Florida's historical relationship to black Americans is a mixed bag. The quick and dirty version begins with Spanish colonial rule, under which slaves who escaped adjoining states were granted freedom here if they converted to Roman Catholicism. But when Florida became a U.S. territory and later a slave state, Native and black Americans had to flee farther south to preserve their freedom.
After the Civil War, Florida was home to one of the first black townships in the United States: Eatonville, six miles north of Orlando. Zora Neale Hurston's family would move there shortly after its founding, shaping the legendary author's perception of herself and what it meant to be African-American. Surrounded by black business owners, politicians, and community leaders, Hurston's childhood seems the natural precursor to her lifetime of anthropological work documenting black communities and traditions and using them as inspiration for her fiction. It's work that bears significance today, especially for artists such as Johanne Rahaman.
"She’s constantly in my head throughout the [Black Florida] project," Rahaman says of Hurston. "She’s towering over the narrative of Florida. I try to keep the idea of her in the contemporary while I’m creating my work. She’s my muse."
It isn't difficult to see how Rahaman's photography fits within Hurston's lineage. The Black Florida Project aims to tell the stories and demonstrate the warmth and complexity of black neighborhoods and individuals in Florida in a way that similarly skirts anthropology while embracing the intimacy and affection of art.
"The project is a celebration [from] within," Rahaman explains, "but for the outsider, the project challenges you to suspend judgment, to see in a way that you’re not often seeing communities that you’re not used to. These invisible barriers make them seem so far away when they’re so close to you. It’s an opportunity to come out and see that it’s not as bad as you think it is."
Rahaman started the project in 2014, around the same time she began shooting photos in South Beach during Urban Beach Week. Though crowds of out-of-town revelers aren't as open to Rahaman's more narrative approach to the Black Florida Project, the event nevertheless embodied what first drew her to capturing the spirit of the African diaspora in the United States.
"It feels like home," Rahaman reflects. "It feels like being in Trinidad getting ready for carnival, getting to the parade route. Even though there’s no parade, there’s this sense of merriment, of excitement, of family. It feels like everyone knows each other even though they don’t. There’s this sense of community."
Despite this vibe, politicians and land owners in South Beach have been trying to shut Urban Beach Week down for years. This year, the City of Miami Beach has made a concerted effort to draw visitors indoors via cultural events. Its more insidious tactics include paring down traffic on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle Causeways to one lane in order to scan the license plates of every vehicle entering the city. The narratives of increased crime and debauchery — conspicuously absent for similar, nonblack events such as Pride Week — are exactly what Rahaman's work attempts to combat. So it seemed only natural to bring the Black Florida Project to Urban Beach Week in an exhibition titled "Water Rights."
The concept comes, again, from history. During the Jim Crow era, community pools were immensely popular summertime gathering spots. After pools were integrated, however, white flight inevitably led pools in black neighborhoods to fall into disrepair, denying black communities access to them. Rahaman points out that beaches held equal significance for the same reason. Virginia Key Beach, for example, was a black beach that could be accessed only through a swampy, uncomfortable boat ride until integration in the 1960s, after which the beach became "too costly" to maintain. Today a toll bridge leads to the affluent Key Biscayne barrier island.
For Rahaman, this repetitive story goes beyond mere recreation or access.
"We’re connected to water; we were brought here by water," she says. "We survived it, and we’re constantly trying to reconcile that separation from what is home and what is homeland. Water plays a big part in that exploration of who we are and where we belong. Labor from the black community was used to develop the entire east coast of Florida, but we’ve been pushed further and further away from the water.
"There’s a constant struggle for water rights, even if it’s just the ability to go to the beach."
For "Water Rights," Rahaman is installing an LED screen onto a barge that will float from South Pointe Park to around 30th Street and back. In stark contrast to both the increased police presence and the never-ending banners beckoning people into clubs and restaurants, the slow-moving exhibition will show a selection of photos from Rahaman's work in Jacksonville, Palatka, and Miami Beach, among other places.
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"Whenever the black community comes to South Beach, there’s always this militarized feel every year," Rahaman explains. "So the idea is to use the images from the communities to create a sense of welcoming, to create a feeling of familiarity. I’m sure people will recognize friends or themselves in the images. Instead of being advertised to, the images will be more like home, like looking at a slide show of images of your family going by."
"Water Rights" is a tenderly hospitable gesture to tourists in the middle of a contentious local battle. And though Rahaman's focus has been limited to Florida and Trinidad so far, this arm of the Black Florida Project could speak to the vision she has for the work's future.
"We have an entire country to do this with," she says. "I would love to expand my process and the project to train other photographers to replicate this in their city, in their town, in their state."
"Water Rights." 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, May 26, along the beach between South Pointe Park and 30th Street in Miami Beach; blackflorida.org. It will move the slowest between 10th and 15th Streets. Admission is free.