Russ Rymer called his new book "American Beach." But its subtitle -- "A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory" -- cuts to the heart of the dilemma that the book traces, and sharpens the distinctions it draws between Disney's Celebration and Eatonville.
That contrast makes the volume particularly apt reading this week, as Eatonville stages its Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, the city's annual celebration of the writer who's also a pivotal figure in Rymer's book.
"It's a complicated story. Trying to write it was like trying to play three-dimensional chess," Rymer says from his California home. "It's about the American cultural experience as it was lived very vividly by this one person, Zora Neale Hurston. It goes beyond race matters. This isn't about race, this book -- it's about how radical experiences at the beginning of the century are an appropriate guide to figuring out the dilemma."
To chart this dilemma, "American Beach" begins with Rymer's recounting of the 1994 murder of a black man in Fernandina Beach on Florida's northeast coast, an event that occurred during the years when Rymer lived on Amelia Island to research his book.
Rymer's focus expanded as he became aware of "hidden black American history, especially of the successful entrepreneurial black middle class," he says. The 1994 shooting seemed to be "emblematic race conflict, with lines immediately drawn between the blacks and the whites in town.
"But the more I investigated, the more the hidden life popped up," he explains. The fallout in Fernandina was affected by more subtle forces that were affect both races.
The next chapters explore Jacksonville, where a black middle class flourished early in the century, and nearby American Beach, where the colorful MaVynee Betsch, heir to the fortunes of earlier days, fought the development of the beach, traditionally a black vacation spot.
The themes build to the fourth chapter, which examines Eatonville and contrasts it with Celebration. "Eatonville is doing successfully what American Beach hasn't done yet," says Rymer. "And Eatonville is doing it in an authentic way, not a fairy-tale way, as Celebration is doing. Eatonville is using its history to ensure its survival."
Rymer spells out the reasons: Hurston was not only from Eatonville, she also made her name after going to New York by writing about her hometown. She became the first black graduate of Barnard College and a member of the group of artists responsible for the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston returned to Eatonville and launched a career that produced "Dust Tracks on a Road," "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and other books based on her Eatonville roots.
N.Y. Nathiri, founder of the Preserve Eatonville Community (PEC) and its Zora festival, drew on those authentic roots when working to protect from development the community that was established well over a century ago as a black-incorporated town.
"I was struggling with the importance of an authentic history and a homegrown, democratic presentation of history," Rymer says. "Celebration was an automatic foil for Eatonville's authentic history -- both Celebration and Eatonville recognize history and tradition as being an essential part of civic existence. But they were using them to opposite ends."
When Rymer researched the towns during the mid-1990s, he found that while "Eatonville was created as a democratic enclave -- the blacks who created the town could have lived elsewhere, disenfranchised, but they wanted to have their political life in their hands, and that's quintessentially American -- Celebration on the other hand is a corruption of that ideal," he explains. "It's an exemplar of corporate control, where democratic institutions are a sham."
Yet people welcome even the illusion of old-fashioned civic life. "Two or three generations ago," says Rymer, "before World War II, most public dialogue would not have been regulated by corporate material. Now almost all of it is."
His book spells out the commodification of history in Celebration, as a marketing ploy based on nostalgia. In Eatonville, by contrast, traditions evolved slowly, often as part of messy democratic processes that are the antithesis of Celebration's faux institutions -- among them, architect Philip Johnson's City Hall, which has no real purpose, since the noncity has no elected government.
Surrounded by signs advertising attractions, overlooked until PEC resurrected Hurston, Eatonville offers hope simply because it is real. Celebration points to itself as steeped in tradition; it is, however, "an expansion of corporate power and not a renunciation of it," Rymer writes in "American Beach." He explains further:
"The contrast between Eatonville and Celebration would have been strong enough for me to do a chapter on, in and of itself. But what made it more important and at the core of Zora Neale Hurston's experience is that if things are not authentic, they are evil," he says. "Maybe Eatonville's favorite daughter saw this; it is like a morality play about authenticity and what's going on in American culture: Do we own our culture or is it something that can be commodified? And black history shows," Rymer concludes, "that marketed culture is deadly."
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