Black, Brown, and Colorful: Southern Identity Beyond Horses and Beauty Queens
A few months ago, I was speaking with a colleague from Texas about Florida, where’d I’d be returning at the end of our master’s program. “That’s not the South,” she said with an accent that had been absent for the six months I’d known her. Suddenly she sounded like Foghorn Leghorn — every word dripping with Country Crock — not a woman, sitting in California, sipping a kale smoothie out of a paper straw. “The South is like…” She raked her flat blond hair with her French-tip nails, lifting it, I guess, closer to God. “It’s like horses, and Republicans, and beauty queens, and...”
“White,” I cut in. Because there are only so many stand-ins for the word. And Florida, at least where I’m from, is not. Had I said I’m from the panhandle, where graphic anti-abortion billboards litter the landscape like roadkill, she would have probably conceded. The South is… religious. But Miami, where I was born, and Orlando, where I lived until I was 25, are too… ¿Como se dice? What’s the word? Black? Brown? Blue? Red? Colorful.
So what is the South? According to the Census Bureau, it is one of four statistical regions and includes 17 states (Florida among them). Others claim the South only includes the states that fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Or, it’s any part of any state you don’t want to run out of gas in.
No matter who you ask, most people will feel comfortable labelling Louisiana, directly to the North of Florida, the South; and yet, were you to put your finger on a map and drag it down, the more polarizing the conversation becomes about what identity Florida gets to claim.
Miami, I’ve heard, is too modern to be considered the South. So the South is not nightclubs. Orlando — too touristy. The South is not Mickey Mouse. Can we continue attempting to define the state using the process of elimination? If there were no more Miccosukee and Cubans in Miami, or Puerto Ricans and Haitians in Orlando, or Jamaicans in Jacksonville, would Florida be the South then?
When considering the linguistic limbo Florida finds itself in, I often think of a fictional Ohio town inhabited by African-Americans in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. In spite of being built up on the hills, it was jokingly named the Bottom by the white residents who lived in the valley. When the Black people left the Bottom, it was renamed the suburbs. Like that, there on any map is my home, so unquestionably to the south, and I can’t help but wonder who is laughing.
Maybe it shouldn’t matter what label we give Florida — the South is, on one level, a mere geographical distinction, an artificial division created to measure populations, another senseless border. My mother, for one, would balk at the suggestion that she is “Southern.” She has lived in Florida for over twenty-five years, but she is Nicaraguan — Central American — to the end. She sits on her porch drinking lemonade, talking shit in Spanish. Maybe it’s not about location, but culture, a definition that would align more closely with my friend’s horses and Republicans and beauty queens and…
Florida: The birthplace of Moonlight, the Daytona 500. You don’t think we skin animals? Deep fry pickles? I’m not saying I like all these things. I’m saying they’re here.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, who were formed in Jacksonville, and were best known for the Southern anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Boiled peanut stands.
Cowboy hats at 7/11.
You want folk tales? Have you heard of the chupacabras? Zora Neale Hurston?
To deny Floridians our Southern identity is a double erasure for people of color — of our claim to space and contributions to the culture. To the Blues rooted in the work songs and spirituals of African-American slaves. To the racism we face, even in our “modern” cities. Travyon Martin. Sasha Garden. Deportation. Segregation. The shooter at Pulse, after taking 49 queer Latinx lives before ending his own, said: "I don't have a problem with black people. This is about my country. You guys suffered enough." Really, who is laughing?
I want to give my friend the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about any of these things when she tried to explain what Florida was and wasn’t. Similar conversations are happening everywhere about gender and racial identity, about citizenship. Perhaps when we talk about Florida, we can borrow something from those discussions. Self-definition. To name something — male or female, illegal, the Bottom — is to strip it of its power to decide for itself. That’s what I want. To not be told. Do I really care if people consider me Southern or not? Only when their reason is that I didn’t grow up around enough horses. Then I dig my toes in deep.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” my friend said. “I can’t really describe it, I guess.”
Let me try to then. Florida is walking barefoot down South Beach holding a greasy bag of empanadas; it’s dancing to ¿A Quién le Importa? at Pulse; my mother yelling at a woman who called her a spic in a St. Augustine gift shop; falling asleep to the rattle of cicadas. It embarrasses me more often than I love it but I will always find my way back. It’s home.
About the Author
Edgar Gomez is currently working on his first book High-Risk Homosexual, a memoir about holding on to pride while coming-of-age of in a culture of machismo. Following his life through snapshots set in queer spaces—from a drag queen convention in Los Angeles, Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, and the doctor’s office where he was diagnosed a high-risk homosexual—his stories capture the risk of being gay and Latino, and the joy that makes this identity worthwhile. He lives in Brooklyn and is @highriskhomo across social. EdgarGomez.net
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