UCL Urban Laboratory


Transcript: Black Urbanisms meet the Black City


black, urban, space, blackness, simone, urbanism, city, hirsch, professor, ucl, negotiating, white, hallucination, thinking, whiteness, absence, shops, curry, conference, manchester


Dr Lioba Hirsch, Dr Kamna Patel, Dr Alana Osbourne, Professor AbdouMaliq Simone, Prof Ola Uduku

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  00:00

What black people did with each other and how they operated in the interstices between constantly being messed with, and constantly being excluded or ignored was often a matter outside of any accounting fundamentally incomplete.

Dr Alana Osbourne  00:17

Hi, and welcome to episode two of this podcast series from UCL Urban Laboratory. I'm Dr Alana Osbourne. I'm a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at the Free University of Brussels. This series is exploring the topic of black urbanisms by revisiting talks and discussions held in 2019 at a UCL conference titled At the Frontiers of the Urban: Thinking Concepts and Practices Globally. In our previous episode, we examined the talk on blackness and the urban by Professor AbdouMaliq Simone. As it acts as a useful starting off point to unwrap this subject further. W e would like to clarify that the authentic way to pronounce his name is AbdouMaliq Simone. However, to keep in line with the pronunciation of his name in other audio excerpts, and to ensure clarity for who is being referenced, we will be using AbdouMaliq Simone across the series. In this episode, 'Blackness as urban sociality and the hallucination of whiteness', I'll be looking at the work of two researchers who will help us consider these concepts and think through what these ideas point to in their own research. Dr. Lioba Hirsch, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was a respondent for Professor Simone at the UCL conference. In the Black Urbanisms conference panel, she said something that I think is essential about the generative power of thinking with blackness. Let's hear a small excerpt of Professor Simone's talk and then listen to Dr. Hirsch's response.

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  01:55

Let me say some things about where black urbanism then meets the black city. So one aspect of this is blackness as a matter of incomputability. So even as subject to wide-ranging, engineering, disciplinary, correctional, compensatory and biopolitical systems that systematically have and historically attempted to corral black life within specific forms of visibility and control, if blackness was that which was in some sense, the most controlled, the most surveyed, the most described, the most picked at, the most incarcerated, the most surveyed, then the sense of white arrogance was always wrapped up with 'Okay, now we've done it, we don't have to pay attention to it'. Now that we have controlled now that we have defined, now that we have incarcerated, we no longer have to look. So the black bodies are always the body of that which does not count both literally in terms of significance, that which is not accounted for, but held close in order to control and measure, to assess and regulate. Blackness has always been the kind of fundamental core of our both our desire and our capacity to measure, to assess, to evaluate. So the black city is the city populated by bodies in the interstices because of histories of racialized confinement. But it's also the city from which things  emerge from the cracks, not only where things fall into the cracks, it's the city of the mestizo, the poor, that tijano, the city that's not apparent, is boxed into the sociology of categorization, that becomes evident in the unfolding of collective endurances. From the part of the urban thinker it requires a total displacement, they encounter otherwise it does not happen, it is only subsumed. It's trouble from its inability to be read clearly and definitively yet in being so it is implicitly required to offer its capacities to repair to obscure to assemble to improvise, and when the denizons of the black city took their time, the acceleration that characterises the response to the conundrum of over accumulation, dispossession, interjects disorienting speed.

Dr Alana Osbourne  04:08

Dr. Hirsch's framing of black absence resonates with Professor Simone's notion of incomputability. Professor Simone also says that blackness is implicitly required to offer its capacities to repair, to assemble, to improvise. To me, this echoes Dr. Hirsch's definition of blackness as encounter and imagination. She centres the importance of imagination as a practice for recreating the black city,

Dr Lioba Hirsch  04:36

I think through London and I guess other European cities, as black cities, through the ideas of black absence and black encounter. For me, black absence designates more what Sadiya Hartman holds in her latest book, the fact that we were never meant to survive, and yet we are still here. And I think that's a very powerful note notion that this idea that we were never meant to inhabit the space but we asked for here, and that yet we're still here leads me to analyse the European city as a place of black encounter. And so I think black encounters black absence are two really important themes in thinking about black urbanism in the black city. And black absence also allows us to engage in what Christina Sharpe calls the ability or inability to think blackness otherwise. So how do we imagine how can we think blackness other than absence? And as extendibility? And how can we think of blackness as fundamental to European cities, to imagine European cities and the black lives within them.

Dr Alana Osbourne  05:39

I particularly like how Dr. Hirsch positions the European city as a black city. And I'd like to invite Professor Ola Oduku to elaborate on this.

Prof Ola Uduku  05:48

Hi, my name is Professor Ola Uduku. I'm research professor of architecture at Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester Metropolitan University,

Dr Alana Osbourne  05:57

Professor Odoku, thank you for joining me. You were also a respondent to Professor Simone during the black urbanisms panel at the conference, let's hear a short excerpt of your response to it.

Prof Ola Uduku  06:08

The idea about the black urban presence is unsettling. Whether we're looking at research I did a long time ago in places like Toxteth, in Liverpool, Hulme, Handsworth, bits of the United Kingdom that are supposedly black, which again, I think, responds to the writing. Black is synonymous with, you know, these are the places you don't want to go, you might get yourself lost, you might, you know, misdeeds or miscreations happen in these black spaces, but they are still with us. And in many ways, I think in this post-neoliberal world, increasingly, these spaces are being either gentrified, in the case of London, or spaces that are in themselves reaching out to other ideas about what the city may or may not be. So that binary between black and white, I would say is beginning to grey. So we're back into this grey space.

