With this special issue, we give due to Black geographies scholarship and seminal geographies of race which helped bring about the formal creation of Black geographies as a subfield of the discipline of Geography. We curate a selection of articles from the past quarter century of the Southeastern Geographer, each providing distinct and vital insights into key geographic themes like the production of space, the importance of region, and questions of justice. In this introduction, we draw out some of the key themes and insights of the papers included here, situating the work in relation to the historical developments and scholarly antecedents which gave impetus to Black geographies. Finally, we reflect upon a few of the many generative routes of Black geographies as scholarship and practice.
As we approach the 2018 American Association of Geographers (AAG) Meeting, there is cause for celebration and commemoration. Black geographies is being acknowledged, adopted, and applied within interdisciplinary scholarship and communities throughout the Black Diaspora. The resonance of Black geographies is all the more evident by its selection as a theme at this year’s AAG conference. Furthermore, 2018 marks New Orleans’ tricentennial, the 300th anniversary of a city whose infrastructure, cultures, and place-making potential represents both its multinational colonial legacies and a global “Blues development agenda” (Woods, 2017, p. 2). New Orleans is a place where people rose from enslavement and colonial subjection to create a city and cultures accumulative of African, Indigenous, Haitian, French, Spanish, and Southern influences. We are pleased to be convening in this seat of the Blues-born South.
This year’s gathering of the AAG is also a point at which to commemorate the life and legacy of Clyde Adrian Woods, whose dedication to the transformative and transcultural ethic of the Blues, the Mississippi Delta, the wider South, and social justice movements has left an indelible mark upon our discipline. His collective works—Development Arrested, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, and Development Drowned (which will be addressed in an Author Meets [End Page 1] Critics session in New Orleans)—have profoundly inspired the recent subfield, specialty group, and conference theme, making this AAG an appropriate time and place to honor his legacy.
To commemorate this moment of providence between the discipline of geography and the city of New Orleans, the Southeastern Geographer felt it pertinent to publish a special online issue to assemble past and present publications that address the framework, the practice, and place that is Black geographies. This collection highlights the varied theories and applications of Black geographies; it is an acknowledgement of the fertile academic grounds from which this subfield has emerged. A hallmark of Black geographic scholarship is that it does not simply address the intersections of race and space as scenes of subjection. Rather, it seeks to indicate the ways that black spatiality persists and serves as a founding ethic for equitable economic development and socio-spatial relations.
The eleven articles within this online collection, culled from the Southeastern Geographer archives, provide insight into Black geographies. The articles of this virtual special issue (denoted by bold type below) are representative of a longstanding—and until recently under-recognized—body of scholarship that discuss Black spaces and subjects.1 While many worthy publications are not included in this collection, their relevance to the project at hand is in no way diminished. In fact, geographic research on topics of race, racism, and racial-spatial stratification has helped further our understanding of the connections between race and space, or more aptly, how race takes place. We incorporate some of these seminal works in the section which follows, placing the larger body of work within the context of movements and mobilizations for Black lives and freedom. We then draw from the archives of the Southeastern Geographer to highlight several themes pertinent to (and brought into relief by) Black geographies: regions and regional identity, commemoration, justice, and slavery and freedom.
In a 50-year retrospective of the Southeastern Geographer, Brinkmann and Tobin situated the 1961 founding of the journal within a changing global geography: the year the journal was established, Sierra Leone and Tanzania declared independence, Algeria was rising against French colonial rule, and the United States (U.S.) was beginning its escalation of the Vietnam War (Brinkmann & Tobin 2010, 1–2). In the U.S. South, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault enrolled in courses at the University of Georgia despite opposition from the university and hostility from white students. A group of students from Tougaloo College, a Black private college in Jackson, Mississippi, were arrested for occupying the white-only Jackson [End Page 2] Public Library. Business boycotts in Savannah, Georgia and Clarksdale, Mississippi, along with the Freedom Riders’ challenge to segregated transportation, opened cracks within the cemented geographies of Jim Crow in the South.2
The Southeastern Geographer was founded amidst these assertions of Black freedom in the South, including those explicitly targeting white supremacist institutions of knowledge production, archiving, and dissemination. We write this introduction on the eve of another 50-year anniversary: that of the 1968 publication of the Kerner Commission Report.3 The National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, was established to investigate the causes of a series of Black and Latino-led urban rebellions across the country. These uprisings shook the complacency of white America. The report famously warned, “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” (Kerner Commission 1968, 1).
