Black Geographies: Mapping Black Spaces and Places

Some scholars argue that the purpose of traditional geography is to reinforce certain narratives around displacement. Katherine McKittrick studies the tensions between non-black and black geographies through human geography, black studies, and the black feminist lens. McKittrick defines Black geographies as “subaltern or alternative geographic patterns that work alongside and beyond traditional geographies and a site of terrain of struggle” (McKittrick 2006: 7).

Black geographies are entangled with processes of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and modernity. McKittrick describes Black geographies as compromised of four trajectories that operate as an interlocking, multiscalar process. This material, imaginary, representational, and philosophical trajectories shape and organize everyday life.

Through a Black geographic lens, scholars uncover how the social identity of one’s body can operate as a spatial indicator. Race, class, gender, and sexuality determine patterns of habitation wherein Black people must negotiate places and spaces of denial and resistance. Analyzing Black geography provides insights into how ideas of geographic organization shape lived and imaginary spaces.

How Traditional Geography Erases Black Place-Making

According to McKittrick, racism and sexism create geographies that bind humans into disempowerment and dispossession based on racial-sexual bodily codes like sex and phenotype. In particular, the concept of ownership ensures that society values certain forms of conquest. Thus, “Black diasporic struggles can also be read, then, as geographic contests over discourses of ownership” (McKittrick 2006: 3). Ultimately this means that the social production of space relies on a differential placement of humans based on their race.

Traditional geography presumes that material and physical geographies can be determined from transparent space. More specifically, traditional geography presumes space is knowable in geometric terms measured through the Cartesian coordinate system.  Critics of this assumption note that transparent space ignores that all space isn’t knowable – some spaces are traps or secret places. Black geographies operate both within and outside of traditional geography, using the particularities of Black social life and knowledge to expose the limitations of transparent space. As McKittrick (2006: 6) states:

While the power of transparent space works to hierarchically position individuals, communities, regions, and  nations, it is also contestable – the subject interprets, and ruptures, the knowability of our surroundings. What this contestation makes possible are “black geographies,” which I want to identify as “the terrain of political struggle itself,” or where the imperative of a perspective of struggle takes place.

McKittrick argues that traditional geography not only privileges transparent space, but also produces discourse around Blackness that equates it to subordination, the ungeographic, and metaphor. This leads to assumptions that Black geography lacks material referents and is defined by words rather than places or discourses of dispossession.

Why Black Geographies are an Alternative to Traditional Geography

McKittrick notes that traditional geography benefits from the marginalization of difference through the systemic concealment of certain physical locations. Indeed traditional geography requires that Blackness stays “in place,” which in turn undermines Black knowledge about their sense of place. This landscape of domination makes the Black geography a means to bring evidence to bear about the struggle over social space.

McKittrick’s interdisciplinary approach enables three meaningful points:

  1. Disciplines and epistemology privileges traditional geography
  2. Blackness and Black subjectivity are implicit in traditional geography’s production of space
  3. Alternative imaginary and real formulations of space and place can complicate traditional geography

Traditional geography defines space from a unitary vantage point that subordinates black knowledge, experience, and construction of maps. This approach treats Blackness as outside of geography, which enables the ghettoization of Black space. McKittrick argues, however, that the interplay between the experiences of the Black diaspora and spatial organization:

  1. Black people have contributed to the physical production of space through slave, indentured, and racially differentiated labor
  2. Black people are invested in the meanings and making of place due to several factors including forced exile, activism, and globalization

Black people negotiate racialized space and the materiality of the diaspora to contribute to geographic projects. Therefore, the way we produce knowledge about space can further the processes of domination as ideas are transformed into spaces. For example, while the mapping of the socioeconomic status of Black people shows the materiality of race and racism, this approach creates a limiting and deterministic view of Black people’s spatial experiences and imaginations.

Theories of Space that Inform the Black Geographies

Deep space, conceptualized by Neil Smith, refers to “the production of space intensified and writ large, ideological and political shifts that impact upon and organize every day in multiple contexts and scales…” (McKittrick 2006: 15). Neil Smith notes that deep space is informed by nongeographical sociospatial theories and the shifts of the 1980s created respatialization on multiple scales.

McKittrick believes the investigation of deep space might inform us about how ideological and politico-economic ruptures shape the lives of marginalized people. Black geographies require engagement with the spaces of everyday Blackness:

Through symbolic-conceptual positioning, the black subject (often, but not always, a black woman) is theorized as a concept (rather than a human or  geographic subject) and is consequently cast as momentary evidence of violence of abstract space, an interruption in transparent space, a different
(all-body) answer to otherwise undifferentiated geographies.

McKittrick insists Black narratives and theory return readers to important questions about the production of space through alternative spatial strengths and imaginary. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk turns ideas about racial-sexual difference into space. Furthermore, Frantz Fanon’s concepts of the historio-racial schema and bodily schema how space, place, identification, and history inscribe black bodies as the racial Other. The historio-racial schema refers to the ideologies and forces of racism imposed onto the bodily schema. The bodily schema refers to how the self, as a body, emerges in a spatial and temporal world. Therefore, identity, place, and the self are mutually constructed through colonial violence. Using these schemas thus brings into focus the perspective of the terrain of struggle.

These schemas note the distortion of Black spaces treats Blackness as ungeographic, as both hypervisible and placeless. Therefore, the Black sense of place is different due to the objectification of humans through racism. Geographic struggles ultimately shape Blackness and Black people’s humanity and call into question how mapping perpetuates injustice.

McKittrick also cites Stuart Hall’s concept of new ethnicities identifies Blackness as a struggle around positionalities. Therefore, the social construction of race occurs as a function of other social categories like race, gender, and class. Furthermore, the social construction of race predicates location on difference and diversity.

Next McKittrick cites Dionne Brand’s work on how these new ethnicities inform the denaturalization of space and place. Brand critiques and reverses the concept of transparent space, arguing that one’s identity might conflict with the traditional geographic rules, thus creating a different sense of place.

Finally, McKittrick refers to Toni Morrison‘s site of memory to discuss how the world dehumanizes and erases the interiority of Black people’s lives. The site of memory refers “to re-imagine a different worldview, wherein black lives are validated through black intellectual histories and the physical landscape” (McKittrick 2006: 32).

The Benefits of Black Geographies

McKittrick argues this concept helps people rethink historical geographies and reaffirms contemporary geopolitics whereas broader geographic projects thrive on displacing and then forgetting Blackness. The processes of traditional geography create a black absented presence but the site of memory notes that erasure is livable and therefore creates new sites of being and a different sense of place. Being erased does not mean being incapable of producing space.

Unless otherwise stated, insights posted here are from Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds.