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This Instant: June Jordan and a Black Feminist Poetics of Architecture This instant and this triumph We were

never meant to survive. -Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival Black womens geographies and poetics challenge us to stay human by invoking how Black spaces and places are integral to our planetary and local geographic stories and how the questions of seeable human differences puts spatial and philosophical demands on geography. These demands site the struggle between Black womens geographies and geographic domination, suggesting that more humanly workable geographies are continually being lived, expressed, and imagined. -Katherine McKittrick Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle Audre Lorde says that poetry is the skeleton architecture of our lives. So it goes without saying that June Jordan, Black feminist poet genius was an architect. I can see her hand, her choices in words in the scaffoldings of my everyday. June Jordan was an architect. The only problem is that with the exception of some recent work by the environmental justice scholar Cheryl J. Fish on what she calls the architextual collaboration between R. Buckminster Fuller and June Jordan, is that is does go without saying. As in no one says it. June Jordan was an architect. In fact lets shift that right now. Turn to the person next to you and say it right now. June Jordan was an architect. This matters because the number of Black women architects in the United States can still fit in one room. And it matters because June Jordans architecture, her development of a Black feminist practice that centers how we create and transform space is a

key part of her contribution to our political imaginary and challenges all of those who recognize and celebrate and live inside her legacy to think and act rigorously when it comes to space. Just so you know that this is not merely an exercise in reclaiming every form of intellectual knowledge as the domain of Black feminist genius, (though it is also that), I want to let you know that among June Jordans architectural credentials are that she was awarded a prestigious fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in architecture, that her architectural plans were published in national publications, (although as we will see not always attributed to her) and most importantly (in my very biased view) that she was mentored by Fannie Lou Hamer, who actively built farming structures for Black collective power in Mississippi and who theorized access to land and food as a crucial element of Black enfranchisement. So in honor of June Jordan, the

architect. (You might notice that part of my practice is to over say the undersaid), and as a manifestation of how Katherine McKittrick affirms that Black womens relationships to space site the struggle and stakes of transformation, I will use this presentation as an opportunity to create a Black feminist space in this instant as triumph. Site 1 The Bottom of the Barrel When June Jordan imagined Skyrise for Harlem, the architectural plan that will be the model for this ritual of recitation and

resituation, she was scraping the bottom of the barrel. After witnessing the Harlem riots in 1964, June Jordan abruptly found out that she was a newly single mother. She also offers frankly in a reflection in her first collection of essays, Civil Wars, There was no money. Those days I didnt eat. Her son Christopher had to stay with her parents because she could not feed him. Sometimes friends dropped off milk and eggs and scotch and cigarettes. The money that she eventually got from selling her article about the architectural plan Skyrise for Harlem a plan in collaboration with her close friend R. Buckminster Fuller, was the only money that she had. On December 24th 1964 the money finally came and she was able to get Christopher back and assemble a semblance of Christmas. There was no money. Those days I did not eat. Some of June Jordans cousins have gone on record saying June Jordan was dramatic. She exaggerated. But I have seen the records of June Jordans phone getting cut off, I have seen the medical records that show the impact of poverty on her physical and psychological health. And knowing that for June Jordan who loved and admired her parents, but who also experienced abuse growing up in their home, I trust that it was really dire circumstances that had her make the difficult choice to send her son to live with her parents at this particularly bleak economic time in her writing life. This is important to state because for those of us who know anything about her, June Jordan is a miracle. It is as if her life and her

smile were sent out of the sky specifically to inspire us. She was a poet, skilled to create a language for living that contradicted the logic of global capitalism that institutionalized itself during her lifetime, but she was an architect because she built an ethical life out of difficult decisions everyday. Skyrise for Harlem, came from the very bottom of the barrel, the place where, as womanist process theologian Monica Coleman and many others say, we make a away out of no way. Like Jordans tangible architectural work and blueprints, Jordans work as an architect, building something out of space filled by an empty belly, is forgotten. As my partner Julia and I have travelled the country interviewing, honoring and documenting the work of innovative Black queer feminist elders we have found that some of our genius elders have been couch surfing past middle age, face homelessness, and worry daily about where they will house the priceless vessels of brilliance that are their bodies, and where they will keep the priceless boxes of archival materials they have saved from lifetimes of deciding to build something bigger than what capitalism would imply. So the bottom of the barrel is a place, and I say it is a site of intervention. What does an architect who is accountable to the bottom of the barrel, who can give an account of what that rock and hard place space of choosing feels like, what does that architect imagine and build? And what happens to those plans in the context of capitalism? If you were to flip through the April 1965 issue of Esquire