In 1970, Shirley Chisholm (who would blaze trails as a 1972 presidential candidate) reflected on the Kerner Commission’s relevance in exposing the hypocrisy of anti-Communist American wars for “freedom” abroad, and systemic oppression at home:
When the Kerner Commission told white America what black America has always known, that prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them and profits by them, white America could not believe it. But it is true. Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free(Chisholm 2010, 112–113).
Chisholm’s words remain strikingly apropos today. As in 1970, militarism abroad is intimately tied to racist violence at home. The nation was made aware of this connection when militarized police confronted those protesting the August 9, 2014 police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Nationwide protests, and the consolidation of the Black Lives Matter movement, subsequently rose up to challenge not only police brutality, but the many “fatal couplings of power and difference” which lead to “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” in the United States (Gilmore 2002, 15; Gilmore 2007, 28). The United States Department of Justice released its own report in the wake of the events in Ferguson. The report shows the Ferguson Police Department to be operating as an occupying force that helps to fund the city of Ferguson and its [End Page 3] own budget through fines and fees extracted disproportionately from Ferguson’s majority-Black population (US DOJ, 2015).
These movements and conflagrations have catalyzed scholarship which centers geographies of race and questions of the reproduction of inequality. In response to the rebellions of the 1960s, the AAG inaugurated the Commission on Geography and Afro-America (COMGA) and released a document entitled, “What Can be Done: Toward a Kerner Report for Geography” (Deskins and Silbert 1974, 65; Horvath et al. 1969, 137). In the wake of disciplinary actions, geographers awakened to Black America. A special issue devoted to “Research on Black America” found a venue in the Southeastern Geographer (Birdsall 1971). The introduction, written by Stephen Birdsall, echoed language from the Kerner Commission report, stating that “Black America and its problems are clearly, and usually explicitly, tied to White America and its problems” (Birdsall et al. 1971, 85).
This work was not, however, normatively-oriented towards the realization of a society free from racial oppression or the valuation of Black senses of place (McKittrick 2011).4 It was, as the title went, Research on Black America, and named problems amenable to technocratic solutions—even as much of this work did identify racism as a key force shaping these problems. Later work would shift its focus from “Research on Black America” to acknowledging the ways in which Black populations create “Black geographies.” It is to these myriad creations that we now turn.
Special Issue Themes
Given the self-identification of the Southeastern Geographer as a regional journal, it seems appropriate that it has dedicated many pages to theorizing and defining the factors that constitute the U.S. South as a region. While some work has emphasized actual regional naming practices, reflecting on how regional nomenclature reflects shifting emphases on what defines specific aspects of the U.S. South (Webster and Samson 1992), much of the scholarship concerning different Black geographies has paid close attention to the relations that constitute the region and their multi-scalar implications. By taking account of different experiences of Black populations, the journal has contributed to a pluralistic understanding of the U.S. South.
In the 1971 Southeastern Geographer special issue on “Research on Black America,” Stephen Birdsall reflects on the fact that while the special issue dealt primarily with the characteristics of Black America particular to the Southeastern U.S., the wider nation was also implicated (Birdsall 1971). The trend of examining the U.S. South as part of a wider national (and global) [End Page 4] conversation on Blackness has come to define many of the journal’s interventions on the question of Black populations over the decades.
