Saving American Beach

Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

“MyVanee was saving more than a beach.”

Growing up in Florida, MaVynee Betsch loved the beach. Because of Jim Crow segregation, however, MaVynee and other Black people suffered race-based discrimination in beach access: “there was even a rope in the ocean.” In an act of resistance, MaVynee’s great-grandfather and Florida’s first Black millionaire bought over 200 acres of beachfront property on a barrier island near Jacksonville, FL. Named “American Beach,” the sandy shore attracted Black vacationers, celebrities, and activists. It became a place of natural beauty and cultural pride where “the wind whispered an endless melody of gull cries and laughter.” As an adult, MaVynee became a world-renowned opera singer. By the mid 1960s, when she returned to Florida to nurse her mother’s health, American Beach was in decline. Its shores were covered in litter, its dunes were crumbling from coastal erosion, and its existence was threatened by real-estate developers. Mourning the loss of her mother, MaVynee committed to saving the beach. She gave away most of her wealth to environmental causes and took stewardship of American Beach, where she became known as “the Beach Lady.” For over 40 years, she fought for the beach through letters, petitions, signs, and other initiatives. She was ignored but never gave up. It wasn’t until American Beach was reduced to a “sliver of sand” that others realized that they, too, missed it. The Beach Lady inspired others to action and in 2002 American Beach became protected by federal law forever (see the National Park Services web page on MaVynee Betsch).

Saving American Beach is a biography of pioneering Black environmentalist MaVynee Betsch. It brings together themes of Black land stewardship, decolonization, ecofeminism, marine pollution, and environmental justice. Black land stewardship, ecofeminism and decolonization are shown through MaVynee’s personal relationship with the beach, a relationship not of ownership, but of symbiosis. The beach becomes for MaVynee a sacred place: the “lullaby of lapping waves” lulling her to sleep each night. Last, MaVynee draws on her African heritage for strength in her resistance. She is reminded of the “curve of the Niger river” when she thinks about her hair; she names a dune on her beach “NaNa, a Ghanaian word for ‘grandmother.’” American Beach becomes a decolonized space and only later—through collective action—gains Federal protection. These aspects of the story help explore the links between environmental justice and racial injustice, as well as acts of resistance and resilience. The book shows how Black communities, including artists of the Harlem Renaissance like Zora Neale Hurston and Ray Charles, resisted racial oppression through stewardship of natural landscape. It connects the health of ecosystems with the health of communities, positioning MaVynee as a visionary ahead of her time. Saving American Beach is also helpful for exploring ecofeminism. MaVynee’s relationship with American Beach, and her subsequent physical transformations, blurs the boundary of the human/nature binary: “it was hard to tell where the Beach Lady stopped and her beach began.” In this way, the story can be read alongside other ecofeminist texts in which female characters transcend their human form, becoming “nature” as an act of resistance against patriarchal extractivism and devastation. These moments of transcendence, MaVynee’s long lone fight, as well as the beach as an ancestral healing space are represented through Ekua Holmes’ illustrations inspired by African imagery and colors.

©2024 ClimateLit (Nicole Richardson)

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Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021

Pages: 37

ISBN: 978-1-101-99629-4

Audience: Little People (4-7), Questers (8-13), Rebels (14-older)

Format: Nonfiction, Picturebooks

Topics: BIPOC Protagonist, Black Land Stewardship, Coastal Erosion, Colonization, Decolonization, Earth Stewardship, Ecofeminism, Ecosystems Health, Environmental Destruction, Environmental Justice, Extractivism, MaVynee Betsch, Marine Pollution, Resilience, Resistance