An anti-racist right to (protest in) the city: voices and thoughts from St. Louis

Photo by Kierstan Carter

Last night, St. Louis City police officers arrested 126 protestors. These arrests came after previous ones last Friday, September 29, including the arrest of faith leader Rev. Darryl Gray, who police threw to the ground, pepper-strayed, and arrested. These also arrests came after police arrested 22 people on Saturday, September 23, during protests in the St. Louis Galleria, the local St. Louis County mall. Those arrested at the mall included faith leader Rev. Karla Frye (a black grandmother who white male officers–as documented in widely circulated photos–tackled to the ground); many have called those actions by the police, now being investigated by the ACLU, a police riot. These actions also came after police arrested an undercover cop, Air Force officer, medical student, and St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter during the first weekend of protests, on Sunday, September 17, using a tactic called kettling, rounding up a block-length swath of people.

This iteration of protests began September 15, 2017, when a judge ruled that Jason Stockley, former St. Louis police officer who killed Anthony Lamar Smith, was not guilty of first-degree murder. (Stockley elected to have a judge, not a jury, decide his fate: more on the case here). Since the verdict, protesters have marched daily in the city and in the county—in streets, in front of the St. Louis City Police Department, in shopping malls, and in front of St. Louis City and Country jails where some protestors have been detained.

Photo by Kierstan Carter

I asked a few protestors who attended demonstrations to share their thoughts and pictures: they exist in this post (and I thank Kierstan Carter, Jennifer Gallinat, Sabrina Odigie, and Matthew Thompson for sharing these). A question that many protestors get: what are you protesting for? Among a multiplicity of answers–for Black Lives, for racial equity, for juridical and legislative changes to ensure both–another answer comes from No Justice! No Profit! No Justice! No Profit! — a recent rallying cry. Many of have marched and chanted to disrupt economic regimes that contribute to racial injustices too common to many in the region.

There are also questions that embed that query–what are you protesting for?–within the space of the city, especially within the St. Louis region. What urban logics (racist divestment, neoliberalism, austerity) are they protesting against? What urban logics are they protesting for? What kind of city are we protesting for? A right to the city? A right to remember, and push against, racist logics in the city? A right to protest with our bodies in the city? A right to (imagine, fight for, and build) an anti-racist city?  Here are some more questions and thoughts.

What kind of city are we protesting for? A right to remember, and push against, racist logics in the city?

“If you understand 1917, you should have a different understanding of what is happening now.” This Anne Walker, an East St. Louisian historian and Director of Freedom Trails, Legacies of Hope, said last week at “Centennial: Remembering the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre.” The forum, hosted by Washington University in St. Louis, made space to remember what has been long forgotten by many in the region: a century ago, in 1917, East St. Louis endured what many call a “race riot”—what others suggest should be remembered as a pogrom or massacre. According to Mary Delach Leonard:

On July 2-3, 1917, mobs of white people, angered over labor issues, roved through the city, assaulting African-Americans and burning their homes and businesses.

Although the official death toll was 48 — 39 blacks and 9 whites — historians believe more than 100 people died and hundreds were injured, including women and children.

At the forum, I learned of the horrific things the mostly white mob did to black people, including to black women and children: beating and burning them to death. This week, horrified by the massacre in Las Vegas, I am also reminded by many historians that the curious phrasing used for contemporary mass shootings (such as “worst modern mass shooting”) owes itself to what many fail to remember: pre-WWII massacres in the United States. Clear Lake (1850), Sand Creek (1864), Rock Springs (1885), Wounded Knee (1890), East St. Louis (1917), Elaine (1919), Tulsa (1921). These were massacres committed by mostly white mobs who often killed hundreds of Native American, black, and Asian people.

In her 2011 Social & Cultural Geography article, “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place,” geographer Katherine McKittrick writes: “A black sense of place draws attention to the longstanding links between blackness and geography. It brings into focus the ways in which racial violences (concrete and epistemic actions and structural patterns intended harm, kill, or coerce a particular grouping of people) shape, but do not wholly define, black worlds” (947). Considering a black sense of place in St. Louis asks us, as East St. Louisan Anne Walker did, to think about connections between the 1917 massacre of black residents in East St. Louis, and the recent protests in St. Louis.

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Protester Sabrina Odigie wrote me:

I attended the protests on Friday and Saturday because I am fed up with black murder, which, to be clear, is different from black death. Despite the love our nation claims to hold for us, it still, time and time again with cases like Anthony Lamar Smith and Kenneka Jenkins and Sandra Bland, proves that it still sees black folk as disposable. Unless we are athletic beasts or musical geniuses, America doesn’t care. I wanted to add my voice to the thousands that agree that all black lives are valuable. I protested to show that change will come, but she won’t be sending invitations. Change will not ask politely for us to make room for it and wait for us to get ready. No one is ever ready for change because change is not comfortable. We must demand it and sacrifice for it. It is not romantic. Change is hard and takes time, energy, and an internal power that some of us don’t know we have. It also starts with the individual, but when enough individuals come together as we did with the protests, the nation doesn’t just watch. It begins to listen.

McKittrick also writes: “these ongoing acts of violence against particular cultures and communities are disturbingly familiar acts; the slain and displaced bodies are (vaguely or distinctly, depending on perspective) reminiscent of those working to death for a plantation economy that thrived on the interlocking workings of violence, black dispossession, and land exploitation” (952). How might today’s protests animate and confront past and present anti-black geographies?

Photo by Matthew Thompson

What kind of city are we protesting for? What can the protesting body do?