Historical and contemporary barriers facing Black populations have informed work examining the multi-scalar nature of developments in the U.S. South. Prunty (1977), for example, argues that the post-Reconstruction South experienced economic control from, and dependence on, the North, leading to region-wide poverty and the proliferation of sharecropping and tenancy as labor practices—both of which disproportionately employed Blacks. Wilson (1992) reflects on how postbellum Southern landed elites responded to the demands of Northern industrialists and their Southern agents by simultaneously allowing for the implementation of industrial production and maintaining political control of racialized, low-skilled labor. Tyner (2016) demonstrates how Malcolm X’s political thought drew connections between the forms of oppression Blacks faced in the Southern U.S., the urban spaces of the U.S. North, and struggles in locations throughout the Global South.. These studies demonstrate not only the relations that historically shaped the U.S. South, but also how the making of the region played a part in the making of national and global spaces. In analyzing historical aspects of the Black experience in the U.S. South, these scholars offer important groundwork for theorizing contemporary makings of the region.
Following up on his decades of work on segregation and the racialized effects of capitalist production in the Southeastern U.S., Bobby Wilson (2007) notes the ways in which conditions of racial separation and the economic and political marginalization of Black communities have worsened, citing increased joblessness, incarceration, and school segregation as prevalent in the 21st century U.S. South. Joshua Inwood (2011) evidences the institutional codification of such anti-Black racism by examining the legislation of the Alabama state constitution, whose tax structure was founded on, and continues to perpetuate, the uneven development of Black communities.
In addition to offering historical and contemporary analyses of factors that negatively shape and define the terrain of Black experience, the Southeastern Geographer has included scholarship that highlights the role of Black resistance and creativity in region-making and the effects this might have outside the region. Rosalind Harris and Heather Hyden (2017), for instance, show how competing senses of place and diverging commitments to whose voice should influence policy led to contestations over policy prescriptions for the Black Belt region of the U.S. South. LaToya Eaves (2017) argues for the importance of acknowledging Black, queer geographies as a set of praxes that unsettle commonsense notions of “Southern” regional identity, traditionally rooted in ideas of religion, sexuality, and community Adam Bledsoe (2017) draws connections between hemispheric forms of Black resistance, noting that legacies of marronage remain active in the U.S., yet have not informed discourses and practices of U.S. Black struggle on a national level to the extent that it has in other countries. [End Page 5]
The Southeastern Geographer has thus touched on myriad aspects of Black experiences in the U.S. South, from historical explorations of the economic and political factors affecting Black populations, to explanations of the structures currently shaping Black lives and the geographies these same groups can and do make as forms of resistance. In analyzing the various factors that have shaped and continue to constitute Blackness in the South, work in the Southeastern Geographer continues to theorize the making of the region through an engagement with varied Black experiences. This process of region-making does not entail a coherent, singular production of space. As demonstrated in the work cited above, a plethora of Black praxes, knowledges, and experiences make up the social fabric of the Southeastern U.S. Moreover, the region-making realities of Black communities are part of a much larger national and global construction of space and therefore produce effects beyond the physical location of the South. Acknowledging the often-obscured role of these communities in space-making is another salient issue for Black Geographies literature and praxis.
This year’s AAG Conference will include a tour of the Whitney Historic Plantation District. This attention to plantation tours comes a decade after the Southeastern Geographer unveiled a special issue on plantation tours and slavery museums. That issue developed in the aftermath of controversies regarding the Confederate flag in Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina in 2000 (Cooper, Christopher and Knott 2006). In his encapsulation of the Southeastern Geographer’s 2008 special issue on plantation tourism, Michael Crutcher (2008, 373) identifies a political parallel between citizen-led and academic efforts to force the telling of more comprehensive and accurate narratives about slavery and the Civil War. “The development of grassroots museums that critique traditional representations of plantation life,” he notes, “parallel academic efforts in the social sciences and humanities to analyze, theoretically and empirically, the historical and contemporary representations of race, memory, and identity”.
