UCL Urban Laboratory


Transcript: Black Urbanisms, Unsettling and Collectives on the Run


people, urban, dakar, simone, ucl, practices, form, city, blackness, ownership, black, land ownership, space, ways, notion, margins, professor, land, unsettled, nima


Victoria Okoye, Dr Alana Osbourne, Professor AbdouMaliq Simone, Dr. Hélène Neveu Kringelbach

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  00:00

All of the infrastructures of residency that attempt to impose a format, a disciplinary sameness, a means of incarceration can sometimes not always but sometimes be turned inside out.

Dr Alana Osbourne  00:16

Hello and welcome to the third episode of this UCL podcast exploring black urbanisms presented by myself, Dr. Alana Osbourne. Across this series, I've been examining Professor AbdouMaliq Simone's his presentation on blackness and the urban and exploring his concepts to think through the racialized city. We 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, I'm going to unpack another key articulation from Professor Simone, about blackness and the urban as a form of unsettling. I'll also be engaging with more scholars from the UCL conference at which he presented his thoughts. As we heard in the previous episodes, blackness in its urban contexts can take different forms. To refresh our memories, let's begin with a short extract from Professor Simone's talk.

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  01:20

In some ways, black urbanism as manifested through what we might think of as different forms of black cities can take many different kinds of forms, many different kinds of manifestations. It can assume the miles and miles of faceless homogenous buildings at the periphery. It can, it can take the form of gutted and reconfigured insides of large scale housing projects. Its superblocks for floors are seized by brokers and extended families, gangs, religious associations, for all kinds of uses. So in some sense, what you see isn't necessarily what you get, again, this notion of thresholds, of the notion of being able to operate within that within the within the ethos of, of, of configuring deception of doing things on the run, of a futuretivity that's not settled. So a connotation of what things can be used for, that are not necessarily formatted, not necessarily, not necessarily set. So this I take from Fred Moten, which in some sense, is part of this notion of, of the relationship of things being settled and unsettled. And Fred Moten asks is basically what how is it to think without a standpoint, that is, what is it to think without being in some sense of defined position, without being categorised, without being in place without being settled? What does it mean?  What does it mean to operate from that kind of kind of position? What does that have to say then for a reality where more and more urban residents find themselves living in a context of being fundamentally unsettled? I want to explore how we can interpret this notion of inhabiting without settling to experience place through passings through thresholds in the context of African cities,

Dr. Hélène Neveu Kringelbach  03:19

I'm an anthropologist, I've done work on dance and music in urban Senegal, and I now work on marriage migration between Senegal and Europe.

Dr Alana Osbourne  03:29

To do this, I'm speaking with Dr. Helen Neveu Kringlebach who is an associate professor of African Studies at UCL, she was also a respondent to Professor Simone at the 2019 conference panel on black urbanisms. Thank you very much for joining me Dr. Kringlebach. First, I'd like to share the comments you presented at the conference with our listeners, specifically, the excerpt we've chosen is the discussion around your research in Dakar. It struck me that when talking about the Lebou populations of Senegal, and Dakar in particular, you were giving us a really powerful example of how people might renegotiate a history of displacement and unsettlement. Let's hear that clip.

Dr. Hélène Neveu Kringelbach  04:10

So thinking those terms about exclusion, people being pushed to the margins in very real ways, what I've been wondering about is how do people actually in those contexts that I know of, how do they respond to this? And how do they respond to other processes of exclusions from cities? What is the extension of their agency, looking at some of the ways in which people in African cities in particular have responded to displacement and the loss of space over long periods of time perhaps has important things to tell us about resilience, but I was thinking in particular about the way in which people very often go to great lengths and are in very creative ways asserting the memory of past practices in urban spaces which have disappeared, or urban spaces which have been on by populations with no memory of these practices. So an example I was thinking about is the Lebou populations who say they are the original inhabitants of the Cape Verde peninsula on which Dakar is located in West Africa, and who have through a long process of dispossession during the colonial period and then in the post colonial period have lost property and ownership of land. What they do then, is to continue to perform to use performative practices like dance and music, to claim if not actual ownership, or at least spiritual ownership of the city. And people do this through for example, harvest rituals, through spirit possession practices, which are still carried out in key spaces within the cow seven particular spaces which are said to be in the seven original villages and which are said to be particularly important to continue to preserve the spiritual and material well being of the city. They do this in such an effective way, that although this has not perhaps resulted in actual return of, of property, at least it means that politically in Dakar in Senegal, more generally, this population, the Lebou, cannot be ignored, no important decision can be taken regarding the city without actually consulting representatives of that community.

