Doing us, Uninterrupted.
As millions of U.S. residents navigate the latest stage of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, their relationships with cities and public spaces have shifted. While some had the luxury of moving to a second home or rental properties in remote locations, many navigated precarity as renters fell behind on their rent. During the first weeks of the historic shutdown period, home sales ground to a halt. But just a few months later, the housing market soared, and prices went up along with it. The pandemic sparked a massive reevaluation of priorities. As the nation was mostly confined to their homes, demand for space and real estate grew exponentially. And it comes as no surprise that BIPOC communities, on the whole, got the short end of the stick.
Architecture, real estate, and geography, for urban dwellers, might be interchangeable turns of phrase. These terms describe aspects of land, though incomplete without their companions. Architecture and real estate are the results of imagining and designing our environments. Scholars have long wrestled with ideas around what it can be and who it speaks to. Some argue that social identity can operate as a spatial indicator, meaning that race, class, sexuality, and gender determine how our cities and lives are organized. The prevailing logic that undergirds many cities in the management of interlocking systemic processes; real and imagined, representational and philosophical. These processes have historically led to the erasure of people and the displacement of communities.
Where we are, who we can be with, and where we can go are carefully managed by communities outside our own. Over the past few years, numerous essays, exhibitions, and lectures have urgently discussed the matter of Black space, and/or/alongside, Indigenous space. What has followed is speculation on the conditions and goals of worldbuilding and crafting liberated territories. Spaces that are underrecognized, illegible, or even purposefully obscured in order to maintain them.
So what does it look like to “do us,” uninterrupted? This edition of the Ujima WIRE explores the ways we have and continue to, craft liberated space.
Last year, nineteen Black families purchased 97 acres of land in a rural corner of Georgia and named their newly created community Freedom. “The Freedom Georgia Initiative was established out of an extreme sense of urgency to create a thriving safe haven for black families in the midst of racial trauma, a global pandemic, and economic instabilities across the United States of America brought on by COVID-19,” reads their website, “We wanted to do our part to do what we can to create safe spaces for black faces and their allies.” Their hope is to build an autonomous space that loves and values Black life, labor, and self-determination. This desire isn’t new.
Emmanuel Admassu, architect and member of the Black Reconstruction Collective describes the stakes of supporting real estate and architecture to the end of building political and social power: “For me, architecture is not only about making buildings. It is a world-making practice. So, instead of just thinking, ‘We’re going to design a new building,’ I want to ask, ‘How can we design a new environment that allows for other perspectives, for other forms of communality and relationships with one another?’ The only way architecture can survive is if it decouples itself from this idea that we have to constantly produce property. Architecture gives us the tools to imagine radically different worlds. And I think at this moment in time, all of us should be thinking of radically different worlds.”
The motivation to actualize radically different worlds than the version we currently occupy has been central to Black utopian movements throughout time. The first Black town on U.S. soil, Fort Mose, FL, was founded in 1738. Florida’s governor, a Spanish settler, established the site after enslaved members of a Black militia, fighting for the Spanish, petitioned for and were granted their right to freedom. After the Civil War, Black towns sprouted across the country oftentimes referred to as “Freedom Colonies.” Between the 18th and early 20th centuries, over 1,200 of these Black settlements, enclaves, and towns were established, according to the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance.
What does it mean to be uninterrupted — politically and socially — as we move through the afterlives of compounded global catastrophe? If the political economy of this country, and by extension the systems it propagates throughout the world, are predicated on the violence of labor exploitation, settler-colonialism, anti-Blackness, et al, we must ask ourselves: What, if anything, survives the quotidian violence rebranded as business as usual?
In her 2019 book, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman states, “Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life. Waywardness is an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.” We might, for the purposes of this essay, understand waywardness and un/interruption as synonyms.
Communities that are born in and through violence, seeking the ability to live lives of dignity, create new worlds through fracture. When we speak of (un)interruption, it is not necessarily about the consequences of loving Black peoples or performing that love by living freely. Those consequences are well-known and documented. It is in these “in-between” spaces that we find various forms of course correction: from the historic cities and townships like Nicodemus, KS, Blackdom, NM, and Mound Bayou, MS to the queer enclaves we find at the neighborhood level to rematriated lands across the U.S. Even quiet moments of intimacy we experience in our homes and board rooms can be cited as geographic interruptions of what counts as “normal.”
To put it another way, un/interruption must be understood as undoing the traditional arrangement in order to find another way of knowing and writing the world and producing space despite domination. Normal cannot be the basis of our value systems, nor our futures. Our futurity relies on spatializing our course correction, altering the given, and transforming small and large worlds based on our own principles. Our futurity relies on doing us.
Then they Act and Do Things Accordingly…
For years, Black artists and creatives have given us clues to reimagining what Black urban space could be. We can look to writers like June Jordan, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, and Loraine Hansberry who used their novels, plays, and designs for stage sets to help us see land and neighborhoods through the lens of Black social life. Black filmmakers and production designers understood the gifts and conditions of their contemporaries to create stories that accurately depicted our experiences.