Authors in that issue employed a variety of theories and methods to comprehend the opinions of guides and visitors of plantation tours. For instance, approaching their study from an activist-intellectual position, Montes and Butler (2008) along with Butler, Carter, and Dwyer (2008) drew from Critical Race Theory and its emphasis on storytelling to ascertain black and white America’s views on plantation tours. Furthermore, according to Montes and Butler’s (2008) study of online responses to a New York Times article, despite distinctions in the ways black and white tourists view plantation tours, there exist “ample commonality” due, in part, to a mix of race and class differentials (p. 304).
Some of the essays in the 2008 collection were spurred by the authors’ personal encounters with plantation tours and the myths that docents shared as truths to tourists (Alderman and Campbell, Rachel 2008; Hanna 2008; Modlin, Jr. 2008). To illustrate, Stephen Hanna’s analysis of the [End Page 6] “built and performed” spaces of slavery and Civil War in Fredericksburg, Virginia was informed by his presence as a longtime resident of the city. He recalls witnessing the mock military parades and battles between blue coats and gray coats, the influx of tourists as well as the proliferation of opinion editorials in the local paper written about the state’s decision to locate a slavery museum in a Civil War city. “These experiences help me read the heritage tourism landscape and track the changes that have occurred over the last decade,” he notes (Hanna 2008, 321).
In short, the 2008 special issue on plantation tourism suggests that the majority of plantation tours deliver idyllic versions of an antebellum past, facades that are favorable of slaveowners. Furthermore, many white American tourists who attend these tours—regardless of age, class, and non-Southern origin—often display more interest in slaveowners and their artifacts. Of course, there were exceptions; in an analysis of over 1000 exit surveys conducted at the Laura Plantation near New Orleans, Louisiana, David Butler, Perry Carter, and Owen Dwyer (2008) found that foreign tourists were more interested in learning about the history of slavery than black and white American attendees.
Despite revelations that some plantations have taken steps to rectify these misinformation tours (Butler, Carter, and Dwyer 2008; Modlin, Jr. 2008), moments of omission continue. Reflecting on his visit to the Petersburg National Battlefield, Ta-Nehisi Coates tethers the erasure of the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children within plantation tours to America’s effacement of the contemporary condition of Black people. Writing in Between the World and Me, a longform-type letter to his teenage son, Coates (2015, 99) scribes:
I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg Battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the gray wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking maneuvers, hardtack, smooth-bore rifles, grapeshot, and ironclads, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention, and design had been marshaled to achieve.
Coates’s words echo those of various authors within the Southeastern Geographers’ 2008literary convergence, particularly, that many white visitors are often more interested in the lives and largesse of enslavers, than in the experiences of those who were enslaved. It is not uncommon for plantation managers and guides to appease visitors by highlighting items of interest once owned by slaveholders. Based upon their research on the use of artifacts to manipulate memories of the antebellum South, Derek Alderman and Rachel Campbell (2008, 340) posit that, “in addition to claiming, perhaps too conveniently, that there are few material remains of the slave experience, managers and docents frequently use artifacts and objects once owned by plantation owners and other whites to deflect attention away from a discussion of the [End Page 7] contributions and struggles of slaves”. Perhaps, this is why during his quest to learn more about this period of America’s history, Coates, full of queries about slaves not slaveowners, felt as if he were raining upon a nostalgic parade. He came for insight, and yet he says, “when I visited any of the battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I were a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books” (2015, 99).
What is to be done about the incomplete stories told during plantation tours? Alderman and Campbell (2008, 343) argue for the need for a “symbolic excavation of slavery” via the display of material artifacts which were of importance to the lives of slaves. Displaying such materials along with “the construction of physical places of memory” (ibid.) may result in more meaningful and truthful narratives of antebellum plantations. The Slave Relic Museum in Walterboro, South Carolina is upheld as an example of such a place. Constructed by lay historians, the Black-owned museum displays material relics and stories that help construct a broader narrative of the antebellum South.
