Imani Woodin: Miami as Text 2021-2022
Imani Woodin is a sophomore at Florida International University majoring in international relations with a minor in Portuguese. Starting her life in Kenya, moving around the state of Florida, and living as an exchange student in Brazil fueled her intrigue in learning about people and places. As someone who is fascinated by art, nature, language, and life, she is more than ready to explore Miami through this course.
Downtown as Text
It’s so easy to romanticize a city like Miami: The ocean breeze. The palm trees. The fresh mangoes and limes. But when we only pay attention to the easy parts of the city, we oversimplify and ignore its past and present issues.
One of the first stops we made in our tour of downtown was to the Longhouse in Lummus Park (Miami River), less than a mile from the city’s government center. The structure was built in the 1840s by enslaved African people- only 20 something years after Spain sold Florida to the US in 1821. Seeing this building in the heart of Miami unveiled a truth that I had considered but never really learned about: the foundation of this city- just like every other American city- is built off of the labor of displaced, enslaved Africans.
It was enlightening to learn that this structure was built by the hands of enslaved people, however I did not notice any signs or plaques that shared this information. I believe that it is important to educate the public about these details. Not only will people have a deeper understanding about the foundation of the city, they’ll also have a realer interpretation of how Miami is impacted by the sociocultural hierarchy in place.
Many Floridians try to shrug off our state’s history when it comes to slavery, segregation, racism, and the byproducts of these horrors. However this mentality is dangerous. It undermines the experience of the persecuted along with their descendants.
The horror and glory of the city of Miami can be personified in the man, the myth, the menace- Henry Flagler. On one hand, Flagler, who co-founded Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, connected Miami to the rest of the United States by adding it as a destination to his Florida East Coast Railway. On the other hand, Flagler openly disgraced native culture when he flattened and removed a Tequesta burial mound to build his hotel. On top of that, Flagler introduced segregation to Miami and displaced a black diaspora community of American southerners and Caribbean immigrants to an area called Overtown (formerly referred to as Colored Town). The black population dealt with unequal educational and professional opportunities, which still linger today as more than half of Overtown residents live below the poverty level; 34% are unemployed; a large percentage of youth are neither in school or working.
After visiting the Longhouse, we went to the Dade County Courthouse. At the front of the Courthouse stands a statue of Henry Flagler. I chose this photo of the courthouse specifically because sitting at the steps before his statue sat a black woman who appeared to be homeless. I couldn’t help but to think to myself that this woman who carried her life in reusable bags and looked to be in poor health, was in her situation in part because of Flager’s actions.
One of my classmates, Amaranta, asked if it was ethical to have a statue of Flagler in the city. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
After the Courthouse, we found our way to the Miami River, which was once the source of fresh drinking water before early developers of the city dumped raw sewage into it. I don’t know how many times I’ve passed the waterway since moving to this city in January, but I never realized the history or significance of this site until this day.
Our final destination was to History Miami. One display that caught my eye exhibited African American leaders from the city, including figures such as Florence Gaskins who organized the Black Junior Red Cross during World War I and opened the first black employment agency in the 1920s. This section of the museum was significant to me because in school I never learned about black leaders who helped the black community- only black leaders whose work was significant enough for the white patriarchy to pay attention to. Although figures such as MLK are important, it’s essential to celebrate individuals who helped to improve their marginalized community. Sadly their impact is overseen by most educators in this country. This recognition not only gives young people of color idols to look up to, but it also humanizes black figures of the past for those who might not be familiar with their plight.
This type of education demonstrates that there is no one race in Miami (or in this country)- the city is made up of several communities who took care of themselves when the groups in power refused to. Educating locals and visitors on the several different groups that reside in this city opens a forum in which we can all relate to one another and become more considerate of our neighbor’s history, struggles, and customs.
On the bus back home from downtown I saw this sign and thought it was a perfect summarization of Miami. Diversity has been a defining factor of this city, and everyone who is presently in Miami, whether residing or visiting, is a small yet significant part of the city. Whether you’re walking Ocean Drive or driving through Westchester, we all feel pride in hearing people singing or rapping about being at Miami Beach or bragging to northerners about how winter is not a word in our vocabulary, however we need to balance that honor with consideration and inclusion, which has been put on the back burner for so many.
Make sure to educate yourself and the people around you on the full history of this city or whichever city you live in. Make sure to teach the next generation about what came before them and make sure it’s the whole truth- from multiple perspectives. If you want to learn more about Miami’s history, you can start by visiting http://hiddenhistorymiami.com/.
