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The Poetics of Black Imagination

by Dr. Andrea Roberts

I revisited this poem, written five springs ago. I composed it after having presented a paper to a noted African Diaspora scholar, who initially seemed to be impressed by the way I put words together. The paper was on black women organizing, even in places unwelcoming to them, and the possibilities of reclaiming space. I extracted womanist wisdom from social memory, archives, relatives, and HBCU journal articles about the Women’s Barnyard Auxiliary. The paper describes the unheralded past and the future possibilities embedded in the defiant art of Black women creating self- sufficient communities in the early 1900s through collective, often expressive, action—quilting circles, rationing bacon, budgeting, and raising chickens—in order to liberate themselves from sharecropping. After the paper presentation, the professor affirmed my paper, then summarily dismissed it. “This is an imagined Black collective. This is an ideal, right?” I heard it like a five-year-old being reminded the stove is hot. This Black feminist imaginary of collective action was linguistically lovely and worthy of memorialization, but I was overreaching when I claimed this was a past from which we could learn. The paper was later published in the Journal of Planning History.

As a then community and regional planning doctoral student (now professor), I would experience many of these moments—instances in which my poetic license was met with paternalistic derision from within and without my field, never finding a real disciplinary home. I experienced the myriad ways practitioners of my discipline could divide and alienate me from my creative self. I knew I would have to be artful about living at the intersection of womanism, poetics, and planning scholarship. Even now, it feels a confession—I root my research in the poetics of Black life and imaginings of a world in which we actualize free Black space. I believe the pursuit of liberation through Black imagination is one of the most elusive, yet concretely political acts on the planet, happening in and outside of academia.

Resistance through cultural agency informs my current scholarship, in which I record surviving free Black imaginaries (in song, recollection, poem, or lament) of a free Black past and a future where we win. I extract their coded messages about where and when to gather. On hot summer nights in Jasper County, I observe the assemblage of bodies in holy dance within spaces thought to no longer exist. Over 558 Freedom Colonies, (urban, rural, and suburban) historic Black settlements in Texas persist through cultural reproduction that attracts and sustains descendants’ commitment to place preservation. This persistence is protest. It is the same resistance African Americans used to elude plantation masters through coded messages embedded in work songs. Unfortunately, so many of us have forgotten the words.

In these settlements, I met people who are a little bit Third Ward and a little bit East Texas, a little bit Pineywoods and a little bit Fifth Ward. They remember their songs, they own and use their ancestors’ tools—a planning and preservation repertoire all their own. They remind us that African Americans embody (along with the collective mourning of the home we lost and the Wakandas we imagine) the capacity to settle, to move, to recover, to conjure, and sing freedom into existence. When these freedom colony descendants gather, they discuss politics and elections, and at other times they just glorify God and love on each other. They perform the poetics of free black places, fomented by their ancestor’s hopeful imaginaries.

Dr. Andrea Roberts is an Assistant Professor Urban Planning and Faculty Fellow of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A & M University. Roberts was a 2016-2017 Emerging Scholar Fellowship in Race and Gender in the Built Environment of the American City at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. Her research and teaching explores African American diasporas and heritage through ethnographic study and documentation of the history of African American placemaking and planning in early ex-slave settlements as well as contemporary grassroots planning and social constructions of “free Black ” communities.

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