Reviewing Dark Agoras

Roane, J. T. Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place. New York: New York University Press, 2022.

A revised version of this review has been contributed to Journal of Urban Affairs

Black Agora’s retells and recasts the old story of Black people displaced from rural areas by lack of opportunity and exploitive land and labour practices to cities such as Philadelphia to create new communities and build meaningful social worlds. These spaces of ‘insurgent assembly’ transposed rural spatial imaginaries and practices of place-making as spatial resistance to the economic and cultural grid of discrimination constituted by the city as a social and built environment.

The ‘set-apart’ constructed their own standing in non-institutionalized, vibrantly charismatic religious groups who come to meet in remaindered, commercial spaces in economically depressed areas of the city such as ‘store-front churches.’

‘The underground’ is a reserved space of extra-economic exchange and self-destructive activities that often thrives on activities and desires excluded from mainstream, regulated markets and economic life. Boot-leg alcohol in the inter-war period, stigmatized musical cultures and entertainment and sexual activity are trafficked through these spaces. These ‘institutions of the “vicious and criminal”’ are counter-spaces which oppose the hegemonic spatialisation of deprivation that is hostile to racialized outsiders and newcomers.

These new spaces built on previous practices developed in slave plantation conditions where any ‘Black space’ was precarious had to be created and leveraged for personal and collective survival under the very noses of white overseers. Thus the cultivation of plantation ‘gardens’ that were permitted to supplement inadequate diets, and the plots and rituals of slave ‘funerals’ became spaces of hope and redoubts for the maintenance and elaboration of syncretic and creative survival cultures that thrived in these residual spaces. Gestures and places have double meanings. For example, using laments and dirges to circulate information and news. Or if caught, feigning ignorance of the nature of established spaces and the relevance of their identities.

Roane’s original tracking of these performative spaces revitalizes a tradition that stretches to W.E.B. DeBois’s The Philadelphia Negro. Championing the oppressed, Roane identifies ‘insurgent spaces’ that are unrecognized by the hegemonic culture. These are hidden in the case of the underground, but in store-front churches of the set-apart are in plain sight. They take place in full view but pass ‘under our noses’ without being seen or registered. At the same time, they have a clearly nonconformist and visible style that shouts their presence to select groups and makes the existence of these communities self-evident. These sites momentarily extinguish the legitimacy of oppressive and exclusionary norms. This brings to mind the work of Abdo Malik Simone on the staging and ‘non-staging’ of illicit events and exchanges in the complex spaces of cities of the global south.

Where DuBois focused on theirs households, revealing a successful slice of American society, Roane focuses on the development of a ‘Black commons’ as an anchor for cultural development and social reproduction. These are also sites that nurture people in the present to allow future possibility and thus harbour radical potential. They operate as mundane sites of everyday life that starkly opposed the norms of the ‘Progressive era’ of twentieth century urban development in the United States.

The charismatic Peace Mission Movement and successors such as Philadelphia’s MOVE are cases that further develop Roane’s position. He convincing argues that the residual plantation plot can be understood as a prototype for the cultural separatism of the ‘Black neighbourhood.’ Physical control over space was sought as a way to establish conditions for survival and betterment. These groups emphasized collective labour and critiqued private property, racial segregation and heteronormative patriarchy, allowing collective parenting. The result was a more practical but no less inspiring Black ‘autonomous zone’ than the radical romanticism of Hakim Bey’s largely suppressed study of historical and ‘temporary autonomous zones’ whose alternative communities can be reread as critiques of racial segregation in the New World.

MOVE’s flamboyant household practices of self-betterment, symbolic difference and racial pride included critiques of environmental waste, anthropocentrism and materialism. This sparked a moral panic in the city. Infamously, after attempting in May 1985 to evict the collective from the residence it owned, the MOVE group was bombed by the Philadelphia police during an armed standoff.

Roane concludes by arguing urbanists have failed to understand the importance of cultural recognition and respect for creating urban ‘livability.’ Instead, planning and urban practices deny rights by aligning and spatially supporting racial and class discrimination and exclusion through practices such as zoning, property and tenancy law and policing.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)