By Andrea Roberts
I study the origins and preservation of Texas Freedom Colonies, places founded by ex-slaves, through memory and observed rituals. My assumption is that we have long been doulas to the truth: We possess the ability to manage our relationships to structures, nature, and space. Some see my partialities as a badge of courage and fidelity, while others see my subjectivities as mere bias. However, interrogating memory and its purpose in Black life cannot be done without rigor. This is a research methodology of care, repair, and discomforting objectivity. Getting Black Texans to remember and recognize the value of their memories value is the work of Critical Sankofa Planning. Looking back to look forward. Recollection as resistance.
Consider the present challenge of deciding how Black Diasporic people will live now. How will we live in a way that affirms rather than criminalizes our bodies? How will we build wealth? How will we simply be? Critical Sankofa planning urges us to ask first, how early Black Texans, somewhere between slavery and Juneteenth, made home place. Where did these places go? Why do some remain? Are the answers in elders’ memories?
Her cotton long sleeved blouse was unbuttoned/Open almost to the waist/
Her backbreaking bosom, the edges drenched in perspiration from Houston’s 1929 heat/Each finger dug into the wealth of her hip/The other leg perched unlike a lady on the chrome bumper of a Ford /“She was so womanish!”/ The story, words shot out grandma’s diastema/”Ruby made a match of those two/Two grown out the same citified and country earth” /They met under Ruby’s pecan trees, down from Old Man Fondren’s hunting grounds/Here, where men’s hourly wages drowned in white lightening, their bodies stirred by Etta James/Down from Great Grandma Hester in her urban bottom of chicken wire fences off the grid/Ruby is the way things came to be/The way I came to be/Ruby/ is a mystery under photo album cellophane/A 1950 poll tax card signature.
To understand Ruby is to understand life in Black settlements and entrepreneurial, visually transgressive, Black women living in Jim Crow Texas. It is recognizing their networks of care and commerce. Our Rubies are our treasures; our master plans, teaching us how to take up and own space, to be truly seen.
Freedom Colonies are difficult to integrate into the modern planning project, because they go unseen. Freedom Colonies’ current challenges, triumphs, and collective wealth are unknown. We need Black family memories to make them visible, relevant. This approach doesn’t dismiss structural racism, but it does require a shift toward recognition before mobilization. Engaging in Critical Sankofa Planning requires that we honor, learn, and then move. Remember and honor ancestors, not just structures. All of them! Not just the rich, learned ones. Learn from the past (including limitations, class, gender, or sexuality -based marginalizations), and then move.
I am a plannervationist. I use the tools of the present to plan; but first I look to what we already own (ours bodies, stories, songs, homesteads, and our bloody and blessed memories) to detect a problem or an opportunity. If a community faces a problem, it is likely they are facing one they’ve solved before, and need only be aided in remembering the solution. We all have maps to our origins, our assignments, and to our ways of being here for one another. I collect the stories, and help communities draw the maps.
About Andrea Roberts Originally from the greater Houston area, Andrea Roberts is a development and planning professional, founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, and doctoral candidate in the Community & Regional Planning and Historic Preservation Programs at the University of Texas-Austin. This is part of a longer forthcoming article. For more about Critical Sankofa Planning, early African American placemakers, like the Texas Freedom Colonies Project on Facebook. Email Andrea Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.