The Architectural Elements of Vigilantism

September 13, 2021

Katherine McKittrick’s book Demonic Grounds serves as an entry point to a conversation with guest editors Shawhin Roudbari and Germane Barnes that dissect slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, geography, scale, and colonialism.


What are some of the earliest instances of US vigilantism? What are the foundational systems that propagate homogeneity and exclusion? Katherine McKittrick’s (KM) book Demonic Grounds serves as an entry point to conversation with guest editors Shawhin Roudbari (SR) and Germane Barnes (GB). Excerpts from Demonic Grounds are utilized as points of departure to dissect slavery, the transatlantic slave trade, geography, scale, and colonialism. McKittrick informs us that colonial pedagogies and colonial geographies are confluent, that the classroom is a location of layered racial-sexual discipline, and the Black student is the figure through which that discipline takes place. In this interview they reference elements of architecture often seen as innocuous or supplementary to further understand the role in which race and structural racism frame the collective understanding of vigilance.

GB/SR: In writing about Harriet Jacobs/Linda Brent’s escape from slavery to the garret under the roof of her grandmother’s house, you argued that “the attic serves as a workable paradoxical space, one that positions her across the regime of slavery and begins her emancipation,” and that “the garret is a painful geographic expression of black emancipation.”1 As we struggle to analyze the architectural context/manifestation/logic of vigilantism, your reconciliation of the painful and the emancipatory, in the context of the garret for example, suggests new ways of thinking for us. Can you share thoughts on ways that as architects and designers we can think about mundane, unremarkable (even invisible) spaces like corridors, entrances, and thresholds as “painful geographic expressions of black emancipation”?

KM: I begin most of my work with thinking about how plantation and post-plantation infrastructures and ecologies—the buildings, fields, roads, waterways, and trees—are entangled with a Black sense of place. It is useful, I think, to begin with the idea that Black people do not passively inhabit space and place, but instead are of geography, are living with and impart geographic knowledge, and are geographic actors. If we begin from this premise—that the production of space and multi-scalar geographies are, in themselves, a kind of blackness—we can avoid conversations that rely on linearity and conceptualize Black people as an afterthought (first there is oppressive space, second is the oppression of black people in that space, third is resistance). This is not to avoid or dismiss locations or architectures or ecologies that are (ideologically and materially) constructed to harm, but instead to draw attention to the dynamism of Black geographies. In her account of slavery, Linda Brent/Harriet Jacobs exemplified, in this remarkable way, an intimate understanding of space, place, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Not only did she have a clear sense of place—her entire narrative, within and beyond the garret, is an agentive mapping and remapping of her surroundings—she also recognized that these geographies hold in them possibilities. I mean, this is a radical overturning of prevailing geographic knowledges because she is actually sharing that carceral disabling patriarchal logics provide the conditions for alternative worlds. This story, this geographic story, is both disconcerting and breathtaking. I would wager that if we read across the very different narratives and accounts of the enslaved, we would notice a geographic thread that illuminates how the terrifying infrastructures of racial violence are sites of contemplation, resistance, invention, and reinvention. So, for me, geographies are not mundane per se, but rather enlivened precisely because they are of and with Blackness. I must imagine Black geographies, and thus all geographies from the three-dimensional to the imaginative, through and as Black livingness—if I don’t, I have failed to appreciate the complexity and density (the heartbreak, the promises, the innovations, the histories and stories, the songs) of Black life. Just as we should not situate Black people as passive (or always victims), we should not read their (our) geographies (including architectures and doorways and grass and bees) as unliving inaudible backdrops.

GB/SR: We are reminded of a passage from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen:

“The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”

Rankine’s account of the space, down to the detail of the doorbell, suggests a complicity of architecture in this encounter. The elements Rankine describes feel like actors (or actants) in this story of vigilance. What do you see as the agency of architectural elements in racialized encounters?