By Imani Woodin of FIU at Downtown Miami, 01 September 2021.
Overtown as Text
What stuck to me the most about Overtown was how hospitable the people were. Although Miami is a vibrant city, it isn’t exactly known for having the sweetest people. Overtown, the people went out of their way to say hi and to thank us for visiting. (I learned that the city is called Overtown because it was the second black settlement in Miami, which was “over town” from the first one in Coconut Grove. When you hear the locals talk about the area, they don’t say “in Overtown the people are so kind,” they say “Over town the people are so kind.”)
I think the people Overtown might have been so appreciative of our visit because most the people who go there don’t go with open hearts to embrace the history and to meet the people. Instead they go in with green eyes, looking to see how much of it they can take. Gentrification trickled Overtown slowly but surely. The event that broke Overtown was the construction of I-95. Now they see it in other ways. Sometimes it’s a blueprint for another 40 story building. Then the rent goes up another $100. Every day it gets more and more flooded with new living expenses until the people who’ve lived in the area all their lives can’t afford to stay there any more.
One of the locals who saw us walking around pointed at a skyscraper and said “do you see that? they tore down my elementary school to build that.”
The town part of Overtown is getting phased out for the bustle and the expenses of the city to come through and the community that once thrived is getting pushed away.
Some of the only original structures standing in the area are two churches: Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal and The Historic Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. So many historical moments happened in them: MLK spoke in both of them, in fact he spoke at Mt. Zion 5 days before he passed away. Sit-ins that changed the way this country functions were planned in both churches. Not only are these places where people went to realign themselves sprititually, these are hubs where people came together to uplift one another and to change their community for the better.
Each church was special, however our visit to Mt. Zion resonated with me the most. There, we met a woman named Linda Rodgers. I’d never met anyone who spoke with such eloquence. Her presence is what I envisioned it to be like if I’d ever met Maya Angelou. Not only could she capture an audience and maintain an unwavering composure, but she also told us stories of her interactions with influential people such as Martin Luther King Jr, who she said visited the church she attended while in college. At the time she knew him as Martin the church goer. One day at church, she told us, a couple got into a fight and the man hit his wife and knocked her to the ground. As the whole church turned to see what happened, Martin rushed over and helped the woman up then quickly turned to the man to condemn his actions saying, “violence is never the answer.”
That story goes to show that kind gestures go much further than the moment you do it. I doubt that as Reverend King was helping that woman that the story would be retold years after- but that was his character- he was good and he didn’t need recognition for it. He just was.
By Imani Woodin of FIU at Overtown Miami, 15 September 2021.
Vizcaya as Text
As you drive up to the gates of Vizcaya, the greenery of the neighborhood it sits in contrasts the concrete plains that cover most of Miami and the intricacy of the statues and arches laugh in the face of the modern architecture. Even before you pass the entryway, the area around it evokes a feeling that you’re not arriving at just another house.
At the entrance of the compound, Deering installed a sculpture of Ponce de Leon stepping on a world and at the center of the world is South Florida- specifically is Vizcaya. As you get closer to the villa, you feel like it’s the center of your world, even if it’s just for that day.
the long walkway you take before going into Vizcaya gives you a sense of anticipation, like you know something grand is to come. the trees add to the ominosity by covering the full view of the building. your sense of curiosity and excitement grows with every step you take until you finally get to the pond that sits in front of the home.
I have this theory that every person wears a house in the same way they would wear clothing. If you imagine it, your uncle would look really different in a pair of Levis than if you wore them. Similarly, when you go into a room like the in your home, you might like to use the ceiling light while your roommate prefers to use the nightlight on the wall or your wife prefers lighter colored comforters while you’d choose a darker one. These small differences reflect each person’s style and contribute to how you experience a living space.
When you’re in Vizcaya, you and your roommate don’t need to argue about which light to pick or which color scheme to choose from- all you have to do is explore every room and enjoy the one that matches your style. Every room has its own atmosphere. For those who are more minimalist, you might enjoy the entrance room which is centered around symmetry, as you can see in its paintings and the reflection of the floor and ceiling patterns. For those who appreciate music, theres a music room and for those who enjoy haphazard environments, you might prefer the north hall and its rococo style. There’s something for everyone to love there: even in the most flamboyant room there’s some simplicity and in the most simple room there’s flamboyance. Deering not only built a house, but living art and I think he understood that everyone could experience the house in their own way.
Imani Woodin of FIU 13 October 2021