Dr Alana Osbourne  07:00

In that moment, you address the black white binary as one that's in place, as responding to the writing, but also increasingly troubled. I want to ask you, how does this hallucination of whiteness operate in cities and other urban areas? And how does it result in the so called greying of urban spaces that you notice?

Prof Ola Uduku  07:21

as I understood it, the hallucination of whiteness as Professor Simone discussed, had to do with the fact that the white notion of space suggests that everybody has the same kind of access that a privileged white person would have. So it's a hallucination because in all urban areas, there have always been others who have who are not white and privileged. And they don't have that same relationship to urban space. So the majority of people in cities do not have that settled nature, they have to negotiate their space and place in what is still designated as a privileged white space. And that forms different things, whether it's temporality, where you're you are at a certain time, how you engage with systems like housing, and so on. So there are a series of things that those who are not white have always had to do in space. But everybody is thinking about where they are particularly in the urban space. So it's a hallucination, particularly from the white imaginary to think that that space is fixed. Taking into account what Professor Simone had talked about, he is more or less agreeing with that idea that there is no particularly black or white space. Instead, there are these grey spaces, he calls them the interstices. But I would call that also the grey space where things are not defined. And increasingly, what Professor Simone is pointing out is that the idea that anything is defined is challengeable. The conventions that had defined a lot of urban theory are now much more being challenged. So for example, in inner city neighbourhoods, often these would be, well in America, they will be called the ghettos. I think in the UK, it will be areas that are being gentrified, that therefore have been part of the city but now in the gentrification process, there, they change ownership. But there are still the historic or the traces of historic communities who are now being moved out, and their new communities moving in so there's a contestation as to what these spaces are. And I would call these spaces grey.

Dr Alana Osbourne  09:41

That's really interesting. So could you give us an example of this dynamic of grey space playing out in context in the UK?

Prof Ola Uduku  09:49

How I would describe a greying of space is probably the 'curry mile' in Manchester. I have only been in Manchester for two and a half years. But even over that period of time, I've begun to see a change in the way in which the curry mile both presents itself and actually is as one walks past the area or cycles or moves or transitions through the area. From that time when it was really very much indeed an area where you went to go and get a curry as the mile of curry houses, with a few other Asian shops, it has now become much more of a space that has changed from just having those shops to having new developments, things like privately-built University accommodation, and also a number of new shops which are selling other things. So there are African Caribbean shops selling African Caribbean food. And then there are also these money transfer shops where you can transfer money across the world. Before that, or two and a half years ago, it would have been seen as, I would have thought, a predominantly Asian space. It has particular links to things like Ramadan, and so on and being able to go and get curries and so on, to being a space that is much more part of the everyday life of lots of multicultural people in Manchester. So the reality is that everybody is now negotiating space, we are no longer able to say, this is who I am, this is my space. It's much more of a fluid negotiating thing, where we are constantly having to reevaluate how we relate to that space, and how we actually exist in that space.

Dr Alana Osbourne  11:49

I think you're right, I think it's really important to highlight the fluidity of space and how we're always negotiating it. I want to ask you a final question that relates to something that Kamna Patel put forward at the end of the panel, she asked:

Dr Kamna Patel  12:04

'What does black urbanism and your articulation of black urbanism offer bodies that are racialized as black? And what does it offer non black people of colour in the current parlance of race politics?'

Dr Alana Osbourne  12:16

Considering Kamna's question, how might we use the term blackness in encountering a racialized, but also fluid and negotiated urban reality?

Prof Ola Uduku  12:26

What Professor Simone has done is to open up that discussion and to make us examine and think about various forms of urban ism that effectively relate to blackness or the black body and space. And also to challenge the notion that, if you like, it's the problematic form of urbanism, that is the black urbanism. But instead, his proposition is that in a way, we're all finding a relationship to urbanism and urbanity. And the black body particularly, when one thinks about it, we are able to operate in various forms of this, I guess expanded form of what's considered to be urbanism. So it's not just black, it's much more fluid. And indeed, as he says, There are various thresholds that particularly those who are not white, often have to pass to get into spaces. Now that idea about threshold is now something that most of the world is having to engage with. So the if you like the black and white of urbanism being one thing has gone and we're all negotiating various urbanisms depending on context, time and place.

Dr Alana Osbourne  13:46

I like what you've identified, that the black body is not a monolithic exception in urban space. It's important that we look at cities beyond black and white binaries. And your concept of greying urban space is useful here. It also reminds us that everyone negotiates their movements in the city. These are never effortless or simple. They're always rugged and layered. Thank you for these insights and for sharing your work with us. This has been Episode Two of the UCL Urban Laboratory podcast. On the next episode, 'Black urbanisms, unsettling and collectives on the run'. This podcast was presented by myself, Dr. Alana Osbourne from the Free University in Brussels. Clare Melhuish is the UCL Urban Laboratory Director and was the podcast coordinator on this series. Jennifer Robinson is the UCL Urban   Laboratory co director and curator of the two conference sessions mentioned in the series. Special thanks to Jordan Rowe, UCL Urban Laboratory Centre Manager and Kamna Patel, Vice Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for the Bartlett Faculty. The producer was Deborah Shorindé, the executive producer was Anishka Sharma. This was a Whistledown production for the UCL Urban Laboratory.