Blacktown/Whitetown – Illustration by billy dee
Part of the series “Viewpoints on Resilient and Equitable Responses to the Pandemic” from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing people around the world to question how this virus will affect the many public and private systems that we all use. We hope this collection of viewpoints will elevate the visibility of creative state and local solutions to the underlying equity and resilience challenges that COVID-19 is highlighting and exacerbating. To do this we have asked experts at UNC to discuss effective and equitable responses to the pandemic on subjects ranging from low-wage hospitality work, retooling manufacturing processes, supply chain complications, housing, transportation, the environment, and food security, among others.
Danielle Purifoy is an assistant professor of geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. As a geographer and environmental justice scholar, her research interrogates the racial politics of place development, particularly for Black communities seeking safety, refuge and autonomy from anti-Black violence of all forms. In this episode, she discusses freedom is a place.
Transcript – Viewpoints on Resilient & Equitable Responses to the Pandemic. Danielle Purifoy: Freedom is a Place
For Black-founded towns and communities seeking safety from anti-Black violence of all forms, and opportunities to build new worlds for themselves and their kinfolk you might say that for them, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore– “freedom is a place.”
I won’t speak much here about town development, per se, but rather more about the implications of freedom as place for our current political moment of uprisings against police violence and anti-Blackness, and calls for abolition, all in the midst of a pandemic, climate change and what Gilmore calls “organized abandonment” by government of the vast publics. Many Texans are experiencing such abandonment in the form of woefully unprepared utility companies, devolved to the private sector for profits instead of for the welfare of people. I’m going to first tell you of these implications by offering a story on how I came to my current research on Black places.
I was living in Louisiana in 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina exposed the organized abandonment of Black communities living in the bottom lands of the Gulf Coast, in the places where the only thing between them and the water was a barrier they were promised would hold through the worst storms, which were only supposed to come once in a century. One year to the date, August 29th, 2005, when the Category 3 hurricane sent a storm surge through New Orleans, breaching its “guaranteed” levees in and killing over 1,000 largely Black people, I participated in a memorial march through the city, from the Lower Ninth Ward, a Black space which was most devastated by the flood, to downtown near the French Quarter, a much whiter space on higher ground. As we marched, I recalled the footage on television of Black folks crying for help on the roofs of their homes just a year before. The striking proximity of the spaces where white people lived and where Black people were left to die made me wonder about how Black folks ended up in spaces so structurally conditioned to their own demise.
At the same time we were memorializing Hurricane Katrina, I started to learn about the petrochemical economy in the state of Louisiana. I smelled it before I knew what it was. In Baton Rouge, where I lived for a year before moving to New Orleans, I can distinctly recall that stench of something indescribable wafting from the Mississippi River. One day, while driving near Interstate 10, which had in the 1960s destroyed several Black communities in New Orleans to make way for suburban development, I spotted the skyline of what I thought was another large city. In fact, it was a series of oil refineries built along the 85-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which people called Cancer Alley. Cancer Alley hosts approximately 150 petrochemical facilities, which are located disproportionately in Black, brown, Indigenous, and low-wealth communities across Southeast Louisiana, and further throughout the state.
As these industries produce the world’s petrochemicals, Black, brown and Indigenous peoples find themselves in cancer clusters, drinking contaminated water, breathing polluted air. Many of these places now littered with oil refineries and petrochemical factories were once sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. In my research, wherever there was once a plantation, there is a historic Black place populated by descendants of those once enslaved there. Even if money was no issue, these Black places are non-fungible to many of the Black people who live there. They will not simply move and cannot be bought out because the land has a life outside of property rights. It holds deep ancestral memory; it literally holds ancestors. The land is them, and they are the land.
Freedom is a place like Diamond, Louisiana, a historic Black community once part of Diamond plantation, consolidated planter lands first formed after the Bonnet Carré Crevasse of 1882, a levee breach of the Mississippi that destroyed much of the Myrtleland plantation. Prominent public narratives of post-Emancipation Black geographies place Black folks as far away from the plantation as possible, but in reality, Emancipation for many Black folks meant staying in place or traveling a short distance, perhaps across a river, or to another land tract purchased down the way from where they were enslaved. It meant imagining and cultivating freedom for themselves on the very land that represented their unfreedom. Generations hence, these places are part of an irreplaceable Black legacy of community and institution building, and freedom practice. Similarly, the Lower Ninth Ward is another Black freedom place once boasting one of the highest Black homeownership rates in the city, and also dealing with generations of municipal neglect and abandonment, all of which culminated with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
So what are we to learn from these places of Black freedom in our current context? There are many ways that people in the United States imagine freedom, which has become clearest over the course of the year 2020. For many, freedom is individualism, siloed, atomized being, antagonistic to social and ecological relations. In my reading of freedom in the context of my research and in my own life, it is a process of learning how to live in compatible relationship to each other and to our larger ecosystem for our mutual survival. Freedom is a practice that can, and in most cases, must be exercised even when unfreedom is practiced elsewhere. So oftentimes, as with the Black places I’m learning about, freedom is also a place.
