Research Spotlight

Interview with Dr. J.T. Roane

Conducted by Madeline Flores

Shining Light on "Dark Agoras"

JTbiopic (1)Dr. J.T. Roane, who prefers to go by JT, holds a PhD in History from Columbia University. He is an assistant professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department at UC, and he is a Taft Center Fellow for the 2018-2019 school year. He is an accomplished scholar and senior editor of Black Perspectives, an academic journal published by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Under contract with NYU Press, his manuscript called "Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia" traces the development of Black environmental history through the majority of the twentieth century. JT focuses this work on specifically Black Power groups whose ideas were deemed as outrageous at the time. He argues that their goals might not have been so radical after all. In fact, these overlooked voices were ahead of their time in respect to urban futures, race, and subverting the status quo of urban life. JT Roane is one of five Taft Center Fellows who will present their works at the annual Taft Research Symposium on March 4-8, 2019.

In general, tell me about the manuscript that you’re writing called Dark Agoras.

So, I’m actually working on two projects while I’m here at Taft. One, specifically, is the for the book [manuscript]… And the other is coming out of my second manuscript project around doing Black environmental history and at the intersection of [these ideas]. So both of the projects sort of center on thinking about kind of radical Black spatial practice in different geographies and different periods. "Dark Agoras" is… about the emergence of these heterodox visions for urban futures within Black communities between the 1940s and the early 2000s, so I’m thinking about a range of different kinds of social-spatial phenomena… And so, I look at a range of things, ranging from the Black underground to these esoteric organizations that I am theorizing as part of a kind of outcroppings of the underground.

So the Black underground for me, emerges out of policing foremost, actually. The segregation of vice and certain kinds of in the street activity to only in Black neighborhoods… Also within that, there are these insurgent forms of Black life that do challenge certain figurations of power, patriarchy, racial order, all of that. Substantively in the core of the book I trace that through these esoteric organizations, religious organizations, so-called cults, and other groups that emerge – that many of their members describe, one coming out of lies on the underground, especially MOVE, which is one the organizations I write about… They form under these kinds of esoteric, opaque formations that unless you’re a part of their epistemology and their framework, what they’re saying has no meaning. That’s not just a phenomenon of MOVE; I go back – I also include the International Peace Mission Movement, which was more famous for its leader, Father Divine… That’s the kind of overall – and it ends with an analysis between the ‘80s and 2000s of violence and these explicitly Black queer urbanists who are trying to push back in a new context, post-MOVE, post-1985 bombing, in the context of HIV/AIDS emergence, in the context of automatic weapons, in the context of crack and heroin overlapping so-called “epidemics” that are responding to all of that violence and forwarding these other visions, these earlier visions, insurgent visions on how people should and can belong to each one another… And also holding onto these spaces of dark gathering, dark agoras, and formations into that period.

That’s so interesting. So, you have studied these different types of groups, and so what kind of data are you gathering?

Different kinds… It’s hard because a lot of my archives are produced by the state.

Can you give me an example?

Court records. For example… the clearest sense archivally that you can get of MOVE’s generation of itself, its creation, its emergence, but also their ideas about the world is from a court record. John Africa was on trial in 1981. The members of the organization, they used – they didn’t go to court to defend themselves, they went to the court to say “here’s our philosophy”… Others of the sources are internally-derived documents from within Black communities, and that’s also a complicated source… There are letters between adherents of the peace mission movement, their writing to one another… Also, there’s a chapter that goes at the beginning of the project that uses Black intellectuals’ thinking and writing about cities to open up dark agoras. And then the first chapter planning documents, reformer reports, planning documents, and also police reports. So, a wide range of sources.

It sounds like having to go back through these documents and through things that happened 30 or so years in the past, that you have to like recognize that they’re written from a certain perspective. I’m sure that account that the court documents give has a certain perspective, right?

Right, definitely. I’m in WGSS, and I think that’s why Black feminists and Black queer theorists and thinkers are so important for providing a frame on the two different kinds of sources: one, internally derived sources from internal sort of networks within Black social formations, and then state records. I think Black queer and Black feminist reading practices give a lens through which to read both of those sets. And when it comes to court records – or let’s say planning documents – it’s to see actually all of these people’s sensual investments even in their dry, technical accounts of an urban neighborhood… They have these passing moments in their notes where they’re talking about hearing the sounds of sex echoing off walls… So they often produce these technical, dry documents that you can then use Black feminist and Black queer reading practices to read against the grain. And then on the other hand, for other sources it’s a recuperative project that comes out of Black feminist and Black queer theorizing, which is like that even people who are extremely marginal can be engaged in matters of history and historiography.

I know that your research focused on Philadelphia. What can you tell me about that and why did you choose that city?

