Occupy Wall Street has provided a dramatic reminder that cities still matter as spaces of participatory democracy and engaged citizenship. Yet while Occupy was criticized for being too white, in the United States, Blackness, once synonymous with the urban, now stands in for disappearance. The migrations from north to south, the exodus from city to suburb, and the renditions from the street to prison have all worked to undermine the idea of Black cities – and the very possibility of Black people living in cities. Gentrification and urban renewal, supported by the normalization of state-sanctioned terror against people of color through stop-and-frisk campaigns (not to mention the wholesale dragnet of the Muslim community), has acted to racially cleanse urban space.
Elsewhere in the African diaspora, from Accra to Port-au-Prince, neoliberal economic policy has continued to undermine the state’s ability to sustain and defend Black urban communities while contributing to the creation of a series of segregated zones separating cosmopolitan elites from the dark masses.
In this, The Public Archive’s fourth installment of Radical Black Reading,* we hope to contribute to an informal conversation about the history, plight, and future of Black cities – and towards the imagination of a radical Black city. It is a conversation taking place (if only in disparate, scattered form) across the African diaspora. The question of Black urban space, of Black geographies, and of the possibility of a radical Black city adds an urgent element to discussions of the nature of the urban, while the very survival of the Black city becomes a radical act of hope and resistance.
David Austin’s Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal (Between the Lines) provides a good place to start. In Fear of a Black Nation, Austin, among the foremost chroniclers of West Indian and pan-African political and intellectual histories, builds on two previous works, A View for Freedom, an oral history of the St. Vincents-born, Montreal-based cricketer and organizer Alphonso Theodore “Alfie” Roberts, and You Don’t Play with Revolution, an edited collection of CLR James’ Montreal lectures and talks. Fear of a Black Nation recovers the critical role played by Montreal as a nexus for Black Power and the Caribbean Left and takes the Canadian state to task for its attempt to undermine Black activism while marginalizing Black Canadian citizenship. Austin argues that Montreal in the late sixties was defined by a public hysteria generated by white fears of Black sexuality which were used to justify a repressive state of security. Fear of a Black Nation is critical reading for understanding the history of Black Montreal – and the African diaspora writ large.
A remarkable body of literature on urban Jamaica has been generated over the past few years. Anthropologist Deborah A. Thomas’ Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (Duke) calls for the reclamation of Jamaican citizenship against the persistent structural violence of colonialism and the political-economic restructuring of neoliberalism. Thomas’ documentary Bad Friday: Rastafari after Coral Gardens, co directed with John Jackson, critically recovers the history of the 1963 police assault on the Montego Bay Rasta community. Coral Gardens and the 1968 Rodney Riots in Kingston are flashpoints in The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto (Ghetto People Publishing), an intense and boldly militant work of ghetto Gnosticism by Adidja Palmer, aka dancehall artiste Vybz Kartel. The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto was published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaican independence (as was Rub-a-Dub Style: The Roots of Modern Dancehall, by former Reggae Quarterly publisher and dancehall historian Beth Lesser) and at the center of the book is an attack on the Jamaican state’s commitment to Jamaica’s Black urban sufferers. “Fifty years of what for poor people?” ask Kartel. Meanwhile, novelist Colin Channer has recruited an all-star ensemble of writers on the Kingston underworld for Kingston Noir (Akashic) and in Yardie and Yardie II: The Legend of Rude Boy Richie (GhettoLife Publishing), Prince Kofie evokes Kingston in the Black pulp tradition of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Victor Headley while versioning the cold-blooded transnational ethnography of Laurie Gunst’s Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Underworld.