Last year my colleague, dance scholar Amanda Graham instructed “Body Moves”; she began the course’s “The Body in Protest” unit, with, as she wrote, “a discussion of the protests currently taking place across the nation and the world.” She provided her class with a list of “what protesting can do,” and also shared this list on Facebook (where I first read it), asking friends add points. Her list included that protest:

– allows for people who have a common issue to gather in public space;
– redefines public space for assembly, dialogue, expression instead of silence, isolation, violence;
– connects people’s hearts, feelings and voices energetically;
– gives us practice in trusting our intuition, collectively;
– interrupts the “normal” way of being in public space when normal is protecting oppressive ways of being.
– is a form of collective communication: shows the national what is concerning locally, and international community solidarity and outrage through media, social media;
– helps those most impacted feel like they have support, a voice, even when state-controlled media, education systems, are silencing/isolating stories of oppression and violence.
– practices a protected right under the constitution: freedom of assembly.
– practices being in solidarity
– is a way to garner masses to for social, political, economic change, a space to envision.

[What else does protest do? Feel free to add thoughts in the comments.]

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Photo by Kierstan Carter

Graham’s class read Susan Leigh Foster’s 2003 Theatre Journal article “Choreographies of Protest.” In the article, Foster, a choreographer and dance scholar, articulates meanings made of protesting bodies. They are as she writes:

a vast reservoir of signs and symbols … capable of both persuasion and obstinate recalcitrance. … At this moment in history when bodies gather primarily at shopping malls and when protest is frequently conducted through the on- line circulation of petitions, I want to argue that this physical interference makes a crucial difference. Approaching the body as articulate matter, I hope to demonstrate the central role that physicality plays in constructing both individual agency and sociality. (395)

Protesting bodies, as Foster suggests, function powerfully as both symbolic and physical, obstinate forces. Her formulation also begs questions: What symbols are put onto differently raced bodies? How do those symbols further the potentials of protests, especially of protests confronting racism?

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Photo by Matthew Thompson

Photo by Kierstan Carter

Jennifer Gallinat, who is white, attended the “White Allies” protest on September 21, 2017. It took place in downtown St. Louis, starting at Kiener Plaza (which faces the Arch and the Old Courthouse, a site that prominently features the story of Dred and Harriet Scott’s life). Protestors then walked a few blocks towards Busch Stadium (baseball field where the Cardinals play), which that evening hosted a Billy Joel concert. “I saw a bunch of white people,” Gallinat first told me about the protest that drew approximately 500 people. She continued:

There were certainly crowds watching us, and there was this moment where, we were chanting “white silence is violence.” … [T]here was just a weird awareness of, when you’re chanting, how words just start to cease having meaning. They just become these syllables or shrieking noises. It’s a ritual of engaging with those in power, and it doesn’t even matter that the words start to become incoherent. But, there’s this, perhaps, an innate human need to express our outrage, our desires, our demands, and it has to be done. It can’t just be an internal dialogue, it has to be witnessed.

Gallinat’s thoughts dialogue with Susan Leigh Foster’s ideas on the power of the protesting body as both symbolic and physical. Gallinat also told me:

There was definitely no riot gear. There was a shit ton of bike cops, but I think every single bike cop in the existence of humanity was there.

Afterwards I went home and watched the news: I’m just very frustrated with the narrative. A quote from Malcolm X had popped up in my Facebook memories about, “If you’re not careful, they’ll have you hating the ones who are oppressed, and loving the ones that do the oppressing.” Even just listening to the newscasters. I feel like protest has become now, this negative word. That’s why I actually try to say “civic demonstration,” representing First Amendment rights. We’re slowly stripping away the Bill of Rights. It’s slowly being stripped from us, and we seem to be just fine and dandy. Even the news, fine and dandy with that. We’re just, we’re accepting it.

The symbolic and physical body is a reminder of the First Amendment right of assembly. But the crowd’s overall whiteness–and how they were treated by the police in contradiction to the racially mixed, predominately black protestors days earlier and later who were often kettled, pepper sprayed, and arrested–further suggests a troubled symbolic power of the raced protesting body. In a St. Louis American article, “Privilege at the protest: ‘White allies’ demonstrate without incident outside of Billy Joel concert at Busch Stadium,” Kenya Vaughn wrote:

It was inspiring, almost breathtaking, to hear hundreds of white people march through downtown St. Louis – on a night where more than 40,000 people, mostly white, came downtown to see Joel– and proclaim that “black lives matter.” But it was just as disheartening, and frustrating, to see what happened – or didn’t happen – as they stood boldly on behalf the injustices that black people endure.

They were free to block the street, free to chant and voice their frustration with systemic racism and police brutality against people of color. And after they were done, they were free to go home. None of the tactics that protestors have been terrorized with since the start of non-stop protests in response to Jason Stockley’s first-degree murder acquittal – or a few years before in Ferguson – were a part of the program.

The irony wasn’t lost on the few black people who stood on the sidelines in support of the white people for black lives. “Man, if we were up there like that, we woulda been pepper sprayed, chased off and arrested by now,” a member of The Lost Voices, a group of protesters from Ferguson, said as the protestors carried on.

Whose bodies have a right to the city?  Whose bodies are given the right to (protest, fight for, and imagine) an anti-racist city? How might we build an anti-racist city with those most excluded from their rights to the city?

Photo by Matthew Thompson

 

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Dividing Lines: a mapping exercise by Sarah Sims

As many of us gear up for teaching in the upcoming (or already upon us) academic year, I wanted to share a mapping exercise. This exercise asks students to consider how their lived experiences dialogue with internal and official maps of the city they live in and engage with conceptions and urban practices of segregation, division, and equity.

I learned of this exercise from Sarah Sims, K-12 Programs Manager at the Missouri History Museum. Sims facilitates teacher professional development, guides museum educators, and leads workshops such as “Summer Teacher Institute about Civil Rights” and “Community as Classroom: Place-Based Education for Social Justice.” I met Sims when my “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis” class toured the museum’s #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis exhibit (which runs through April 15, 2018). We then used this mapping exercise in a subsequent week.

