Hard Candy: Following Stetson Kennedy
Originally published here on September 1, 2011.
Think of me as a skeptical inquirer. I’m not much one for seances, but I’m open to the possibility – just not very open. I see things in black and white, except when I dream. Then I see things in all their glorious color. I take dreams far more seriously than I take fortune telling and Ouija boards.
Last week I dreamt of Stetson Kennedy, a 94-year-old Florida treasure, whom I’d been meaning to call.
Those of you who have heard of Stetson Kennedy probably heard of him because he infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. A smaller group of folks may know him for his writing about Florida folk life. The man told Florida stories. But there’s one other thing he did that most of you, I’d wager, never knew. He edited a guide book to Florida, a chamber of commerce type of affair that led people down shell and dirt roads into palmetto-fringed hamlets in every corner of, at the time, the southernmost state.
During the Great Depression, the federal government had this idea that they would pay writers who had “pauper” status and few prospects to write about their state (Are you listening, Mr. President?), thus stimulating the economy by encouraging Americans to travel and celebrating American culture. The Federal Writers Project, part of the WPA, hired a young man named Stetson Kennedy to write and edit the book about Florida; he and fellow Floridian Zora Neale Hurston traveled the state to collect vignettes and document what the average traveler would see along Florida’s roads.
Courtesy of Jim Crow, the duo traveled separately. In 1939, the Federal Writer’s Project published their work as The Guide to the Southernmost State, and it is the last time anyone saw the state with one set of collective eyes. No one prints this marvelous collection of driving tours anymore; if you want to tour the Sunshine State (Hawaii robbed us of the “southernmost” honor years ago), you can either research us online or you can buy a book catering to your specific interest or location (Think “The Dachshund Lover’s Guide to St. Pete Beach” or “Shopping for Bamboo Along Florida’s Forgotten Coast”) but you can’t get a solid tour book for the entire state. Some of the larger publishers hit the highlights of many towns, but if you want to crack open the state and see her spongy limestone insides, you’re out of luck.
This is our state’s most tragic loss. Not knowing what we stand to lose allowed us to swallow miles of beach with condo canyons and surrender the Everglades to sugar cane and irrigation. Our state’s beauty has become a commodity with the most beautiful parts garnering the most pages in tour books. If your town doesn’t fit with the accepted view of paradise, well, you don’t get the prize: visitors.
Certainly this “glove compartment guide” to every nook and cranny of the state pales, for most, in comparison to Kennedy’s courageous infiltration of the KKK. I love it anyway. I love it because, through the tours and histories in the pages of my weathered copy of the Guide I find the beating heart of forgotten Florida, the undercurrent pulsing beneath Disney and water parks and gator wrestling.
For my thesis, I will retrace Stetson Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston’s routes and follow in their footsteps, now cold for 74 years. Over the next three weeks, I will be poking around the edges of Florida fish camps, ranches, and small towns, no matter how anonymous. I will go where they went, recording what I find no matter how “pretty” the paradise.
When I met with one of my thesis advisors about my work last week, we talked about me interviewing the 94-year-old Kennedy. It is his massive work I seek to replicate, and, among Florida scholars he is a pillar of Florida culture.
“You’d better hurry,” my advisor said. I told him I would do it this week.
Stetson Kennedy died Saturday morning. The item on my to-do list is now crossed off as yet another incomplete regret, something else lost in Florida.
Last night, I dreamed of him. I was covering a crime watch meeting in Gulfport and he walked in and sat down. I knew he wasn’t there for the crime watch; he was there for me. I approached him and asked him how I was supposed to know what parts of the book were his. What I really wanted to know was, how could I show others the state that captured his heart and mine? Where would I find bit of the past he saw? How could I possibly hope to pay homage to his Guide to the Southernmost State?
“You can hear my voice,” he said. “When you go, you can hear my voice.”
I start my travels Sunday. The ghost of Stetson Kennedy, I hope, will lead the way.