Finding my Florida,
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to define what it means to be a Floridian, you might consider this:
In the time it takes to drive south down the length of Florida from Pensacola to Key West, you could head north and make it all the way to Illinois.
Or this: In our nation’s third most populous state, only some 36 percent of us who live here, were born here.
It’s no wonder that from the tip to the top, from one coast to another, our particular experiences of Florida can feel as distinct as cafe con leche does from Southern fried chicken, or as Hoppin’ John does from a hot pastrami sandwich.
That diversity is what makes our state so vibrant, resilient, and appealing. And so challenging when it comes to joining together and grappling with the issues we face as we continue to grow.
In this edition of FORUM, we take a look at who we are as Floridians — where we’ve come from in the last century; who we’ll be in the future. We tell you about a new digital portal to the past, into the lives of those drawn here by the Spanish colony. And we introduce you to a tiny crosssection of unsung Florida pioneers who left their mark on our state.
We profile the stories of three well-known Floridians whose lives illustrate distinct versions of our state’s experience:
Former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, born in a coral house on the edge of the Everglades, only left his home state for law school and service in Washington; former U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina elected to the U.S. House of Repre-sentatives, arrived in Florida at age 8, fleeing with her family from Castro’s Cuba; and former state Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry, a North Carolinian-turned-Floridian who has brought his passion to work toward social justice here.
As part of our ongoing Literary Footsteps feature, we uncover the surprising Florida life of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Scholar Michele Navakas details Stowe’s post-Civil War winters in a live oak-entwined cottage on the banks of the St. Johns River, where the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin continued her work for social reform. And she wrote and wrote, recording a growing appreciation for Florida’s wildness and unpredictability in letters and a book that boosted North Florida as a tourist destination.
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In This Florida Life, we talk to poet laureate Peter Meinke, a native New Yorker, who tells us how a small home in a tucked-away and nature-blessed neighborhood gave himself and his family roots in Florida.
We mentioned earlier the resilience that typifies the people born in and drawn to our state. Perhaps no story here illustrates this quality as much as this one: In Insider’s Florida, Wewahitchka native and novelist Michael Lister takes us to the Panhandle’s St. Andrews as it recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Michael. Lister recounts how this community of creative citizens is turning hardship into an enduring bond — one painting, song, story, and poem at a time.
So what does it mean to be a Floridian, to be citizens of a state where so many of us also have an allegiance somewhere else? We hope this issue of FORUM provides food for thought, and we’d love for you to share your ideas with us and each other. Please write us at email@example.com.
And in the meantime, we thank you, as always, for reading FORUM, and for valuing the humanities — and the humanity of — our Florida.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of FORUM magazine.
Editor, FORUM magazine
Florida Humanities Council