If you go back to the colonial period, Philly is the only real city. But it’s also, an experiment in urban design. It’s the first planned city in the United States – it’s the first gridded city… Philly has always been an experimental site of urban futures. It starts as a utopian project that crashes on because Pennsylvania has the most valuable land: it’s temperate, it’s the most valuable land in the colonial period. Quickly William Penn’s vision of orderly, small estates collapses into row houses, which is a way of building very rapidly and cheaply in a high-pitched real estate market, that has booms and busts up through now… Also it’s the home – like Chicago – it’s an epicenter of Black, insurgent discourses that don’t always adhere to like academic standards of what happened, which are sometimes conspiratorial. I learn from folklores, oral historians, and others – and also, again, Black feminist scholars and Black queer scholars – to take, at least, those analyses of power. At very least when Black folks quote-unquote “make up” something about a state structure through like some kind of discourse about insidious people have taken people’s bodies and stealing organs and all that… To organizational culture, that’s not considered a rational argument. There’s this tradition, and I think we really sell ourselves short by emphasizing only certain kinds of narratives and organizations in the era of Civil Rights and Black Power era. 

Awesome, wow. So far, you mentioned that the time periods you’re studying and writing about are the 80s and the 2000s. Is that the extent of the time periods you’re using?

Actually some of my sources start in the 1880s. But substantively, the book is really 1940 to 2000 or so… But kind of the rise and fall of the Keynesian Order, post-war Keynesian Order, right? So, that’s why I say “substantively” from the 40s to the 80s. But really the 40s is this era of a certain vision of the urban future as a capitalist future based in nuclear families, based in racial segregation [being] proliferated and then I look at the… present tense, but [it] helps me to think about the beginning of it because I’m looking back at the 40s to say “well what were the seeds for this 2000s carceral neoliberal order?” And they’re all there, right? That’s the thing. So the rise and fall of Keynesian order is really… the reason for the time.

Okay. That’s really interesting how the seeds for things that are happening recently today were already there like in the mid-century. That’s crazy.

These well-intended liberal reformers helped to produce the racial order that leads to mass incarceration and violent removal of poor Black folks from urban centers that we’re currently witnessing. And I think – the project actually starts with these – the emergence of these kind of seemingly egalitarian phenomena in current contemporary urban design like greening or sustainability go out from the small-scale intimate geographies of people’s homes. Basically, the whole premise of this redevelopment that they’re doing that’s in the name of energy efficiency required them to remove all the people in this area.

Like gentrification?

They get rid of all these people. And it’s in the name of affordable housing, right? I mean some of these are organization that are working for affordable housing. But if you remove all the people from this community, and they are scattered by that process, are they coming back? But it also goes up to the levels of parks and stuff like that. For example, real estate investment trusts in Philly: there’s one in particular that’s built two new towers in an area that had none. But the CEO of that company is basically a shadow mayor. He runs two organizations that are redevelopment corporations in center city area that are all around his investments. These are organizations, which are business partnerships, that invest in not only tree planting, street cleanup, but also security, private security. So there’s an overlap there.

To wrap it up and bring it all together, what is the main takeaway from your project that you hope that like audience members, such as at the symposium, will take away?

Just to see the veneer of liberal inclusion that extends from 1940 through the supposed rupture of the Keynesian Order in the 1970s and 80s. To see beyond that veneer, to see the inherent violence of these forms of statecraft, especially in relation to Black communities. And to see that as an ongoing thing that’s shaping our landscapes.

So, to see that as a longue durée formation. And also on the other side of that to see ordinary Black people as the progenitors of critical knowledge of the city, even when they don’t hold onto the same axiom around ‘what is a good future?’, ‘what should the city look like?’, that we need to actually listen to those radical voices, even folks who are anti-urbanist urbanists, like MOVE. We need to get rid of these state forms and the infrastructures of the city in order to save the planet. They might be someone to return to even as they continue to sound outlandish because we’re in a frame of growth. I think that’s what ultimately I want people to realize that there’s a long tradition of anti-growth in urban form, and that that tradition is Black and that we need to hold onto that tradition in an era where there’s a race to grow cities again after a long period of killing them. But without even basic stuff that we know contemporary science says we need to do if we’re gonna survive as a planet.

Right, yeah. “Growth” is subjective, right? It’s progress for whom specifically? Because obviously it doesn’t benefit everybody equally.

Right, that’s why I have multiple kinds of chapters I wanted to include. I have very practical Black urbanists who were architects, including folks like June Jordan who trained… at the American Academy of Rome in urban design, and who came up with projects in 1965 that would have created green corridors across Harlem, along with Buckminster Fuller, which Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Cheryl Fish have written about. She proposed putting up these cone-like structures, over existing living infrastructures so that people could literally move into new houses without being displaced from their old houses first. So there’s a range. I wanted to take the kind of like Black working class, bottom up visions for the city that don’t adhere to normative visions of urban futures seriously. But also, there are others available, people who have very practical, ‘we can do this and it will work’ solutions that we can take up. So a range of possibilities is what I’m trying to get folks to leave with, reading the book, and hearing the lecture.