Teju Cole’s neo-Sebaldian meander in Open City is undoubtedly the most celebrated of the recent writing on Black New York but it should not overshadow a number of other recent important books. In Errancities (Coffee House) poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe travels from Harlem to Black cities beyond and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ excellent debut Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown) is an elegant psychogeography of the pan-African city. Rhodes-Pitts also contributes an essay to photographer Dawood Bey’s throwback pictorial, Harlem U.S.A (Yale). On the historical front, Leslie Alexander’s African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861 (Illinois) and Carla L. Petersen’s Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth Century New York (Yale) both examine the archive of emancipated Blacks in the Big Apple while Brooklyn-son Brian Purnell’s highly anticipated A Movement Grows in Brooklyn (Kentucky) considers the history of the Congress for Racial Equality and the Civil Rights Movement in the largest Black city in the US. Filmmaker and author Vivek Bald, director of Mutiny, a fantastic documentary on the history of Britain’s South Asians in dub, punk, and ska, returns with a stunningly original historical archeology of Harlem in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Harvard).
Elsewhere in the Americas, the online journal Habana Elegante has a smart portfolio on San Juan, Puerto Rico. Esther Whitfield and Anke Birkenmaier have assembled a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary exploration of post-1989 Havana urbanism in Havana Beyond the Ruins: Cultural Mappings after 1989 (Duke); their book complements Alejandro de la Fuente’s richly-documented Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century (UNC). Two recent monographs explore the history of Black social movements in urban California: Daniel Widener’s Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles and Donna Murch’s Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (UNC). The politics of sound and space in Washington, D.C. is considered in Natalie Hopkinson lively and pointed Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Duke). Elisa Joy White’s Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora (Indiana) offers a welcome comparative perspective on black urbanism through an examination of post-Katrina New Orleans, but also the deportations of Nigerians from Dublin and the status of Blacks in the suburbs of Paris.
The coffee table set will enjoy architect David Adjaye’s lavish seven-volume African Metropolitan Architecture (Rizzoli) but a more substantive consideration of contemporary African urbanism is found in African Cities: Alternative Visions of Urban Theory and Practice, (Zed Books), Garth Meyer’s radical reinterpretation of how African cities are discussed in both urban studies and African studies. Chimurenga, the incredible pan-African journal out of Cape Town, has been doing a similar work of urban reassessment and reinterpretation through its African Cities Readers. Co-published with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, two volumes of the African Cities Reader have already appeared and a third is on its way. The ongoing problems of housing and segregation plaguing post-Apartheid Cape Town are discussed in Tony Roshan Samara’s Cape Town after Apartheid: Crime and Governance in the Divided City (Minnesota) as well as No Land! No House! No Vote!: Voices from Symphony Way (Fahamu), a moving collection of testimonies from the city’s internally displaced. The sonic landscapes of Accra are evoked in anthropologist of sound Steven Feld’s Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana (Duke) while urbanist Fassil Demissie has edited Colonial Architecture and Urbanism in Africa: Intertwined and Contested Histories (Ashgate).
Mogadishu, a city at one time viewed as the most dangerous in the world, as emblematic of every stereotype of a congenital African urban violence, and as the embodiment of the West’s fear of Islamicist hegemony, is undergoing something of a renaissance and rebirth – as suggested by the recent writing on the Somali capital. Rasna Warah and Mohamud Diriye’s forthcoming Mogadishu: Then and Now narrates the history of Mogadishu from its ninth-century origins to the outbreak of civil war in 1991. Global Post has published an online dossier, Destination Mogadishu, examining Mogadishu in the aftermath of the country’s civil war. Two monographs provide some broader context on Somalia’s political history: Mary Harper’s, Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State, published by Zed Books through the Royal African Society’s African Arguments series and Stig Jarle Hansen’s Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The history and ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2202 (Hurst).
However, perhaps the best way into Mogadishu is through the work of Somali novelist Nurrudin Farah. Farah already has two trilogies under his belt with Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (1980–1983) and Blood in the Sun (1986–1999). With the publication of Crossbones, following the publication of the novels Links and Knots, Farah now has his third, dubbed Past Imperfect. Like the novels that came before it, Crossbones, dispenses with the exoticist memoirs of child-soldiers and aid-workers, missionaries and anthropologists, and reclaims Somalia through an unsentimental complexity. Farah uses the landscape of contemporary Mogadishu to examine the perilous contradictions of Somalia history while Crossbones contributes to the literary labors of re-imagining the radical Black city.
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Image: David Osagie, Occupy Nigeria (2011)