayview Park. Amongst an array of monuments a sculpture stands erect in honor of African-American Key West residents who served in a Union regiment during the Civil War. The history of The Florida Keys is richly diverse due to its positioning as a refuge for wrecked ships and trading posts. This spectrum of diversity in race, creed and culture bred a open-minded view among its residents placing them ahead of their time in many respects.
Our trip concluded with a genuine thirst to discover more. The commercialized and often criticized peninsula piqued our interest to uncover more cultural treasures that the masses have yet to discover. We think it’s time you take heed and truly visit Florida for yourself.
Videographer – Brian Luman for Heed Magazine / Heed Media
Resources – Trip Index
People / Places
The Forgotten Soldier memorial at Bayview Park
932 N. Mills Avenue
You have never had a taco like the Asian-fusion offering young Costa Rican restauranteur, Edgardo Guzman offers.
950 NW 3rd Avenue, Miami FL 33136
Soul is the operative word here. It’s the type of
cuisine that requires you cook with a ‘seasoned’ pan and Southern recipes ‘sans’ measuring cups.
200 NW 54th St., Miami, FL
Bohemian dishes with Haitian flair. You won’t find packaged foods here. We know! They let us in the kitchen!
22658 Overseas Highway, Cudjoe Key, FL 33042
We lucked up on this spot. Seafood fresh out the Atlantic and onto your plate. Stop in here on your scenic drive through the Keys.
729 Thomas St. Key West FL 33040
Lobster for breakfast and blueberries inside of pancakes, oh my!
The Gates Hotel
3824 N Roosevelt Blvd, Key West, FL 33040
A new lifestyle hotel in Key West offering an intimate setting that invites guests to celebrate the island’s colorful history and creative spirit.