Having students map, I have a found, provides an inquiry-based awareness of maps as constructed representations of place and space. Who constructs maps and what information is used to make “official” maps, such as google maps, atlas maps, or government-used maps? What information do maps include and exclude? How does one’s own experience in place contribute to internalized views of space? In what ways are maps engines of segregation, dispossession, and division? In what ways might maps be used for equitable outcomes for vulnerable and marginalized communities? These are some questions my students considered before, during, and after they constructed their own maps.

Maps by students Eddie Campell and Dylan Bassett

For this exercise, you’ll need:

-1 sheet of paper per student (larger sizes like 11” by 17” are ideal, and 8.5” by 11” will work)

-7 colored pens/pencils/crayons highlighters per student (or have students share). The following, per student, is ideal:
1 black permanent marker
1 brown pencil, crayon, or pen
1 green pencil, crayon, or pen
1 purple pencil, crayon, or pen
1 blue pencil, crayon, or pen
1 red pencil crayon, or pen
1 yellow/orange pencil, crayon, pen, or highlighter

-(if possible, but not necessary as you can narrate directions), access to AV to present the following steps in slides

Sims’s exercise begins with a slide called “Dividing Lines,” which gives an overview of the significance of this exercise. She writes:

In this activity we will consider maps of our communities
-Not as we see them on google maps, or government maps, or other such official maps.
-But how we internalize the spaces of our community in our minds and memories, and how we live and move in those spaces.
-And how these internal/lived maps contribute to how we conceptualize, talk about, and  compartmentalize our communities.

Next, she frames the exercise:

-You’ll all make your own map
-Fill in as much as you can
-Be as detailed as you can
-We will add different components to our maps in a certain order, so please follow the steps
-This is not an artistic competition!

The seven steps are as follows – they are framed for St. Louis but applicable to any city. Make sure to give time, about 3 to 5 minutes, for each step.

Step 1: City (Black)

“Draw the shape of St. Louis.”

Note: I showed my students a slide of St. Louis to help them draw the shape of the city.

Step 2: Neighborhoods (Brown)

“Fill in as many of the different neighborhoods in the city (or county) as you can.”

“Don’t worry about their exact shape just get the neighborhoods with their spatial relationships to each other as you remember them.”

Step 3: Movement (Green)

“Draw/label the major routes you take to move throughout the city (or county).”

“This could include ways you get to work, to recreational events, to run errands, how you move around your place of residence.”

Step 4: Landmarks (Purple)

“Draw/label the important landmarks and places.”

“Think about what the Travel Chanel would highlight in St. Louis, or what a tourist would want to see.”

Step 5: Favorite Places (Blue)

“Draw/label the places that are important to you: places you go to all the time, and/or places you would recommend an out-of-towner should visit.”

Step 6: Explicit Dividing Lines (Red)

“Draw/label major dividing lines within the city and county that serve to separate areas/groups of people/places/etc. Think about the dividing lines that you hear about on the news, read about online or in books, and/or have experienced.”

Step 7: Implicit Dividing Lines (Yellow/Orange)

“Look at your map and lightly shade in the areas that are mostly blank.”

***

After completing this mapping exercise, I asked my students to lie out all maps in a line, and observe them together.

Maps by students Bemnet Tesfaye and Sarah Small

Then we engaged the following questions, borrowed from Sims’s exercise:

  • What stands out to you as you view our maps together?
  • What things are similar about all of our maps?
  • Are there intersections between how we remember the map of our city/community and how we interact with our city/community?
  • What explicit or implicit biases are visible in our maps?
  • What are the implications of our internal/lived maps on our role as students and urban ethnographers at Washington University?

Geographies of Katherine Dunham’s Dance Activism: an interview with Joanna Dee Das

In 1930s Chicago, she choreographed for Run, Little Chillun, the first black show to take place in the city’s downtown Loop theater district, and brought dance to the city’s New Negro Movement. In 1940s Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore, she—a black choreographer—confronted and challenged racist laws often while performing to all-white audiences. In the 1950s, she choreographed Southland, an “anti-lynching dance drama” (12); her company performed the work in Santiago, Chile and Paris, France, but never—due to State Department pressure—in the United States (in fact, the FBI keep files on her for two decades). When she danced abroad in places like San Paulo, Brazil, she was often both refused hotel rooms and applauded for her choreography. In the 1960s, she traveled to and lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Dakar, Senegal, engaging with local—and black diasporic—aesthetics and politics. In 1967, she moved to East St. Louis where she opened the Performing Arts Training Center, bringing dance to thousands for the rest of the 20th century.

The life of Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006), choreographer and activist, was in many ways a life of dance urbanism and dance geography. Dunham choreographed works in dialogue with the aesthetics and sociality of, and against racism that, permeated cities where she traveled, choreographed, and lived. But how? How did her choreography engage with the 20th century development of cities?

I asked these and more questions of Joanna Dee Das, Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis. Das’s new book Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press) chronicles Dunham’s life, choreography, and engagement with anti-racism, aesthetics, and politics in 20th century U.S. and global cities.

MAHMOUD: Your book opens with an anecdote about Katherine Dunham furiously performing at a segregated theater in Louisville for a whites only audience. You write:

In Louisville, she emerged at the end of the performance wearing a sign that a company member had stolen from a segregated train car saying “For Whites Only” attached to her backside. After bowing, she turned upstage and danced a triplet step, moving her feet quickly form side to side causing the sign to swing back and forth from her hips for all to view. When the bows finished, she read a speech in which she announced that she would not return to the theater until it integrated. Her words made national headlines, and she received fan letters from across the country applauding her stance. (9)

Dunham was often booked in, and then later, refused to dance in racially segregated venues in cities such as Kansas City, Louisville, and Baltimore. How did her performances and later refusals dialogue with racism, and hope for anti-racist politics, in those cities?

