In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is J.T. Roane. Roane is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Geography and Andrew W. Mellon chair in the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University. His book is Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
J.T. Roane: Dark Agoras accounts for the historical dynamic between Black placemaking and the deracination of Black place associated with the historical and geographic operations of gendered racial capitalism. I focus on Philadelphia and the ways that working-class Black communities shaped the city from the Great Migrations beginning at the end of the nineteenth century to the era of Black Power and urban deindustrialization in the 1970s. The work begins with thinking about how the populations that sourced the Great Migrations in the Chesapeake region and in other locations in the South negotiated the spatial terrain of the plantation in the antebellum and postbellum periods, and the ways that their descendants transposed visions for the future of unenclosed landscapes into the context of the industrial metropolis. The work centers two distinctive and intimately connected practices of place and modes of assembly—that of the city’s underground and its set apart which come together in this work through my conceptualization of dark agoras. Dark agoras describe insurgent Black working-class migrant formulations of social and geographic connection often at the edges of, or explicitly demoted and excluded from, state-sanctioned majoritarian publics. Connections within the sites as well as encounters across them and movement between them, underwrote a distinctive Black working-class phenomenology of the city, the basis of what I term Black queer urbanism. Rather than simply attending to Black or queer experiences of the city, Black queer urbanism refers to a critical approach that views nonnormative forms of Black social-geographic life and the distinctive and often discredited knowledge produced in dark agoras as the conceptual resources and bases for an alternate vision for the future of urban life and ecologies outside the prescriptions of markets, surveillance, policing, gendered individualism, heteronormative familialism, and reproductive futurity.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
This book is not a history that is intended by me to be prescriptive in the sense of providing untarnished or straightforward models for leadership and community organizing. Many of the formations and groups that I include in this work had prickly and discordant relationships to other social and economic movement efforts that were their contemporaries. I chose them precisely because they help us to think about the limit—about what and who is left out even of capacious formulations of Black social movement history like the “Long Black Freedom Struggle” which often excludes groups practicing forms of community and futurity viewed as incommensurate with integration, leftist radical transformation, cultural nationalism, and other vindicated paradigms within the historiography.
While many of the groups I cover including holiness and Pentecostal storefronts, the Moorish Science Temple, masse groups prominent between the World Wars that were marked as “cults” such as Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and in the context of the late-twentieth century, the organization MOVE articulated, practiced, and (partially) realized worlds within the world generated out of the critical renegotiation of labor and social reproduction and that provided critical spaces outside the temporal and geographic ordering of growth oriented urbanism, they also often recapitulated forms centering patriarchal, self-aggrandizing, charismatic power and authority. With this complexity in mind, I hope that by emphasizing the actions of everyday Black people that took part in these efforts at alternative worldmaking in the forms of dark agoras, by attending to their theorizing, practicing, and cultivation of insurgent geographies—preceding and exceeding charismatic authority—I hope contemporary organizers and activists will be empowered to view and to organize alongside ordinary Black communities as the possessors of the keys to an alternative landscape outside the death-dealing infrastructures of gendered racial capitalism.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
As my answer to the previous query suggests, Dark Agoras emphasizes the bottom-up generation of political leverage on the part of working-class Black communities and underscores the complex and often vexing relationship between “leaders”—especially of the charismatic variety—and those generating the fulcrum of Black radical possibility from below. I hope that my attention to the forms of power that precede and exceed charisma will help us to make more sophisticated analyses of Black working-class power that do not simply write off those who worked to build these worlds as dupes overcome by charlatanic leadership and that do not collapse into untroubled romance. Relatedly, I hope readers, especially on the Black left, will also use this work to unlearn the inherited visceral reaction against working-class Black spiritual and religious formations as well as formations associated with the street and the underground. While the assemblies of dark agoras are by no means pure, I do hope that we can collectively begin to take seriously the metaphysical upheaval generated by “second comings” and other theological heterodoxies as well as well as engage the formulations of value and values around place expressed from outside of formal markets and within formulations marked by the state as degenerative. The illicit worlds of the sexual and economic undergrounds cocreated common epistemic and cartographic territory in dialectic with the set-apart, that underwrote a Black working-class vernacular landscape that served as infrastructure of connection, vitality, and “black aliveness” for the dispossessed.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
Intellectually, I’m inspired most by Black feminist scholars including Sarah Haley, Cheryl Hicks, LaShawn Harris, Ula Taylor, Saidiya Hartman, Angela Y. Davis, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Ashley Farmer, Marisa Fuentes, Imani Perry, Amy Meredith Cox, Thavolyia Glymph, Erica R. Edwards, Katherine McKittrick, Mireille Miller-Young, Joy James, Judith Weisenfeld, Wende Marshall, Anthea Butler, Claudrena Harold, Jennifer Morgan, and others who have opened the fields of urban history, urban studies, religious studies, and slavery studies from the vantage of marginal people, especially Black girls and women otherwise relegated to the dustbins of the past. Their methodological sophistication, often writing histories generated by attending to archival fragments and facing down long-standing historiographies suggesting that these actors played no significant roles in key historical events or processes, opened the way for my own study.
I was also greatly influenced in the last rounds of writing and editing this book by the ongoing work in Black Ecologies including the work of Alex Moulton, Kathryn Benjamin Golden, Justin Hosbey, Hilda Lloréns, Andrea Roberts, Ashanté Reese, Danielle Purifoy, and others who have for me brought into clearer focus the antiBlack nature of the cyclical and ongoing transformations in the interface between earth’s metabolism and human society and worked to investigate alternative formulations of Black placemaking and ecological relations.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
Erica R. Edwards’ The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of US Empire and Malcom Ferdinand’s recently translated Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World are both remarkable works from my recently read list that I recommend to BAR readers. Edwards’ work provides a critical engagement with the ways that Black women and their bodies of work helped to underwrite the long war on terror. At the same time, Edwards excavates an insurgent tradition among Black feminist writers that challenged the contours of US empire. The book is rich, nuanced, and powerfully and beautifully written.
Ferdinand’s work centers the Caribbean as the original site of the ‘Negrocene’s’ emergence—his critical rejoinder to the growing orthodoxy to the imprecise and obscuring formulation of ecological catastrophe the ‘Anthropocene.’ This book is provocative and field-changing in relation to questions of the environment.
These works inspire my ongoing research for an intellectual biography of June Jordan as well as my ongoing research and organizing in my home community in the Tidewater of Virginia, respectively. Edwards’ chapter on Jordan directly inspired me to return to a dormant essay and research project centering Jordan’s spatial thought and youth organizing and will continue to inform how I approach Jordan’s thought on “Black English” and its relation to insurgency within geographies of containment and empire. I consider the Tidewater as part of the upper-limit of the Caribbean world in the 15th-19th Centuries and although there are important divergences related to political sovereignty, it is generative and important to recognize the shared histories and connected fates related to the convergence of contemporary ecological catastrophe between these two regions. Ferdinand inspires my curiosity about the potential of further charting the tradition of a decolonial ecology in Virginia.
I can’t wait to get back to the classroom to teach both of these works.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.