KM: I agree that architecture, as a moment of encounter, provides a way for us to read a range of spatial processes that center Black life and livingness. I mean, this is what Édouard Glissant so brilliantly outlines in his work—how the encounter not only produces something new and terrible and explosive and revealing, but also how encounter holds in it the possibility to ethically reorient our relationship with our surroundings and each other. This is interesting to think about alongside the excerpt you have offered here, because the encounter does not produce anything new and instead delineates the twin problems of white property and Black presence (or what Cheryl Harris describes as “whiteness as property”). The dynamism I note above is obscured by the back entrance, the front entrance, the path, the locked gate, the phantom dogs, the deer grass and rosemary, the spit, the yard, the yelling, and the surveillance. We all know this house! This is a moment where architecture and design refuse the difficult potential of encounter, even in apology. The punishing part of the story is, of course, the question of therapy and reading harm reduction in concert with white supremacy. It it seems to me that Rankin is commenting on how architecture galvanizes segregation even though, in this excerpt, race and racial identification are not mentioned. I wonder if she knows we know the story before reading it. If we know the story in advance, if it is a narrative of familiarity (normativity, routine, habit, what we already know, what we expected), can we capture dynamism, Black livingness? Is there something else happening outside the vicious apologies of hate leveled at a patient? For me this is an invitation to read the poem with Cheryl Harris and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, keeping in mind Glissant, and also looking to work that focuses on landscape design (specifically gardens, grass, shrubs, as well as the labor of their upkeep) as racializing ecologies. I guess what I am saying is that in order to untangle the very heavy and anxious spatial logics of the therapist’s home, and think about the potentiality of Blackness, we must read Rankine’s poem or excerpt as an invitation to defamiliarize ourselves with commonsense, seemingly natural (because they are spatialized and encoded in the doorbell, at the top of her lungs, in the questionable black presence), stories of racial violence and therapeutic harm.

GB/SR: Where does geography end and architecture begin? Is this a question of scale, of experience, of expression, or otherwise?

KM: For me, geography is a set of multi-scalar relational processes. The processes are entangled, and they are also punctuated by physical geographies (including the design and construction of buildings), ecologies, and other infrastructures and materials such as roads, railways, concrete foundations, steel, stones, cliffs, waves, and water. The processes are produced through human interactions—this is to say, we make geography what it is by engaging with it, mapping it, dismissing it, touching it, and organizing it. Architecture is an expression of geography—it dreams or materializes space, place, time; architecture is an expression of entangled human processes that imagines and concretizes ideas and experiences. Geography and architecture are overlapping processes, produced through human interactions, including difficult encounters and unrealized liberations.

I like to think as capaciously and as widely as possible about geography, space, and place because this leaves room for alternative voices, narratives, spaces, places, songs, experiences, and stories. If we demarcate geography and architecture temporally or spatially—endings and beginnings, discreet scales, discreet-disconnected disciplines, and designs—we will inevitably replicate prevailing knowledge systems and how things already are. Again, this is not a call to erase colonial and plantocratic geographies (enclosures, violences); it is a plea to enter into them by recognizing a Black sense of place. I do not think there is a divide between geography and architecture—and this is what Black scholars have spent considerable time telling us across a range of texts and conversations. We must take those seemingly discreet disciplinary knowledges, those categorized colonial expressions of geography, and notice that they are fictive and alterable and relational, too.

GB/SR: You have stated that “the classroom is, as I see it, a colonial site that was, and always has been, engendered by and through violent exclusion!”2 Would you extend this argument to the physical space of the classroom? What about its architecture, arrangement of elements, material, and aesthetic?

KM: My work on safe space emerged from witnessing, experiencing, and sharing stories of racial violence that occur in the classroom. Black students, teachers, and staff know the walls of the classroom enclose us, while the materials presented are often, not always, outside Black ways of knowing. Colonial pedagogies and colonial geographies are confluent; the classroom is a location of layered racial-sexual discipline, and the Black student is the figure through which that discipline takes place. Black students are perceived to be unteachable, intractable, and out of place within educational settings and the classroom is the container where specialized instructions are imparted to teach, manage, and hold blackness (through the organization of the classroom, through expressions of power and racial privilege, through seating arrangements, through implementing linguistic and cultural norms, through grades and grading, through praise and anger, through readings and tests and thrown desks). Of course, police in schools are the penultimate and violent expression of coloniality. Again, this kind of architecture cannot be adequately theorized without recognizing how the infrastructure of the classroom is subverted and undone. My statement above, from the interview with Peter James Hudson, does not begin and end with violent exclusion—and should not be read as such. It draws attention to how learning and teaching is difficult and awful precisely because colonial settings that exclude Black students do not and cannot totally and absolutely foreclose Black life; many of us make space for the Black student (inside and outside the classroom), many of us work across these sites of violence in order to teach our students and each other how to live this world differently; we teach each other that the walls of the classroom are porous and complicated and breakable. There is a wonderful book by Carmen Kynard that centers the classroom as a location of possibility that is tied to the Black radical tradition. Her classroom is engendered by and through Black radical pedagogy, thought, and action. What happens if we begin there—what happens to educational architecture that is laced with the years and years of the radical pedagogy, thought, and action Black teachers have provided?