Last summer’s iterative uprisings against policing in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor demonstrated the unfreedom of surveillance, policing, and incarceration as a mode of living. Policing and incarceration fundamentally alter the relationships between people, and with our larger ecosystems because their premise is disposability–waste. Rather than ensuring that we all have what we need to live, thrive, and reduce harm, we use critical resources to surveil, punish, and often kill people who are identified as dangerous or harmful; those people are disproportionately Black, brown, and Indigenous. Through these practices, harm is neither preventable nor redeemable. Ecosystems similarly suffer under the weight of individualism as freedom because without relationship to people and to the land, the Earth becomes a resource to own for one’s own profit, rather than a system to steward for mutual survival.
Black people escaping slavery, escaping white terrorism, seeking safety were faced with the task of creating places where they could live. Because of what they survived to make it to the “freedom land,” they knew individualism could never create a livable place. The recognition of the power of relationship, of collective power to mitigate harm, and to create safety, has been a critical and necessary aspect of Black place survival for the last 200+ years. Similarly, their relationship to the land is often sacred, not only because it represents their freedom, but also because it enables them to live. Again, the land is them, and they are the land. From clean water to cultivating food to building homes to protection from storms, even the “undesirable” bottomlands abandoned by the white planter class were life sustaining.
The socially engineered destruction of Black places, often by the toxic industries bearing much of the responsibility for climate change, may seem to operate by different logics than policing, but both are rooted in disposability—of people, of place, of history, of life itself. Such wastefulness can only arise from disconnection, from a refusal of relationship. The only ultimate outcome, as climate change teaches us, is mutually assured destruction.
Black places like Diamond, Louisiana, like White Hall, Alabama, like Institute, West Virginia, are commonly construed as either backwater or wasteland. The standard to which they are always compared are the so-called thriving cities where development and growth are unchecked despite cyclical warnings about the costs to human life and ecosystems; where cyclical uprisings sprout in the aftermath of another dead Black person, murdered by the police, or the piling dead from COVID-19 in jails and prisons. Black places learned the lesson of relation by necessity; many of them continue to survive because they understand that freedom does not look like the standard to which they are compared. In other words, if freedom is a place, it is not yet the place most of us are accustomed to calling free. But it could be.
So how do we get there? I get asked a lot about what policy prescriptions I have for the types of suffering stemming from the U.S.—and arguably much of the Western world’s—definition of “freedom.” The first thing I say is that policies created within the existing governance structures of the country require legitimizing many presumptions that perpetuate this suffering. We presume, for example, that private property will remain the dominant relation between people and land, and that basic living necessities—food, clothing, shelter—will be monetized and available according to individual capacity. These are not the presumptions undergirding many Black places, not only because individualism has always been fiction, but also because many places learned and carried the lesson that they could not have survived slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of oppression by themselves. The safety and thriving of each individual relies on the safety and thriving of the collective. Policing and prison abolitionists have learned this because they’ve tracked for decades how ineffective policing and incarceration has been to prevent violence and other forms of harm. They understand now that when people’s basic physical and emotional needs are not met, the likelihood of harm vastly increases. Policing and incarceration further deprives people of their needs and isolates them from support systems that could meet those needs. So, a better approach to harm would be providing unconditional housing, food, and healthcare to all communities. If you are interested in this, the geographer Celeste Winston of Temple University is currently writing a book about the relative absence of policing in Black-founded towns and communities, tracing how those places maintained a sense of security.
But beyond the questions of policing, which is just a symptom of “organized abandonment,” of a society where extant systems of care are dead or crumbling, I would argue that every person understands safety in the collective well-being to some extent. Many of you listening have likely participated in some forms of “mutual aid” during the pandemic—creating phone trees and points of contact and meal trains and wellness checks—increasing your efforts of care beyond your immediate families and even beyond your immediate communities. These are practices of Black place freedom that we all already know how to do, that we can adapt in various ways to keep us secure and free in multiple conditions. So rather than simply fighting for a policy or a top-down “solution,” I recommend considering what are the practices you and your community already do or could do to keep you safe? How can we build from those models? What can we commit to doing regardless of what the “officials” decide to do? It’s not elegant, it’s not easy, it’s not sexy, and it’s often not highly perceptible. But it’s taking steps in a direction away from what we are conditioned to do. And I think every step brings us closer to creating the kind of places where we can walk around without fear, where we can wake up warm and secure in the knowledge that our living is not contingent on anything but our existing, our breathing. And that, I think, is freedom.