Magazine, the source of the just in time money that allowed June Jordan to have Christopher home by Christmas, where June Jordans article and the plans for Skyrise for Harlem appear you would see the most expensive cars and liquor and clothing advertised. Not bottom of the barrel but top shelf, enticing the imagined audience of white men with disposable wealth. And maybe if you thought about the difference between the audience for these ads and the bottom of the barrel Harlem existence June Jordan was navigating as single mother you could predict but probably still never understand the violence of the editorial revisions the staff of Esquire made to her piece. June Jordan created a vision and an article called Skyrise for Harlem but here between the top-shelf scotch and the pall mall cigarettes and the newest Pontiac and the Italian leather shoes you will see a title June Jordan never approved, but ostensibly consented to in advance when she signed the paper that gave her the money to have Christopher home by Christmas. The bottom of the barrel. If you look you will se the title, not Skyrise for Harlem, but Instant Slum Clearance. This instant. We were never meant to survive. Because that is what happens at the bottom of the barrel. You dont get a say. But this triumph. On the bottom of the barrel what Katherine McKittrick calls a more humanly workable definition of life is being created. So visionary and transformative and dangerous to the unsustainable sponsors of Esquire magazine that it must be made into a joke. This is

what happens at the bottom of the barrel, the unglamorous and frightening space where housing is a basic need, where it is obvious how love and life and imagination suffer, how home is impossible, when whether you have water depends not on whether you go pump some, but on whether you can convince an absentee landlord to imagine you as human. June Jordan published a plan for Harlem generated from and accountable to the bottom of the barrel, which is a place where we should not have to live, but is also an ethical space, a space of knowledge, a space of clarity about what life requires. So as architects of discourse and as builders of a movement, what do we know about the bottom of the barrel? How is that place of knowledge, clarity, injustice and violence reflected in our work? What everyday choices would we make if we were accountable to that place? Site 2 The Intersection Long before Kimberle Crenshaw demarginalized the intersection, Black women and other multiply oppressed people were experiencing the intersection as a site of injury. For Jordan in 1964 and after, the intersection was not the academic site of nuanced marketability that it has become today in our academic and non-profit industrial complexes. The intersection was a literal and psychic place of injury

that Jordan sought to transform or even eradicate in her work as an architect and visionary urban planner. In one of the letters that June Jordan wrote to her collaborator R. Buckminster Fuller about the

Skyrise for Harlem project in 1964 she focuses on the site of the intersection as one of the major problems in the impoverished urban landscape, noting that at every corner the resident emerges vulnerable to harm from at least two sides. As a Black woman, and as a protoqueer poor single mother, as everyone she was, June Jordan knew something about being vulnerable to harm from at least two sides, and not just in the street. In a sense, the very situation of the publication of her architectural plans was one such site of multi-directional harm from collaborating forms of oppression. The title Skyrise for Harlem was replaced with the cruel joke, Instant Slum Clearance, and on top of that, the wording of the article was shifted to attribute the entire architectural plan to Fuller, Jordans white male collaborator, marginalizing June Jordan in relationship to her own theories of what the cityscape would be. These multiple harms, may be best described as twin harms that were predictable along intersecting lines of oppression and collaborating methods of disempowerment. Many of us have learned from experience what June Jordan learned, which is that from the position of privilege there is no contradiction between demeaning the intellectual work of Black women and then also coopting it. This is part of the reason that Jordan published one of her letters to Fuller in her series of essays, Civil Wars, to reclaim the theoretical work that she did in the creation of the plan, which not only included an astute analysis of the feasibility of what Esquire dismissed