It is clear that plantation tours and slavery museums have become a vital means through which American and foreign-born tourists connect with and learn about America’s antebellum past. Managers and guides have a social imperative to relay accurate information about the people that facilitated and benefited from slavery and the Civil War. However, even if tours become more truthful and inclusive in their articulation of this epoch of oppression, how do we (or should we) come to terms with the fact that even today, those other than the enslaved and their progeny market, draw income, and manufacture value from the labor produced by slaves? To summon Modlin, Jr. (2008, 266), centuries later “it is as if the owners of the ‘Big House’ still dominate the lives of the enslaved who worked at these sites”.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court delivered a decision in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka that signaled the end of legalized racial segregation in U.S. public education, declaring it unconstitutional. The decision faced resistance in the seventeen states with segregated schools, particularly in the U.S. South. Importantly, the Southern power base challenged the outside force of the Supreme Court and its coercive instruction. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled again in 1955 with the caveat that states would integrate schools “with all deliberate speed” (Brown v Board of Education of Topeka 1955), giving states the agency to implement their own timeline for change.
More than 60 years after both Brown v Board rulings, over 50 years since the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and over 500 years since the first European slaveholders displaced African peoples and forced them into a corporatized system of bonded labor in what is now called the Americas, definitions of justice have shifted. The impact of these multiple and subjective confinements demonstrate why justice cannot be examined through monolithic or [End Page 8] singular phases. Here, we discuss the education system, the promotion of neoliberalism, the impact of environmental injustice, and the role of spiritual geographies, which point to the multifaceted, multiscalar challenges of pursuing justice. Most often, we find—to take a nod from Melanie Barron’s (2017) discussion of neighborhood in Anniston, Alabama—a “space within a space”.
Given the longstanding necessity of Blackness to the construction of the U.S. South, and indeed the globe, we must be reminded that modernization and the current global order was fueled by extraction and industrial activity, which includes the forced removal of people from the African continent for building empires and profit. The structures instituted to sustain modernization have changed in name but not scope. In this context, John W. Florin (1971) argues that the unevenness or “cartographic mosaic” of school desegregation in the South is relevant to spatial diffusion analysis and understanding patterns of modernization. He analyzes patterns of desegregation across the South during the ten-year period between the initial Brown v Board ruling and the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, he makes visible Southern power structures as they exploited the Supreme Court’s choice to not implement a national blueprint for integration. The result was the maintenance of power and hierarchy that complicates the idea that “justice has been served” via the state. Though not mentioned by Florin, the Supreme Court’s decision resulted in further (slow) displacement of Black people, as students more often found themselves in schools under the supervision of (unprepared) white teachers. Some 38,000 teachers and employees of Black schools found themselves unemployed, as these historic community institutions of education were shuttered as integration continued across the South (Oakley, Stowell, & Logan 2009).
Notably, Bobby Wilson (2007) also attends to Southern [and American] power structures that refuse to eliminate hierarchies that privilege whiteness in the wake of Brown v Board and its shift towards the discourse of neoliberalism following the Civil Rights Movement. Wilson (2007, 98) argues “the concept of ‘justice’ has been reconstructed to fit neoliberal political and economic objectives”. Put differently, neoliberalism and justice are no longer conceptualized as competing systems but rather neoliberalism structures justice. Wilson examines the attending contradictions, particularly given the ways in which the market structure is focused on the individual. Given neoliberalism’s insistence on delineating denying “racism and economic inequality as causal factors in social justice issues” (Wilson 2007, 97), power is instead conceptualized as an internal apparatus rather than having accountability to structures and institutions. The imperative that integration be implemented “with all deliberate speed” (Brown v Board) is supplanted by an emphasis on the unconstrained decisions of autonomous actors—see “school choice”.
Whereas the individual, as incorporated into neoliberalism, is ultimately responsible for one’s own plight, social justice aligns more closely with Wilson’s invocation of Martin Luther King [End Page 9] Jr.’s enactment of human agency. In the context of human agency, the focus is on the exercise of power to pursue change, as demonstrated by Priscilla McCutcheon’s (2016) exploration of the parishioners of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of the June 2015 massacre. She argues that “social justice is not separate from, but rather a part of [the] spirituality and religiosity” for the church members attending the midweek prayer service and their denomination more broadly (p. 18).
