American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory

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9780060174835: American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory

In American Beach, award-winning journalist Russ Rymer provides astonishing insights into the meaning of American race relations. Avoiding the easy clichs of victimhood and oppression, he searches for answers through three unexpected, overlapping, intensely personal stories. Ultimately he presents a vision of a nation where the futures of blacks and whites are as linked as their histories, and where black experience offers a key to the struggle of every modern American.

American Beach opens with the killing of an unarmed black motorist by white police on a Florida resort island. It's the emblematic race confrontation of the 1990s, but Rymer's examination turns up everything but the ordinary. His journey leads us through ghostly plantation cemeteries, sance parlors, black resorts, European opera houses, Harlem salons, America's newest tone, and its oldest incorporated black city. We meet black pirated and planters, witness the incendiary death of the world's first black (and pioneer woman) aviator, the boardroom deliberations of the Walt Disney Company, and the posthumous but victorious last crusade of a prominent black novelist.

Along the way, we are guided by the most extraordinary real-life Southern cast since Mightnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, including Florida's first black millionaire and his great-grandfather, a flamboyant pauper who lives on a chaise lounge on the beach, from whence she strives to salvage her history and rescue her imperiled culture. As Rymer brilliantly shows, no matter what corner of America of which walk of life we may be from, it's our culture and our history as well.

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Review:

In its heyday during the height of segregation, the little resort of American Beach, Florida was the African American Hyannisport, where the crème de la crème of black society came to enjoy what the town motto called "recreation and relaxation without humiliation." These days, it's more like the African American Daytona Beach--that is, visited mostly by partying teenagers who come to drink and get rowdy in the town's deserted streets. What happened between then and now could be fodder for a sociologist's study, but journalist Russ Rymer turns it instead into a grippingly personal story of race, money, greed, and the struggle over who owns--and interprets--cultural memory.

At the heart of Rymer's tale is one of the most fascinating characters to walk the pages of a book this year: MaVynee Betsch, great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, an African American millionaire and the founder of American Beach. Reared in privilege and culture, sixtyish MaVynee once sang lieder throughout the capitals of Europe. Now she lives the gypsy life in the open air of American Beach, an unforgettable sight in her 18-inch fingernails, cowrie anklets, and five-foot fall of hair. Having given all her money away, MaVynee spends her time evoking the glories of her community's past and railing against the white-bread resorts, whose golf courses and cookie-cutter condos threaten to swallow her beloved beach. The painful irony is that when the enforced humiliation of segregation ended, so too did the cohesiveness of the black commercial and professional community American Beach once represented. As one resident puts it, "First we had segregation, and then integration. Then disintegration."

Rymer's story ripples outward to encompass bygone black Jacksonville, the killing of an unarmed African American by Amelia Island police, the first incorporated black town in the United States, A.L. Lewis's Afro-American Life Insurance Company, and revered Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. But it never loses focus on its fundamental question, a question with equal relevance for both black and white: "Where did mankind's economic existence and moral existence coincide, and where collide, and where was the boundary between them?" Rymer avoids both ideology and easy answers in this passionate yet even-handed book. --Mary Park

About the Author:

Russ Rymer's articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Health, Vogue, The Sciences, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. His first book, Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, was a National Book Critics Circle Award nominee, received a Whiting Writer's Award from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, and was selected as a Grand Livre du Mois in France. American Beach is his second book. He lives in Los Angeles.

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