as a utopian plan in terms of the master plan of the city of New York and the agendas of the current local officials with a state in New York City and Harlem, but also an analysis of the intersection itself as a site of violence in need of reparation. In her letter she describes the intersection as a site of psychological cruxifiction within the cityscape, which is especially pronounced in the Harlem section of Manhattan because Central Park, which provides the only major reprieve from the grid in New York City, ends at 110th street. For Jordan the intersection is a structuring logic as well as a physical liability for the residents of Harlem. The impact of intersection after intersection for Jordan represents a physical pattern of inevitability which in her opinion actually impacts the Harlem residents ability to relate to life as possibility as opposed to only struggle. In her young adult novel His Own Where Jordans protagonist Buddy is also a subversive urban planner, he convinces his neighbors to combine their backyards and garden together, imagines the temporary hospitality of the hospital as a model for how the city should be structured and not surprisingly Buddy, born in to print in 1971 also has a scathing analysis against the intersection. In the

opening scene of the novel Buddy, whose father is in a hospital dying because of an accident at an intersection, says (remember that Jordan has written to Fuller that the intersection is a site of psychological cruxifiction) Buddy explains his own experience of the be crucify like Jesus at the crossing June Jordan is an architect because she believes in what she calls the determining relationship between architectural reality and physical well-being. So the design of a new round and winding Harlem, free of corners, is based on her belief that a curved landscape will suggest the possibility of generative surprise not only on a walk through the new Harlem, but also in life in general, that it will cultivate patterns of discovery and imagination in the lives of Harlems children and adults, situating them as dynamic participants in an ecology of urban living, not just everyday targets of moving harm. In our contemporary appropriations, of the concept now called intersectionality many of us have departed from the actual site of the intersection as a place of harm, and moved towards intersectionality as a description of complicated identity formation which departs from the use of the metaphor by Kimberle Crenshaw, but without the visionary potential that Jordan offers us with her literal spatial plans about what to do about the intersection. What we do now with intersectionality is to describe ourselves by our pedigrees of oppression and flip those oppressions into self-identifications that we use to navigate those same oppressions, forgrounding grids of fragmentation and injury on our bodies and in our paths. But Jordans injunction through her vision of a round existence says that we are more than that. We are more than crucified, we are possible. Beyond

mitigation of harm, Jordans work to create a post-intersection Harlem affirms a revaluation of life where we are more than the inverse of our liabilities, more than the sum of our uses to the machine, where we are priceless, and cherished and about to be surprised by what we imagine and create as we move. Which brings us to. Site 3 The Queer Reproduction of Black Life One queer thing about June Jordans idea of creating a Harlem without corners seems like a slight difference, a poetic difference, a difference in tone. June Jordan has a problem with corners themselves, while quality of life folks revisioning and gentrifying urban spaces across the country have a problem with the people on the corner. Continuing the logic of crucifixtion mentioned in site 2, people trying to clean up particular neighborhoods that they are invested in point to the young men on the corner, imagined to be perpetually unemployed, they point to the sex workers and so-called crackheads on the corner, a site of sacrificed, they personify (and then immediately dehumanize) dirt which must be removed if the neighborhood is to be cleaned up. And though it collaborates with white supremacy, this is not always imposed from outside. I would call the criminalization of the people at the corner, the population of the intersection, a scale of internalized ethnic cleansing, the reproduction

of the belief that the problem of the corner is not the corner store designed to kill the residents slowly, nor the likelihood of pedestrian death, and especially not the idea that the corner is a threat to the collective imagination. The reproduction of the belief that the problem is the person who is most often present on the corner collaborates with the more broad belief that the problem of a poor neighborhood is not poverty in the form the structural underesourcing, certainly not capitalism as system that depends on an expendable class, but instead the behavior of the people. This is the reproduction of the belief that there is something poor about the people themselves, which subtly builds evidence that they are in fact expendable, and then worse than expendable, poor people are transformed into an infestation and it becomes necessary to remove them in order to save the structure itself. This is why already, by 1965 urban renewal was referred to as negro removal. And the queer question for me, the question that intervenes in the reproduction of that narrative is (and that is what I mean by queer, that which intervenes in the reproduction of an oppressive normative narrative), what is so dangerous about the people? What is so dangerous about the bottom of the barrel trained survivalists that makes their removal so crucial to the perpetual reproduction of the structure that June Jordan and Katherine McKittrick would agree is not humanly workable? We already know. The danger, the queer thing