For Hilda Kurtz (2007) and Melanie Barron (2017), the individual becomes the vehicle of resistance to the devaluation of Black life and Black space by active participation in efforts for environmental remediation. Like Florin (1971), Barron examines state forces that struggle (or fail) to completely dislodge formalized systems of oppression by focusing on the impact of a chemical factory operated by Monsanto in Anniston, Alabama, from 1935 until 1997. In this, she recognizes the state’s spatial restructuring of Blackness was effected through the enforcement of Jim Crow segregation. Barron identifies ways in which environmental injustice is enacted through quiet and slow violence, as demonstrated in Monsanto’s buyout program and the diminishment of the quality of life in Anniston’s Black communities. Barron’s work provides an example of Wilson’s (2007, 97) assertion: “Economic agency is no longer just about the market allocation of resources, but the allocation of people into cultural worlds”.
Such denial of the structural and institutional underpinnings of power and wealth has underwritten the ideological claims of the Bourbon class in Louisiana (Woods 2017), which gives insight into Kurtz’s (2007) exposition of “destruction and dislocation” in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The aftermath of both storms provided insight into the extensive measures put into place in order to maintain power structures and devalue Black life, revealing the environmental degradation and fragility on the American Gulf Coast and the concentration of exposure in Black spaces. Kurtz calls for citizen participation as a mandatory gauge for the pursuit of social justice. In doing so, she invites “an opportunity to imagine a more environmentally just future” (2007, 112).
Slavery and Freedom
Katherine McKittrick (2017, 98) writes that “unjust and inequitable social systems, like racial capitalism, are underwritten by a refusal of black humanity and a refusal to recognize the struggle to assert black humanity; this is a refusal, then, of both black humanness and the praxis of being human”. Though the Southeastern Geographer has led the way among academic journals in centering Black geographies, its archive provides an index of dominant geographical failures to do justice to the formative and varied roles of Black people and movements in making and transforming the South. In his 1976 keynote address to the Southeastern and Middle Atlantic Divisions of the AAG, Merle Prunty—an influential and distinguished geographer of the American South—reflected on “Two American Souths: The Past and the Future” (Prunty 1977, 1). Because of the “trauma of the Civil War and its aftermath”, Prunty wrote, the South “suffered [End Page 10] military occupation and the loss of nearly all its capital goods except land and buildings, and then knuckled under the Federally-directed state governments and edicts of the Reconstruction era” (Prunty 1977, 3). Did Prunty consider that the freedom of formerly-enslaved people, who ran and fought and found their way from chattel slavery was considered by slaveowners to represent the single greatest loss of capital precipitated by the Civil War?5
Wilson provides an alternate lens with which to interpret the economic history of the South, arguing that U.S. wealth and industrial capitalism were built upon slavery, but the institution of slavery and the plantocracy ensured the economic underdevelopment of the South (Wilson 1995, 79). As Du Bois (1935) and Woods (1998, 2017) remind us, postbellum Reconstruction represented the possibility and promise of abolition democracy, a period in which newly-free Blacks moved to build communities anew, as well as the South and the nation upon the basis of a radical ethics of freedom and justice. This promise was betrayed by a revanchist campaign of violence, terror, and theft perpetuated by white plantation owners and industrialists (Connolly, 2017; Du Bois, 1935; Woods, 1998; Wilson, 2000).6 Prunty neglects these historical movements, and instead writes that there was “no real revolution in race relations after 1856 even though the blacks were free and, after 1867, had access to the ballot” (Prunty 1977, 4). But the movement to construct an abolition democracy was real and revolutionary, and although violence was used to foreclose upon that moment, it still informs contemporary potentialities.