DAS: So these are all urban Southern cities. Kansas City you could say is mid-west, but in a way it’s a part of the South also. She had to negotiate a tricky balance there, as these cities had growing black populations at the time, the Great Migration is still technically happening. There’s still more and more African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban South, and more and more of them want to come to her shows. So she always has to make a decision in each city, “Do I perform in a segregated venue because I want people to see my shows? Do I refuse and take a stand? What do I do?” In each place she makes kind of a different decision.

In Louisville, she decides … The first time she goes there she performs and doesn’t raise a protest, and the second time she does. She says she won’t return until the theater is integrated because there are so many African American citizens in Louisville [who] want to see her shows.

In Baltimore, she again, at first, is willing to perform in the segregated theater because she has never been there before. She says in a letter to her friend, “I think it’s important to have your audiences get to know you first before you make any strategic decisions about protesting.”

I think what she’s in dialogue with in these urban centers is a growing African American population that is interested in urban entertainments. She wants them to have access to her shows. So sometimes she decides that that access means accepting segregation, and sometimes if she’s already popular there and already well-known then she’ll take a stand. It’s a very strategic move, even though whenever people interview her she always said that she responded intuitively to injustice.

Joanna Dee Das

You chronicle Dunham’s performances abroad in South America, Europe, and West Africa. How did that work influence ideas of Americanness?

Her performances abroad made people very interested in African American life because she was one of the first performers … You have to remember when she goes to Europe in 1948, Europe is still recovering from World War II. There aren’t many people performing there, and this is for them … it’s building upon exposure of Josephine Baker in Paris, and things like that. She’s really one of the first African American performers to go abroad that people glob onto to say, “Teach us about what’s going on in America.” There’s increasing news coming out of Russia about stories of segregation and racism in the United States. So people in those urban areas in Europe and Latin America are asking her to respond to those stories and her take on those stories.

She has to walk this delicate balance: she wants to keep performing abroad, she doesn’t want the U.S. State Department to shut her down, but she also wants to speak out. She negotiates this pretty well until she decides to perform an anti-lynching ballet.

That’s Southland?

Yes, that’s Southland.

[Southland was first performed in December 1950 in Santiago, Chile. Das reveals how the State Department “pressured [the U.S. embassy in Chile] to take the dance drama off the program, arguing that it ‘clearly follows communist line propaganda and serves to create ill feeling toward the United States’” (157). Later State Department officials accused Dunham of “anti-Americanism” and censored Chiliean press coverage of the work” (160).] 

Another part of her engagement in these urban cities abroad is she connects to new parts of African diaspora. She had been to the Caribbean, but in Europe she connects to people from Africa, from the continent itself. That produces a new rich, cultural, and intellectual exchange. I think of Brent Edwards’s work about Paris as a kind of center of transnational diasporic creation. Paris is where she meets Léopold Senghor, first president of Senegal and creator of Negritude. So in Paris and in London she meets a lot of African intellectuals, and that helps enrich her understanding of the diaspora in a lot of ways.

Dunham spent nearly the last 40 years of her life in East St. Louis. How would you describe her influence in East St. Louis and the broader St. Louis metro region? Why did she choose East St. Louis?

The reality is she needed a job. Her brother-in-law worked at Southern Illinois University and said, “I can get you a job here.” She needed money. She came in 1964 to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which is 100 miles away [from St. Louis]. She hated it. She’s used to living in these cosmopolitan urban centers: Paris, London, New York City. She fled, she went to Senegal for two years, but then she came back [in 1967]. She decided to stay because she just saw that there was a lot of need for some kind of cultural programming in the area. There was not even a movie theater in East St. Louis, the movie theater had shut down in 1959. There were very few opportunities for arts and culture. So she felt that she could make a difference.

The question about whether culture can solve systemic racism and poverty, it obviously can’t. When you look at statistics about East St. Louis, crime statistics or poverty statistics, those don’t change as a result of Dunham being here, but she changed the lives of many citizens here. People attest to the quality of their lives improving, and also helping people get out. Again, the question is, does that help the city? But it does help the citizens of that city. She helped a lot of people find a new path in life.

There is this concept I love: “performance geography.” In DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (University of Ottawa Press 2010), Sonjah Stanley-Niiah uses performance geography:

to refer to a mapping of the material and spatial conditions of performance: entertainment and ritual in specific sites/venues, types of systems of use, the politics of their location in relation to other sites and other practices, the character of events/rituals in particular locations and the manner in which different performances and performers relate to each other within and across different cultures.

There is also the level of spatial philosophies that govern systems of use, boundaries and boundarylessness, gendered spaces, and the urban, and that form part of the rubric of performance geography. How do performances imprint themselves on space? What spatial identities do performances bear? How is the performative self to be defined in any given space? Are there distinctions to be made between the local and the global self in performance? (33)

How does this concept resonate with Dunham’s work?

I think of her performance geography as genuinely diasporic in the sense of living in the space in between. I think it would be very hard to replicate it today.

Why?

Because I think that today she would be accused of cultural appropriation. In order to give this very expansive sense of diaspora she had to choreograph so many dances that she set in places she had never been, and invoking dance forms she had never studied. At the time it was so much better than what was out there that it was totally okay, but today when … For example, I show students a piece of choreography called Batucada set in Brazil. She had not been to Brazil, she had not studied Brazilian dance. The musicians sing in Spanish instead of in Portuguese, for example. And I think that today that kind of performance would be seen as a version of cultural appropriation across national boundaries. But at the time, Dunham did it to create this broad vision and show the richness and wealth of the diaspora culturally.