is that the people transform the structure. If we dont know, June Jordan certainly knows. June Jordans theology of Black people is that Black life is transformative in the context of the Americas, in Who Look at Me, her first childrens book she explains new energies of darkness, we disturbed a continent like seeds. As a Black mother June Jordan was invested in Black life as something to be nurtured and reproduced, not disciplined into dominant modes of life, and not evacuated. There is something growing at the bottom of the barrel and in all the other revolutionary sites of Black life in Harlem that the editors of Esquire find in need of an ominous total solution but which June Jordan values so much that she wants even the streetscapes to support the genius imaginations of everyday Black people. She designs a harlem skyrise structure with space for workshop space for the creativity of every single resident. June Jordan believes in Black life as a creative transformative process, not an obstacle to progress. This is why she describes her plan in Skyrise for Harlem as a form of federal reparations for the ravaged peoples of Harlem. The queer reproduction of Black life as a transformative contribution to the continent and universe is the spatial logic that leads Jordan to design Skyrise for Harlem as a project that can be constructed above existing Harlem so residents can continue to live where they live until the new structure is ready for them to move on up, defying the pattern of inevitability colloquialized as negro

removal, the protocal that when new structures are build poor residents move out during construction and the majority of those residents are prevented from moving back. Jordan has the whole construction process going on in the midst of the priceless daily lives of the people who lived in Harlem at that time. And how queer would it be if we understood people as the primary resource of transformation such that removal was not an option? What spatial transformations would be available to us if we were queer like June? Would we cease to believe in our academic work that getting away from people is the precondition for having deep thoughts? Would we become less foundation reliant in our movement work because we would cease to overlook the people in our movements as the true resource? How queer is it to live here in the criminalized place where the meaning of life is transformed, where as McKittrick says, a more humanly workable relationship to space is already being imagined and lived? Site 4 The Presence of the Future The editors of Esquire Magazine sought to descredit Skyrise for Harlem using the word utopian and the phrase total solution to imply what they thought was necessary for Harlem, namely, slum clearance. But June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller were in fact advocating their plan for Harlem as part of a wholistic transformation of the reproduction of life, and space for living and as an intervention

into not only the dominant models of urban renewal but also the dominant modes human relationships to their environment and each other, and this is why the plan Skyrise for Harlem, and June Jordans Black feminist approach to architecture in particular is important for the world that we live in now, where our mode of living is rapidly making our lives unlivable on individual and planetary scales. In Jordans view the problem with Harlem was (is) the problem of alienation. The structure of Harlem meant (means) that its residents did not have a direct relationship to their environment that could meet their needs. The question of whether they had access to water was not a matter of if it rained, or how much water they caught or pumped, it was a question of whether or not an absentee landlord believed they were human enough or organized enough to have their demand for water met. This separation, when it comes to water or other vital resources that support life is not specific to Harlem. Never was. Right now we can see that it is becoming a planetary norm. The capital of Yemen will soon have no direct access to water. Water will become strictly an import very soon in several cities in the world. And now we are scrambling to learn how to grow food in our yards and in our windowsills because we are noticing collectively that direct access to the elements that sustain life is becoming more and more necessary. Jordans vision of a new Harlem was designed to address this alienation from the ability to sustain our own lives and modes of production on a

larger scale. Jordan explained that in order to build the materials that would make the construction of Skyrise for Harlem possible there would have to be a shift in production, the development of factories that were producing materials for life instead of materials for the destruction of life in the form of weapons at the time that Jordan was writing. At this juncture where storage and the internal security apparatus are the exceptional growing industries in the United States, I wonder what it would mean to truly direct resources towards the production of space for living instead of increased space for prisons and storage, or the caged storage of supposedly expendable people and stuff that is supposedly more worth keeping. June Jordan was explicit about it, she imagined Skyrise as a prototype for a process of life, saying that it would demonstrate the feasibility of beautiful and low-cost shelter integral to a comprehensively conceived new community for human beings. Imagine. A comprehensively conceived new community capable of supporting life. June Jordan was an archictect. Which exactly what we need. This instant.

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