As several articles in the Southeastern Geographer have emphasized, there is also much at stake in the ways in which the lives and labor of enslaved people are commemorated (or effaced) (Alderman & Campbell 2008; Butler, Carter, and Dwyer 2008; Crutcher 2008; Hannah 2008; Modlin 2008—see above). Carney & Porcher (1993) emphasize that the institution of chattel slavery also meant that dominant narratives were mediated by white society, who suppressed the importance of the knowledges and practices of enslaved people to the production of food. This, they argue, has distorted understandings of how agricultural innovation in the U.S. occurred. Carney and Porcher (1993, 127) write that slaves have often been regarded “merely as unskilled labor, contributing nothing but their brawn to the creation of a rice economy”. Instead, Carney and Porcher stress that enslaved West Africans “radically transformed the landscape and implemented the sophisticated irrigation infrastructure” in the South Carolina Lowcountry (Carney & Porcher 1993, 127, emphasis added). As Brian Williams (2017) argues, contemporary notions of “agro-industry” and agricultural worth have been shaped by plantation owners and social scientists’ mobilization of ideas of inherent white technological superiority in [End Page 11] agriculture—myths which are belied by the actual practices and processes of agrarian development detailed by Carney and Porcher.
Crutcher (2008, 376), on the other hand, cautions that “any use of the plantation to tell the story of slavery in its entirety is necessarily short-sighted”—instead, slavery needs to be placed in a wider context: the story must include abolition, freedom, and the contributions and accomplishments of Black people in the United States. He points to the River Road African American History Museum’s exhibits on Free People of Color, Black doctors, and the rural roots of jazz as exemplary ways of telling a fuller, living story (Crutcher, 2008, 376).7 Adam Bledsoe (2017) provides an example of work which fulfills Crutcher’s call, as he focuses on maroon communities built by runaway slaves escaping chattel slavery. Bledsoe argues that marronage, as a set of diverse strategies for building a world free from racial domination, can inform the horizon of political possibilities in the present and future. Consequently, Bledsoe advocates a “placement of the maroon community at the forefront of present and future discussions of U.S. human rights” (Bledsoe 2017, 30). For Rosalind Harris and Heather Hyden (2017), similarly, a history of movements for freedom and community development in the Black Belt South are key to visualizing and enacting just futures in the region.
Priscilla McCutcheon (2016, 18) urges scholars to pay heed to the “totality of motivations for social movements”—including spirituality. She connects the murder of members of Mother Emanuel AME church with the death of Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders who was executed for planning a slave revolt over a century earlier. Both Denmark Vesey and the members of Mother Emanuel AME were working to enact freedom dreams (Kelley 2002) through the Black prophetic tradition (McCutcheon 2016, 20). McCutcheon challenges scholars not to dismiss the transformative potential of spirituality and religiosity oriented towards liberation. In the same special issue dedicated to the victims of the Charleston Massacre, LaToya Eaves (2016, 22) cautions that the act of forgiveness by the families of the victims should not be considered the end of the story, but must be followed by a continuation of work geared towards dismantling pervasive systems of oppression which underpinned the violence in Charleston. To this end, Eaves advocates for attention to gendered and queer analyses and organizing work in an “agenda that includes Black liberation and promotes Black survival in order to truly fulfill the act of forgiveness, liberation, and redemption” (Eaves 2016, 27). This commitment to liberation and survival underwrites the future directions Black Geographies must take. [End Page 12]
Building Black Futures8
Since the publication of Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods’s Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, the field of Black geographies has encouraged interdisciplinarity. The acceptance of this framework by a variety of disciplines is a testament to the interdisciplinary nature of Black Studies, and Black geographies’ validity as a theory and method geared towards explaining the spatialities of Blackness. The intercalation of Black geographies with other fields was on display during the symposium, Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness hosted at the University of California-Berkeley in October 2017. Presenters from a variety of fields and communities shared insights crafted from their black spatial imaginaries and experiences.
For instance, Brandi Summers, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University shared results from her forthcoming book, Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City which is an exploration of how varying notions of Blackness inform efforts to redevelop land in Washington, D.C. Lisa Bates and Sharita Towne combined urban planning and art as the Black Life Experiential Reading Group. According to Bates, one of their intentions is to “create new forms of practice at the intersections of urban planning and art” and to bring insights from this practice to Black geographies (Bates 2017). Their interdisciplinary curation, known as The Portland People’s Plan, is “an attempt at an emancipatory planning process” during which Bates and Towne asked Black Portlanders to “imagine a city that loves Black people.” (Bates 2017).
