What’s Right and Wrong with this Picture?
Welcome to Blood and Oranges.
When Dan Weinfeld and I first started kicking around the idea of an informal, provocative, online journal of Florida history, we went searching for an image that would match our title. Dan found the work of Ben Sakoguchi, an artist from California who was interned with his Japanese-American family as a little boy during World War II.
And I settled quickly on this piece — “The 100 Years War.” It’s part of a series Ben painted to mimic orange crate advertising.
Dan and I both loved the cacophonous feel. And we’ve both written books in recently that we feel break new and vibrant ground on that 100-years war, as it unfolded in Florida between the Civil War and Civil Rights. The title alone gave us what we were looking for. And Jan Sakoguchi graciously gave us permission to use Ben’s work.
Yet, as I sit here now and look closely at the image, I’m struck
imperfection as an illustration of the history that Dan and I want to prod and explore. And that’s not a criticism of Ben. It’s an acknowledgement of the power of effect, of artifice.
First, the picture itself is modeled on an orange crate from California — not Florida. I actually cropped the “California” out. (I hope the Sakoguchis don’t revoke permission.) More importantly, the humans on display provide a powerful, evocative, but uncomplicated tale of conflict and victory and defeat. In a sense, the “100-years-war” happened just like Ben’s picture suggests. The effect is correct emotionally. People terrorized, and people hung; one color and culture dominated another in varying unjust, brutal, and yet ever receding ways.
And so the image isn’t correct. It was not just successful villains in robes and victims in supplication. Agency, in one way or another, animated everyone. Dominance didn’t recede on its own. Villainy met resistance, and it got tired because of it. An image is a snapshot. History, as lived, is not. It is never-ending motion and the grinding of time.
As a popular culture, we know little and say even less about the internal American conflicts that roiled our society between the end of slavery and the rise of the late 50s and 60s Civil Rights movement. The attention the 100-years-war deserves is subsumed by the Depression and World War II and probably quite a bit of subliminal shame. As a society, we tend to know it only as effect — a flash of Klan here, a lynching there, a nod to the
Red Tails, James Weldon Johnson, and maybe Mary McLeod Bethune. Other than that, it’s basically dark times, different country, bygones.
Thus, we’ve left ourselves a massive hole in the understanding of our country. That has implications for our national mythologies, our politics, our laws, our concentrations of economic power — everything. And we’ve deprived ourselves of stories. Of knowledge of men and women who have much to show and tell us.
Florida is an outsized source of those stories and of those men and women.
Indeed, I very humbly suggest you’ll find no better story of America between the Civil War and Civil Rights than in four recent books focused entirely or in great part on
Florida. They are, in chronological order:
- Daniel Weinfeld’s (that’s Dan) “The Jackson County War,” the definitive history of Florida’s worst Reconstruction violence and a microcosm of the overthrow of Reconstruction generally.
- Paul Ortiz’s “Emancipation Betrayed,” a watershed account of black organizing and resistance to white violence in Florida from Reconstruction to 1920.
- Billy Townsend’s (that’s me) “Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida,” an account of the near civil war that swept Florida in the aftermath of World War I before the Depression.
- Finally, Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a magisterial exploration of the Great Migration, as lived by the people who participated. One of her three prime characters escaped from Eustis, Florida after trying to organize fruit pickers and incurring the wrath of planters.
Those four books take you from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Great Migration, roughly 1866 to 1970, with very little overlap. Read them back to back, and I guarantee you’ll learn more about your country and its people — through the lens of Florida — than in any class you
This newly available record has opened up many other areas of inquiry for Dan and me. That’s what we’re planning to do here as time allows. We’re both amateur historians, in that we have full-time paying jobs not related to the pursuit of historical truth. So we’re hoping many other people with interest in this will join us, both as commenters and contributors.
Together, we’d love to put the people on Ben Sakoguchi picture in motion and add to their ranks the many other people of the 100-years war. But it’s not just limited to that time. Dan and I are pretty captivated by our particular eras of expertise right now, but no era is an island. They feed each other.
We want to explore the difference between myth and account at all times — and how the two blend into and shape one another. If you can contribute to that discussion from dates before 1866 and after 1965, bring it on. We want it in whatever form you feel comfortable sharing.