Her performance geography was always trying to be as broad and inclusive as possible, and find spaces in between and celebrate the differences as well as similarities. She didn’t make each piece similar. It couldn’t be replicated in the same way today. I think the version that people do today is they do dialogic exchanges, so Urban Bush Women does a collaboration with Jant-Bi, a Senegalese dance company. They work together, they collaborate, they create what I would consider a diasporic performance through a collaborative model.

More broadly, how did Dunham’s choreography dialogue with her geographies and the politics of those geographies?  

She gets her start in Chicago, and the big thing she is doing there is bringing dance to the New Negro Movement, or the Chicago Black Renaissance. There is a growing little theater movement, there is obviously a great music scene in Chicago. This is the 1930s. As you know, kind of like Harlem Renaissance in 1920s and Chicago starts to get this creative artistic energy a little bit later coinciding with the Great Depression. So therefore it’s also slightly more explicitly political in orientation because the National Negro Congress that meets there is in dialogue with the Communist Party. There’s a little bit more of an activist bent to it explicitly. Obviously, the Harlem Renaissance is also political, but in this movement of the 1930s, out of which in the 1940s will come Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Dunham is bringing dance to the conversation. That’s how she is influencing Chicago urban culture.

In New York City in the 1940s she is challenging the whiteness of Broadway, not only through her shows, which are on Broadway, but also by putting her dance studio in Broadway’s theater district. Everyone expected her to put it in Harlem. She refuses. Then she is challenging what is considered the center of what you should do for your training in Broadway performance. It’s not just dancers who go to her dance studio in New York in the 1940s, it’s a lot of actors and other performers. Everyone who’s anyone in theater and dance scene. The founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Arthur Mitchell, said that it was just the “it” place to be in the late 1940s and early 1950s. So she’s really bringing in kind of Afro Caribbean culture, particularly to urban culture in New York.

A group of Katherine Dunham Dancers shown in mid-rehearsal in New York, Library of Congress, 1946

Had she gone to the Caribbean by then?

Yeah, she had gone to the Caribbean in the 30s and then went to Cuba in 1946. She’s obviously not solely responsible for bringing Cuban music to New York, but she is part of what helps popularize things that leads to the Mambo craze and things like that.

Those are the big two. Then, as we talked about, in Paris and London she’s engaging in these dialogues, then in East St Louis shes making these changes in the 60s.

Your own dance geography influences this book. You began your preface, writing:

I never met Katherine Dunham, but she shaped the course of my life. At age nine, I began to take jazz at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), a community arts center in University City, an “inner ring” suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. I had only a vague awareness that my theater, Lee Nolting, doubled as the ballet mistress for the Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop across the river in East St. Louis. After taking a Dunham Technique class at age twelve with Lee’s husband, Darryl Braddix, I realized that many aspects of my jazz dance training, including our arm positions during warm-ups and our body-part isolations, came from Dunham Technique. … I was part of an organization with a mission to create community and challenge racial segregation” (5).

You grew up in St. Louis, lived in New York, and traveled to Haiti, Italy, and Maryland as part of writing the book. How did these urban localities, sometimes not urban, influence the writing of the book?

Well, going to Port-au-Prince, Haiti was very instructive because … I think that it might be one of the major differences between my book and previous books on Dunham is I am coming of age as a scholar at a time when there is a call for more diasporic thinking and thinking about the ways in which an American centric perspective can erase other perspectives. Going to Port-au-Prince and talking to people in Haiti, where I did a lot of interviews, was very helpful because there is a narrative from America about how important Dunham was for Haiti, how much good she did for Haiti, how wonderful she was, how much of an activist she was there, and that’s not necessarily the perspective of Haitians living there. I was clued into this by Mario Lamothe. He was the one who first told me, “You should really talk to Haitians about their perspective.” And so going to Port-au-Prince and actually talking to people of multiple generations was really helpful to see how she was perceived as an American, not always already as a fellow person of African descent. That was really helpful, and it helps give the book a slightly different frame rather than an America only frame.

Then I would say going to Carbondale, Illinois, which is where the archives were, was also very interesting because I could see why Dunham felt kind of panicky living there. It feels very rural, and it actually feels very Southern. Though Illinois technically was a free state, [southern Illinois] feels like the South, very much is the South. When I was living there for the summer, people wore Confederate flag belts. There has been documentation that there was actually slavery in Southern Illinois even though it was technically a free state. It helped me understand why Dunham at first felt kind of panicky being there. That was very helpful to understand her mentality and why East. St Louis is such a unique urban area. For anyone who hasn’t been there, it feels like it combines rural poverty with urban poverty.

What can we gain pedagogically from your book?

I’m hoping that it’s a model for how you can try to tell a broader story through one person’s life. That can always be tricky. Sometimes biography is seen as an old fashioned way of scholarship, or narrow, and I think that you can learn a lot about the nuances of a social movement or a historical question by looking at an individual person.

What might people interested in dance activism and art activism learn from Dunham’s work?

One thing they can learn is that you have a lifetime to achieve these goals. She lived at a time when the phrase self care was not around, but she engaged in a practice of knowing when to step back and let her creative spirit regenerate, and when to fully engage. There’s a point at which it gets too exhausting to fight racism and sexism every single day of your life while you’re on tour, while you’re trying to be creative, while you’re trying to find beauty in things. It can be really, really draining, and so having a generosity with yourself of finding ways to engage in activism, knowing when to give yourself time to regenerate your creative spirit, I think is something that is really important that I talk about in the book.

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (2017) by Joanna Dee Das is available from Oxford University Press.

On handshakes and aliens: two pedagogical lessons for the urbanist classroom

When you observe two people sitting at a park bench, or walking down a block wearing suit or a dress or jeans – what assumptions do you attach to their bodies? How do these assumptions inform how you read people in urban space?

