Camilla Hawthorne and Jovan Scott Lewis, editors

The Black Geographic: Praxis, Resistance, and Futurity

Duke University Press, 2023

344 pages


Reviewed by Jade Evans

After a field of study emerges, it is important for scholars to give definition and clarity to its significance. This is certainly a core goal of The Black Geographic. Hawthorne and Scott Lewis build on themes and concepts from the 2007 anthology introduced and edited by Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place, to offer scholars in the Black studies and Geography fields a more conclusive summation of the contours of the Black Geographies field. Black Geographies, after all, is not the easiest field to pin down, given the transdisciplinarity and multivocality of its scholarship. Nevertheless, the editors make the x- and y-axis of its inquiries certain: the geography of Blackness and the Blackness of geography. The field’s imperative to “critically” examine this particular intersection is a response to Geography proper, which they assert continually fails to account for the racializing impulse of spatial organization.

The editors ultimately conclude that geography is a core feature of Blackness, since Blackness is not just a subjectivity, but a “situating force, a place-making apparatus that in every geographic context makes its locations more meaningful, more substantial, more human.” Additionally, Black Geographies positions Blackness as central to geography, because “the transatlantic slave trade ultimately fixed Blackness as a central site of violent extraction and dispossession.” While these two frames of thought give commonality across the field, the diversity of Black Geographies scholarship nevertheless makes for a textured arena of debate that exceeds mere cataloging of the “spatialities of anti-Black racial violence” to also encompass challenging the essentialization of space and articulating otherwise possibilities of living.

In thinking about how researchers approach and execute Black Geographies scholarship, Hawthorne and Scott Lewis identify five centering commitments: the nonsingularity and nonuniversality of Blackness, Blackness as locally and globally produced and reproduced through processes of circulation and diasporic routes, Blackness as always historically and geographically situated, the questioning of ontological claims and of ontologizing processes, and an attention to the interplay of material and poetic processes. This explication of a Black Geographic praxis is, perhaps, one of the volume’s most valuable contributions, not because it is the final estimation of the matter, but rather because it offers a much-needed guidepost for future scholarship to apply, expand, and even critique. A well-rounded collection of essays is an ideal complement to this carefully curated gift of direction, which Hawthorne and Scott Lewis divide into three thematic parts: praxis, resistances, and futurity.

Part I, “Praxis,” demonstrates how Black geographic thought requires a bending and breaking of established methods and disciplinary categories to fully examine the spatial dimensions of Black life. By deducing Black geographic thought from the rejection of positivist research (Danielle Purifoy), the poetic verse (Chiyuma Elliot), and narratives of literary expression (Judith Madera), the authors rely on literary analysis, visual abstraction, and archival research to show just how much a Black Geographic praxis poses a problem to social scientific inquiry. However, while the importance of challenging positivist understandings of space is imperative for capturing a fuller picture of Black place, one wonders whether an altogether departure from mapping Black emplacement in a social scientific fashion can also pose problems of legibility and fragmentation. A Black geographic praxis is needed that situates Black lives on literal maps and geographies as well as more theoretical and embodied ones without rendering Black lives ungeographic.

The plurality of “Resistances” to name Part II signals readers to account for how Black subjects encounter and produce resistance. The authors featured here demonstrate how examining Black geographic resistance demystifies where Black emplacement occurs and how it comes to be. Ampson Hagan draws upon an auto-ethnographic reflection of migrant profiling to demonstrate how Black Africans resist dominant geographies in Niger that racialize their phenotypic difference as “out-of-place” through processes of sousveillance and countermapping from the “in-between” spaces of migration. Jordanna Matlon examines how Black Africans resist a racialized, imperialist order that relies on Black economic disparity by assimilating to évolué (an urban, civilized elite) identity, thereby carving out their right to occupy an urban African city.Solange Muñoz analyzes the case study of Marielle Franco’s killing to show how identifying with and advocating for Black places like favelas (Brazilian lower-class neighborhoods) reveals the vulnerability of Black women who challenge violent spatial imaginaries.

Additionally, some of the analyses in Part II offer explicit roadmaps forward in the study of Black Geographies. Hagan invites scholars to approach “lived Black geographic kinesis from the middle of movement through space,” challenging a focus on space/place alone in the field. Muñoz asserts the need for an expansion of Black Geographies to consider transnationality. Diana Negrín’s agenda seems more embodied, arguing that decolonial epistemologies as expressed through language can open up “broader possibilities for radical change.” Taken altogether, Part II exemplifies the multivocality of Black Geographies and, thus, showcases the need to refuse universal descriptions or prescriptions for Black geographic thought.

A large component of examining the “futurity” of Black Geographies in Part III involves rendering visible the past and present Black geographies that dominant geographies try to erase. C.N.E. Corbin offers a cultural analysis of the West Oakland Specific Plan’s appendices to show how newer developments of ecological gentrification map onto early instances of racialized spatial organization in the city. Corbin, however, does not so much consider the future of Black Geography in the neighborhood, as she exposes the obscuring of Black erasure by city developers. In “Got Black Joy?” Matthew Jordan-Miller Kenyatta brings to light the digital networks of Blackness via L.A. cultural gatherings, coining the term “Afrotechtonics” as a way forward for Black Geographies that illumines everyday, little-known emplaced Black joy. Lindsey Dillon demonstrates how a “blues epistemology” animated the 1960s-1970s redevelopment work of the Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco, California. While Dillon highlights this story of Black spatial activism against a history of racial capitalism, he nevertheless reminds readers of the slow and stunted progress of Black urban renewal projects that depend on state agencies. Whether having three of the four chapters in Part III that focus on Blackness in California urban areas was intentional or coincidental prompts additional questions about how certain places are more accessible subjects of study in the Black Geographies field.

Anna Livia Brand’s chapter does depart from the California setting as she examines how renewal visions in post-Katrina New Orleans exhibited deep-rooted white supremacism by rendering Black residents absent in the future city that “has no past.” Nevertheless, attentive to a “fourth dimension” that thinks space and time together, Livia Brand names how Black “acts of being and Black life haunt the landscape despite all attempts to absent them in the future city.” As this chapter demonstrates, the research queries of Part III incorporate analyses that locate Blackness or Black life in the physical environment, while demonstrating the precarity of Black emplacement in the past, present, and future.

Even with discussions of joy and visual expressions of placed Blackness, the volume does not spare the reader of the headaches and heartbreaks found in the archives of Black Geographies. Yet, moving beyond the devastating facts of dispossession, death, and discrimination echoed throughout the volume, there are questions that arise for future consideration. One such point of curiosity is the role of environmentalism in Black spatial imaginaries. A few scholars demonstrate how green or eco-friendly agendas result in the erasure of Black geographies, yet there remains a need to see what, how, and why Black geographies are themselves green. Overall, scholars of Black Geographies do not have an easy task ahead. The Black Geographic underscores the methodological creativity and careful analysis required to shed light on Black geographic praxis and Black emplacement. It is a must read for scholars in the Black studies and critical Geography studies fields seeking competence in understanding the scope and trajectory of the Black Geographies field.