In her critical novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston imagines life through the eyes of protagonist Janie Crawford. While fictional, the story was set in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, FL, a rural community that was one of the first self-governing Black communities in the United States. It was the first officially recognized all-Black town to incorporate (in the U.S.) 1887. “I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back–side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town–charter, mayor, council, town marshal town,” Hurston would later write.
First settled in the 1860s by free folks, the land was bought for $25.00, around $721.00 in today’s monies. “They named the town in honor of Josiah Eaton who eventually also served as its mayor. The new town’s citizens, however, chose Columbus H. Boger as its first mayor to head an entirely black-staffed government,” writes Blackpast.org. The town was founded as a Black haven.
Blackpast continues: “The life of Eatonville, like other all-black towns and the black sections of mostly white communities, revolved around its church and its school. The St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), then simply called the Methodist Church, was the first religious institution in the city. The church received the first ten acres of land purchased by Clarke and Lawrence, and upon its founding in 1881 (predating the town by six years), it became the first African American church in the area. St. Lawrence A.M.E. still stands in Eatonville and continues to serve the community to this day.”
As Hurston described, it was “a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.”
Black Towns, Black Futures
In Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West, Dr. Karla Slocum surveys stories of community members and towns in the late 19th century as the United States was expanding further West, into what was then known as “Indian Territory.” In her book, Slocum dispels the notion that the key takeaway from the study of Black towns is how they function as physical locations, though physical geography is important. Instead, she argues that the lessons learned from Black towns yield a more thorough understanding of a Black sense of place. This includes social, financial, and educational spaces that are carved out of resistance to oppressive forces and offer the potential for “alternative and free-existence communities.”
Slocum’s focus on Oklahoma sheds light on its unique history. Between the mid-nineteenth century and through the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans settled over 20 towns throughout Oklahoma–more than any other U.S. state. “All-Black towns grew in Indian Territory after the Civil War when the former slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes settled together for mutual protection and economic security,” says the University of Tulsa, “These former slaves, or “Freedmen,” founded farming communities that supported a variety of businesses. Between 1865 and 1920, African-Americans created more than 50 all-black towns and settlements throughout Indian Territory.”
The town of Boley was located on Creek Nation territory and was established in 1905. Booker T. Washington called Boley, Oklahoma “[t]he most enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the U.S.” According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “[t]he town, established on land allotted to Creek freedman James Barnett’s daughter Abigail, was named after J. B. Boley, a railroad official of the Fort Smith and Western Railway. Boley and the African Americans living in the area prospered for many years. The Boley Progress, a weekly newspaper, began in 1905. By 1911 Boley boasted more than four thousand citizens and many businesses, including two banks and three cotton gins. The town supported two colleges: Creek-Seminole College and Methodist Episcopal College. Boley also had its own electrical generating plant, water system, and ice plant. The Masonic Grand Lodge completed a majestic Masonic Temple around 1912. At the time, it was said to be the tallest building between Okmulgee and Oklahoma City.”
“This is a period where people were forming communities across the West. It is tied to the displacement and dispossession of land for Native Americans, who were thereafter being forcibly relocated from the Southeast,” Dr. Slocum explained in a recent New Books Network podcast. “Black towns were places that were started, or approached, as places where Black people could presumably live freely. [For example] Oklahoma, at that point, did not exist. It was not a state. There were no Jim Crow laws, there were no legalized segregation laws. So people looked to town formation in Oklahoma as an opportunity to create places where people could be self-sufficient, live away from racial hostility they were experiencing in the deep south. It’s important to also know that Black towns in Oklahoma are tied to the Black Native American experience in the West, as well. There are formerly enslaved people of American Indian tribes that were in Indian territory that, after emancipation, were looking to form communities as well. There are Black [people] who were coming up from the West, and there are Black [people] who are already in the West, both of them with histories of enslavement who were starting these communities to be self-sufficient.”
Making and Unmaking
Designing spaces that are able to love Black and Indigenous life, to meet it with care, to meet it with joy, to facilitate our beautiful ambitions is not simply a matter of managing the land. Even as our cities and towns become increasingly financialized, and aligned with capital rather than wellbeing, our aesthetics, our spaces, and our radical imaginations will carve out connective, asynchronous geographies where grace is no longer the exception but the rule.
“If a shape makes, it can also unmake — if a shape confines, it can also liberate. […] [W]e seek out and make new geographies (temporary and provisional) that are able to hold (as in cradle, as in catch) but not enclose that life,” writes Christina Sharpe. “If we are persistent, if we are cunning, if we are organized, if we are idle, if we are recalcitrant, undisciplined, and joyous we encounter and perhaps move through spaces of enclosure using the navigational tools fashioned out of duress, stricture, memory, beauty, cooperation and the desire for and knowledge of freedom.”
Black Towns, Washington Post
The Black Towns, Norman L. Crockett
Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, edited by Sean Anderson and Mable O. Wilson