When you think of a city you’ve visited or lived in, what adjectives do you think of? When you think of a city you’ve never visited before (I, for example, have never been to Cape Town, South Africa, and Berlin, Germany, and Buenos Aries, Argentina, and Hanoi, Vietnam, among many other cities) what adjectives do you think of?

I ask these questions to frame two brief pedagogical lessons for the urban cultural studies classroom. Each asks how discourse – produced knowledge that circulates – attaches to (urban) bodies and ideas of cities.

I learned the first exercise at a 2013 ATHE conference (panel: “The Games We Play”) and came up with the second exercise a few years ago. I have taught both, and shared and further developed both exercises earlier this month with input from other participants and under the direction of Professor Carrie Preston at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Studies at Harvard University which had the theme: “Research, Pedagogy, Activism.” I offer these exercises here as in-progress pedagogical tools.

Handshake Exercise: “What do you see?”

Goal: To have students identify the type of assumptions attached to bodies and roles people play in urban space.

(pre-step). If possible, go to an urban setting such as a park bench or an area near a bus stop.

1. Ask for two volunteers from your class — lets call them A and B. When they come up to front of the classroom (or to the park bench, etc.), ask the two to shake hands.

2. As A and B shake hands, ask the other students “what do you see?” or “what type of assumptions might we make if we saw these two people shaking hands here?”

3. As A and B continue to shake hands, listen to responses from the class.

4. After a few moments, substitute out one volunteer for another such that A and C are now shaking hands.

5. Again ask, “What do you see?” and listen to responses.

6. Repeat this exercise several more times, such that different pairings of students are shaking hands (C and D shake hands, D and E shake hands, E and F shake hands, F and A shake hands and so on), and with each pairing, ask the rest of the observers “What do you see?” The combinations are often such that two men shake hands, or two women shake hands, or two people of the same or of a different race shake hands, or of similar or different ages shake hands, or similar or different heights shake hands.

7. When the exercise is over ask your students: “what didn’t you say?” The exercise ultimately asks what meanings do we have and make about raced, gendered, aged bodies, and combinations of those bodies, in urban spaces?

Alien Exercise: “What does it look like?” “How do you know?”

Goal: To explain the concept of discourse, and have students think about how and where knowledge about concepts (such as cities) is produced and circulated within society.

1. Ask students: “Draw an alien.” (Give students about 2-3 minutes to do so).

2. Next ask students: “Share your alien.” Give willing students a few moments to describe their alien.

3. Then ask: “Have you ever met an alien?” “How do you know what an alien looks like?” “Where have you seen aliens?” Use this prompt to make students name the specific sources where they’ve seen aliens (television, movies, magazines) that have influenced their ideas of what aliens look like.

4. Use their naming to introduce the concept of discourse. (Here are some sources: The Chicago School of Media Theory, University of Chicago; Michael Foucault, “Discourse on Language”; Social Theory Re-Wired, Routledge.)

5. Re-explain this concept of discourse, now through meanings we attach to cities. Ask students to describe cities they may or may not have been to: “How would you describe New York City?” (or another city if you teach in or near New York City).

6. Then ask students, “Raise your hand if you’ve been to New York City.” For those who didn’t raise their hands, ask, “where have you learned ideas of New York City?” For those who have been to New York City, ask, “how do those ideas compare to and contrast with what you’ve experienced in that city?”

7. Repeat with other cities.

8. Discuss how discourses of cities circulate in dialogue with and beyond the embodied experience of a city – and what this means for power/privilege (how discourses of cities center and privilege certain people and knowledge over others) and what this means for various methods (ethnographic, archival, aesthetic) of studying cities that may or may not address those differences in power and privilege.

I used this exercise last semester in my Urban Ethnography class, linking it to Michel de Certeau’s ideas of place and space.

What exercises do you use to have students think about how meanings are produced and circulated in urban spaces?

Thoughts on “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967 – 2017,” an exhibit at CAM STL

In one scene a pair of female dancers, one black and one white, stand sideways ready to begin choreography. Costumes—black shorts and sleeveless black tops—suggest this piece as hip and abstract. As they begin to dance, so does the position of each of their arms, angular in front and bent at the elbow as if to engage in a sort of cooperative, artistic combat. As the dancers continue, they often twin their iterative movements in both angular and lyrical motions, with encircled arms and bent knees and twisted torsos, positions in tension with how their legs often stay planted in a stationary place.

Image from Liquor Store Theatre

What distinguishes this choreography are not just these movements but also the location. Staged in front a liquor store in Detroit, MI, this dance is from Liquor Store Theatre. Conceived of by Detroit native Maya Stovall (who performs in much of the choreography) Liquor Store Theatre, is according to her website, “a four-volume, thirty-plus episode meditation on city life in Detroit … a four-years-running series of documented performances and conversations with people in the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots surrounding Detroit liquor stores.” The work includes both video of the choreography (set to atmospheric, rhythmic music) and videos of interviews with residents inside or in front of the liquor store. Some residents talk about changes in Detroit: tearing down abandoned residential buildings and development to existing abandoned commercial structures. When I watched the video, one interviewee, a young black man, talked about how tourists often likely mis-perceive him and his friends as up to no good when they are in fact just hanging out and spending time together.

I learned of Liquor Store Theatre at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of the museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” a group exhibition with work by 24 artists; the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through August 13, 2017. This past weekend I visited, watched Liquor Store Theatre, and engaged with the exhibition’s other works. (Earlier in May, the museum hosted Critical Spatial Practice St. Louis (CSPSTL). I attended “Performance and the City,” a panel with Maya Stovall, other exhibition artists Abigale Deville and David Hartt, and the curator Kelly Shindler.)