GB/SR: Your discussion of the auction block in Demonic Grounds has infected our thinking about the most basic architectural tectonics—e.g., a platform built from an arrangement of stones. “The auction block exudes white supremacy,” you write.3 Just as the auction block is “a site where the ongoing production and reproduction of difference (race, gender, sexuality, class, and so forth) takes place and moves beyond the body,”4 could you help us make the case that such everyday spaces as the sidewalk, the condo building entrance, the public park, and the cafe counter exude white supremacy? In other words, what about the architecture of these spaces condition the white supremacy of, respectively, Permit Patty, Keyfob Kelly, Barbeque Betty, and Barista Ben?

KM: I don’t want to make this case (I think that is clear from my answers above). I mean the auction block you describe here only tells half of the story I told in Demonic Grounds. In that chapter I also outline multitudinous resistances that break apart and redefine the white supremacist underpinnings of the auction block. This does not mean it is not a site of violence; it means it is a place of Black subversion, reinvention. Terror is here, it is in my heart, but it is not all we have. It is difficult for me to imagine different worlds, and different infrastructures, by only focusing on violence and harm. I think I would ask: Why do you want to prove these things, these places, are white supremacist? Do we need proof? Scholars like Sarah Constanza-Chock, for example, have detailed the ways in which design is intentionally and impactfully oppressive. She also asks how we think outside of these kinds of designs and redesign, too. So how do we think outside of oppression vis-à-vis design? How does the auction block simultaneously critique and capture white supremacy? What else does a sidewalk hold? Again, this is not meant to posit some kind of absolutist optimistic alternative but rather to ask a different kind of question that notices how Black livingness and Black life evidence something other than violent exclusion.

GB/SR: We wonder if our framing of architecture’s aggression, resistance, and witnessing (as we present in this issue) encourages us to separate ideas that should, instead, be brought together. What if, thinking out loud, we take direction from Harriet Jacobs’s “mapping and remapping” of our surroundings and “defamiliarize ourselves with commonsense, seemingly natural, stories of racial violence and therapeutic harm?” We wonder how that would change our theorizing architecture’s radical potentials. On that note, what closing thoughts would you share with architects as we explore our agency in designing spaces that.

KM: Yes! We should collaborate and knit all sorts of ideas, theories, stories together. Architecture—the field and the practice—holds in it the capacity to make radical change. And this change is not only conceptual; it is tied to walls and concrete and streets and windows and more. If we pair architecture with Black studies, or Black geographies, we can perhaps think more generously about what is possible and, at the same time, draw attention to how existing infrastructures are, or can be, infused with struggles against racism. The beauty of architecture, the gift of Black architects, might lie in the simultaneity of envisioning and making worlds that are open to kindness and rebellion. These are not perfect or utopian buildings or roads or city plans; they are sites of struggle that continually upend the idea that colonial architectures are sites of static oppressive veracity. And what the architect can bring to Black studies is exciting—what photos, collages, designs, prints, linocuts, and technologies can help us theorize liberation? What architectures and architectural techniques already exist that will help with this theorization? How might architectural expertise—the writing up of surveys, the thinking through of floor plans, the drafting, the decisions about where load bearing beams are placed—be implicit to social change that honors Black worlds and Black livingness?

1 Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 144.
2 Katherine McKittrick quoted in Peter James Hudson, “Canada and the Question of Black Geographies: An Interview with Katherine McKittrick,” in The CLR James Journal, 20.1 (Fall 2014).
3 McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 84.
4 McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 70.