Though the field has been heavily impacted by the experiences of Black communities in North America, the future of Black geographies scholarship promises to be Diasporic. Camilla Hawthorne explores the politics of race and migration as it relates to African migrants to Italy (Hawthorne 2017). Ampson Hagan interrogates (anti)Blackness in the Saharan region of North Africa. His budding research illuminates the anti-Black structures sub-Saharan African migrants encounter within North Africa, and how these interactions inform their sense of place and migratory experiences prior to their freighted trans-Atlantic journeys to Europe (Hagan 2017). Adam Bledsoe’s ongoing research on quilombos in Brazil illuminates the extension of the ethics, cultural, and political praxis of Afro-Brazilian maroon communities as well as their ongoing tensions with the Brazilian state. Doctoral students Iman Mohamed and Ilyas Abukar are incorporating Black geographic theory to better understand the impact of 20th century Italian colonialism in Somalia and the acculturation of Somali immigrants in the West.
Re-appropriating and Re-purposing Space
We must remember that Black geographies, first and foremost, exist in the praxes of Black people, a tradition that continues across various Black communities. It is present in arts-based place-making organizations like Project Row Houses (Houston), The Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative (Chicago), and The Heidelberg Project (Detroit). These three organizations have [End Page 13] found artistic purchase in the lived spaces and abandoned buildings present within historically Black communities. In Jackson, Mississippi, individuals and organizations are developing cooperative work ethics and practices to obtain and re-purpose disinvested spaces in the city’s West Jackson neighborhoods. Cooperation Jackson seeks to transform the city, in part, by harnessing 3-D printing technologies to create eco-communities. Within the same area of West Jackson, the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson are partnering with local residents to reclaim and repurpose homes and overgrown lots. Last, the co-founders of Ancestry Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota describe the purpose of their joint venture thusly:
Our vision is to produce space for decolonial dreaming, study and practice. We see this spatial production as a vital component in the development, incubation and critical skill-building for historically aggrieved communities to advance other narrative possibilities about our bodies, relationships to each other, labor, and geography.
By this point, it should be evident that the future of Black geographies is wherever Black people make place, which is to say, the future is everywhere. Thus, as scholarship grows from and into Black geographies, one thing is for certain, it must be place-based and informed by the lived experiences and knowledges of communities across the Black Diaspora (Wright, 2017).
1. The authors of articles included in this digital special issue are: Melanie Barron, Adam Bledsoe, Judith Carney & Richard Porcher, Kate Derickson, LaToya Eaves, Rosalind Harris & Heather Hyden, Priscilla McCutcheon, Katherine McKittrick, Brian Williams, Willie Wright, and Bobby Wilson.
3. In March 2018 scholars will convene in Berkeley, California to reflect upon what we - as scholars and as a nation - have learned from the Report and the rebellions of the late 1960s. See: http://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/kerner50
4. As a particularly stark illustration of research on Black America not even nominally oriented towards ameliorative or reformist policies, a 1971 piece in the Professional Geographer went so far as to compare Watts to Viet Cong controlled territory, including side-by-side maps of LA and Vietnam (Salisbury, 1971: 105–112).
5. Enslaved persons represented, for example, a full 75% of capital investment for establishing a rice plantation—and were far more valuable for slaveowners than the (colonized) land upon which the plantation was established (Wilms, 1972: 56).
6. Prunty, whether conscious or not of the violence that his words concealed, rebranded this moment as progress, writing approvingly that “by 1880 most of the businessmen and bankers had joined with the Southern landed elite in an effort to adopt the economic attitudes of the same Northerners they recently had opposed militarily” (Prunty 1977, 3).
8. This is an homage to the Black Youth Project 100’s Agenda to Build Black Futures.