Literature for the exhibit thematizes much of the work as either “photography as a tool to document a rapidly changing nation,” sculpture, or “several moving image works.” In my interaction, I thought of three more takeaways.

First, although other cities are referenced, most works consider one of three cities: New York, Detroit, or St. Louis. It is useful to pause and ask why the focus on these three cities, especially in the last 40 years? Planning and development in New York City—from the 1916 Zoning Resolution, to the late 20th century and early 21st century loft laws that legalized illegal occupation of artists in commericial buildings, to the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan that transformed the neighborhoods’ skyline and displaced many residents with market-rate high rise buildings and scant affordable housing options—not only changed the function of buildings and skyline in the city, but also set rubrics for other local and national conversations and policies on density, zoning, gentrification, displacement, and “renewal,” and the racial impact of these urban planning efforts.

I particularly thought about zoning and race in Glenn Ligon’s Housing in New York (2007), which curator Shindler describes as “expos[ing] gentrification as an assault on African-American neighborhoods.” In the series of five silkscreens, Ligon narrates the story of each place he has lived throughout his life all in New York City. Ligon’s story is one of growing up in housing projects in the Bronx; living in brownstones with no-heat and flooded ceilings in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and later, as he became a more established artist, living in converted lofts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Glenn Ligon, Housing in New York (2007)

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 1

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 2

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 3

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 4

Ligon, Housing in New York, Frame 5

As of 2010 New York City had a population of more than 8 million that was about 25% black (with Harlem no longer majority black); St. Louis City had a population of 319,000 that was about 49% black; and Detroit had a population of 713,000 that was about 82% black. Detroit and St. Louis are also the cities with the two largest shrinking populations (2015 estimates situate the population of St. Louis at 315,000 and of Detroit at 677,000).

But some art revealed the sociality and life beyond this “decline” and beyond how black urban areas are often demarcated in policy and discourse as in ruin. There was a through line of liquor and inebriation in much of the art, such as Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75.

Closeup of Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75

But other works revealed a rich sociality to where alcohol gets bought and consumed as a way to tell the story of those often ignored by urban planners. In Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, for example, the commercial place to buy liquor becomes a backdrop for residents–mostly black–to tell stories about their home.

Second, some works articulated the role of the rural in the making of the urban. Images from Juan William Chávez‘s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010) situated an imaginary of turning the land in the Pruitt-Igoe forest in St. Louis City into a bee sanctuary.

Images from Juan William Chávez’s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010 and 2011)

In Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield–A Confrontation, the artist documents the wheatfield she and others planted at the Battery Park landfill in May 1982; in August 1982 she and others harvested more than 1000 pounds of wheat delivered to 28 cities. As Denes wrote in her artist statement: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982)

Third, the exhibition particularized attention to art about urban space and planning, rather than art (such as public sculpture) that exists within urban space. There is much overlap between the two categories and the exhibit attuned to how art about urban space often focuses on urban aesthetics and imaginaries. Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012) “create[d]” according to the curator “ghostly etchings, a palimpsest of merchant posters sourced around Los Angeles that refract the area’s crucial informal economies.” Note how his articulation situates the sparse and novice-esque aesthetics of the block letters alongside messages of “Homeless Prevention Program” and “We Buy Houses Cash.”

Closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Another closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Ultimately and collectively the works in this exhibit re-orient how we might study, document, and analyze urban space by situating the aesthetics, narratives, and sociality of, and imaginations for, the city.

Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” runs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until August 13, 2017.

CFP/Conference — Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness

UPDATED 16 JUN 2017:

The date of the symposium has been moved up to October 11-13.

Black Geographies: Insurgent Knowledge, Spatial Poetics, and the Politics of Blackness

the date of the symposium has been moved up to October 11-13.A symposium hosted by the Geography Department at the
University of California, Berkeley
Organizers: Dr. Jovan Lewis, Dr. Sharad Chari, Camilla Hawthorne, Kaily Heitz
October 11-13, 2017, UC Berkeley
CFP Deadline: June 16, 2017

Black liberation movements around the world, from the streets of Oakland and Ferguson to the shores of southern Europe, have focused international conversations among activists, academics, and artists on the importance of blackness to the geographical imagination. Importantly, this dialogue has elucidated the possibilities of blackness not only as a tool for understanding whiteness, non-being, and social/physical death, but also as a radical framework for envisioning liberation, social justice, and reconstruction. We invite our colleagues to Black Geographies to discuss the possibilities of interdisciplinary work oriented on black geographic thought. This symposium offers geography in general, and black geographies specifically, as capacious fields of inquiry that invite historical, political economic, sociological, and artistic perspectives–as well as a range of “established” and alternative methodologies.

The double valence of our use of “black geographies” refers both to the ways that geography can be used to understand the complex, overlapping spatialities of black life and the stretching of geographical knowledge that takes place when scholars consciously center questions of race and blackness. Katherine McKittrick’s important interventions, for instance, employ the concept of “poetics” to describe those landscapes and places that have been narratively and counter-conceptually created with blackness as their source.

More here.

Emplacing Materiality

What are the materials of urban space and urban life? The dense forest full of volunteer trees and plants. The beveled, dark grey and somewhat translucent fence that surrounds 100-acres of land newly seized by eminent domain. The hoops and nets of a circular basketball court situated within the green of a vertical park. The aged red bricks of a three-story home. The calm pond in the middle of a calm park full of exercise activity stations. What are the materials of urban space and urban life?

Pruitt-Igoe forest

Last weekend, I considered this question as I visited three sites in North St. Louis City.

