What I know of American Beach:
American Beach was founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida's first black millionaire. Mr. Lewis owned an insurance company and bought a section of the island so that his black employees would have a nice place to vacation without having to deal with the nightmare that was segregation.
The bad news is that it looks now to be quite rundown and no longer a popular destination. The good news is that it is because it is no longer necessary, thanks to desegregation. Mr. Lewis' great-granddaughter, Marvyne Betsch, i.e. the Beach Lady, has lived there since 1977, doing what she can to give the area respect and recognition. I first read about her in a National Geographic article many years ago.
While taking that solitary drive to American Beach a year or so ago, I had Moby's Play in my CD player, and it just seemed to fit. I drove slowly through the tired streets in a quiet beach town and felt the despair in the air as I listened to "Natural Blues." I parked my car and walked around the neighborhood, taking pictures and soaking in the atmosphere. I walked between a couple of run-down houses and saw the same Atlantic Ocean that washes up and down the entire East Coast. Rich toes and poor toes all feel the same sand and water, and whatever toes are mine depends on who's reading. But I stand there and try to feel what I am supposed to feel, and I respect the elements and I watch the seagulls live their lives above me.
Turning from the ocean and back to the neighborhood, I see her - the Beach Lady, walking down the long, sloping asphault road. I have read about her and I have googled her. And now I see her. Feeling very Caucasion, I can't find the guts to go and talk to her. I have no idea what to say to her. My life is tough, but I don't know her pain; I don't know her struggles. I just feel like another stupid tourist. So I stand still and I take her picture from afar. It turns out well enough and I'm happy that I saw her.
An hour or so later, I get back into my foreign car and drive back to my family. They are kind and loving and the food is fantastic...and they are five miles and worlds away from American Beach. Call me a photographer and call me a man who met the Beach Lady, in my own shy way. I just learned tonight that she died in September 2005. I now wish I had spoken to her when I had the chance.
I'll be back there Thursday. I'll be enjoying my vacation and I will try to forget about my current financial struggles for a few days. I'll try to forget that I struggle to find my place in this world. I'll try to forget that I am sad much more often than I am happy. But I will absolutely remember that segregation never kept me from feeling the sand between my toes.
I listen to Moby and wonder what it felt like for the employees of Abraham Lincoln Lewis to feel this same sand underneath their feet. Humans on Earth, happy that someone allowed them this experience, certainly smiling and withholding tears at the same time. I struggle, but not with humility. I am filled with it.