The first: Pruitt-Igoe/NGA. That moniker, as Heidi Kolk (mentioned below) has explained, is an amalgamation of two very different sites nevertheless linked due to proximity as they are across the street from each other. Pruitt-Igoe was the massive concrete public housing project first occupied in 1954, and demolished in the early 1970s. Although the complex began with the Pruitt tower for blacks and the Igoe for whites, Pruitt-Igoe soon became all-black and during its peak had 15,000 residents. Lee Rainwater’s famed 1970 ethnography, Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum, described residents’ lives. After Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition in the early 1970s, the land slowly become a burly forest. Today, urbanists often venture to the forest, which is now private property: in 2016, developer Paul McKee bought the land from the city for a little more than $1 million. Across the street from Pruitt-Igoe will be the NGA or National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; in 2016, the NGA bought a 100-acre plot within the St. Louis Place neighborhood. Eminent domain recently forced that area’s mostly black 200 residents and businesses to move. Both Pruitt-Igoe’s dismantling and NGA’s development, then, have displaced black residents.

Church within land seized by eminent domain for future NGA site (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

The second site: a basketball court in St. Louis place. The third site: Fairground Park, site of the 1949 race riot that erupted after whites began to attack blacks near and within the park’s newly integrated swimming pool.

Basketball hoop in St. Louis Place Park (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

We visited these sites as part Material World of Modern Segregation. A symposium convened by Iver Bernstein and Heidi Kolk, both of Washington University in St. Louis, the event brought together an interdisciplinary group of 20+ scholars (including historians, anthropologists, sociologists, film-makers, and urbanists) researching sites of modern segregation in St. Louis city and county. The symposium offered a chance for scholars to share research conducted thus far, and workshop ideas within and themes across the works. On the second day, Bernstein and Kolk split scholars into four groups, each headed to a region of St. Louis: 1) East St. Louis; 2) St. Louis University/Midtown/Mill Creek Valley (Mill Creek Valley was the thriving mostly black neighborhood of 20,000 demolished in the 1950s); 3) “Delmar Divide”; and 4) North St. Louis (my group).

I thought of geographer Katherine McKittrick throughout the symposium. In her 2011 article, “On plantations, prisons, and a black sense of place,” she defines a black sense of place as “as the process of materially and imaginatively situating historical and contemporary struggles against practices of domination and the difficult entanglements of racial encounter” (949). Crucially for this symposium McKittrick also writes: “[a] black sense of place draws attention to the longstanding links between blackness and geography. It brings into focus the ways in which racial violences (concrete and epistemic actions and structural patterns intended harm, kill, or coerce a particular grouping of people) shape, but do not wholly define, black worlds” (947) Her attention frames the processes that shape the materialites and geographies of black life, such as displacement of black residents and neighborhoods.

I also thought of ethnographer Sarah Pink as we experienced the site visits. In her 2008 article “An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making,” Sarah Pink details her experience in Mold, Wales, UK. A Cittàslow (or Slow Cities) member town, Mold aims towards, what as Pink writes, “an attentiveness and mindfulness that stresses the quality of experience” (192). Pink describes taking a tour of Mold that emphasized that Slow City status; in the tour she walks with, eats with, talks with, explores with, photographs with, and experiences the city with residents. Her experience is not just one of being with residents; consciousness of the experience in the town also comes when Pink leaves the tour. She writes:

Most striking was perhaps not the process by which, through consuming my half-milk coffee, falling into step with my guides and trying to imagine the futures they mediated, I became attuned to their world. Rather, it was that once walking hurriedly to my car I felt more deeply how my way of both being in and knowing the town shifted as I was disengaged from my hosts and (without my mediators) returned in ‘transport’ (Ingold, 2007) mode to my car. (192)

Two of Pink’s ideas, I find, are crucial. First, she details how emplacement frames ethnographic approaches. She writes, “we should think not only about how the subjects of ethnographic research are emplaced … [r]ather, it invokes the additional question of how researchers themselves are emplaced in ethnographic contexts” (179). Second, she positions the tour as “a case study of an embodied and reflexive engagement with the discourses, materiality, sociality and sensoriality of a particular way of being in a town” (192). We make sense of urban spaces through discourses, materials, social experiences, and sensorial awareness; we also make sense of space by being conscious of how others and ourselves are emplaced. Critically, for the symposium, this approach situates sites and materiality as only given meaning by being emplaced to capture the often under-studied emplaced histories and practices of segregation that pervade St. Louis.

The mesh fence that now surrounds the future NGA was put up in the last few weeks. Within the fenced area still are churches and homes recently abandoned as residents have been forced out. The churches and homes no longer act as spaces for worship and residence; framed by the fence, they are now marked for destruction. At one moment during our visit, as we looked at the fence and through the fence, a security guard driving in a car approached us and added unease to our observations.

Security guard driving towards us within newly fenced area slated for NGA (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

When we were in the Pruitt-Igoe forest, John Early (a member of our group) mentioned that when he often walks through the forest he feels under his feet a dismantled curb or another remnant of the apartment complex demolished more than 40 years ago. That day, we saw what appeared as a large rock spray-painted in a bright pink color. Also, when within the forest although surrounded by seemingly calm green plants, I felt not ease but anxiety as I was technically trespassing on private property.

We played basketball in the court in St. Louis Place Park Basketball court and then walked by several homes in the neighborhood, including a “new” one. Charlesetta Taylor, one resident of the NGA eminent domain area, was able to have the city pay to move her home a mile away in the northern part of the neighborhood. (Other residents have not had her fate).

Charlesetta Taylor’s newly moved home (photo credit: Morgan Brooks)

As we walked by her recently moved home–which aesthetically seemed to fit into its new block–new meaning was made of the bricks that held together parts of the home, and continued to give strength and resilience in the new location. When we consider the materials of urban life, we make fuller sense of these materials by considering how they engage with our (and more importantly) with residents’ emplacement.