Dr Alana Osbourne  06:53

Were you suggesting here that we might read performative practices, such as the dance or music of the Lebou people in Dakar that you describe as a means of negotiating unsettlement or even to think of blackness as what refuses to disappear?

Dr. Hélène Neveu Kringelbach  07:09

performance ritual is absolutely a way of negotiating and settlement, because the power to perform in order to protect a space and to ensure that it continues to be healthy, and to protect its vitality over the long run, that power then can be translated into political power. That is very much the case in Dakar, there are Lebou traditional authorities which form part of the governance of the city. And every time important decisions are taken about redeveloping some parts of the city, for example, or building a bridge or building roads, that cannot be done without consulting the label and without their, their their concept. And that I think fits very well with this multiplicity of strategies, which Professor Simone is talking about. People continue to regard the Lebou as the guardians of the land. And I think the way they've done this has been by continuing to perform particular rituals in specific places in the city, as a way of asserting their ownership, if not in practice, if not materially, at least, in spiritual ways. And there's something very powerful in that. I've been very inspired by the work of Carola Lentz, for example, who's worked in northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso and who has shown that there is a lot to be said for revising ideas about pre-colonial, communal land ownership in Africa. She says that the idea that somehow land ownership did not exist formerly, or that it was exclusively communal, needs to be revised in the light of other ideas about ownership, having the rights to perform certain rituals in order to preserve the lands, sustainability, that also was a very valued form of ownership. And I do think there is historical continuity in these ideas that really forced us to rethink what land ownership is about. And I think they could also inform a rethink of ownership in Europe in other parts of the world. Because perhaps in other parts of the world, there is also this idea that ownership isn't just a question of having the papers to a piece of land but that it might also be a question of having a more invisible power to ensure sustainability of that land in the longer term.

Dr Alana Osbourne  10:18

Rethinking land ownership in this way really connects to how we've been exploring Professor Simone's notion of the hallucination of whiteness, or this illusion of formal settlement. Are creative practices then what Simone sees emerging through the cracks? And how does this fit into what you've observed in Dakar?

Dr. Hélène Neveu Kringelbach  10:37

I think the the way in which Professor Simone describes how people creatively use the margins to keep living, fits very well with what I've seen in Dakar. And in fact, I see his use of the term blackness more as a metaphor. There are commonalities in ways in the ways people have used different strategies to live at the margins. And I, to me, this is what this metaphor does, it signals that there are commonalities everywhere. But that is not the only perspective. And I think that in, in, in many African cities, where people have been dispossessed, have been unsettled, but continue to find ways of asserting their rights in in other ways, from their perspective they're not actually, at the margins when they engage in those practices. I don't think Lebou people would see themselves as being reduced to emerge through the cracks. I think that on the contrary, they believe, quite rightly I think, that they are the ones who sustain the identity of Dakar as a coherent place. And there's a sense in which they're the ones who prevent this space from descending into complete chaos. So even though materially they're no longer at the centre of ownership, I think that in other ways, the Lebou see themselves very much as central to what makes Dakar what it is, and to the place's sustainability.

Dr Alana Osbourne  12:29

I really like how you reposition the margins, or the practices Professor Simone identifies as emerging through the cracks, as the glue that holds urban space together. In that way, spaces that have been theorised as the margins or even the periphery are actually central to the city. Tying this back to blackness would mean that blackness then in all of its declinations is essential to any urban formation. That seems like a really vital point to make about cities. Thank you so much for sharing your research and ideas with us. I now turn to the work of Victoria Okoye, who's a PhD candidate within the School of Architecture and Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. At the UCL conference, Victoria presented in a session entitled 'Urban Studies starting in Africa, land and urban conflict'. In her presentation, she described the aim of her ongoing research as an attempt to theorise young people's embodied experiences of public space, and everyday power relations in Accra, Ghana, through black critical thought. Here's the selected clip from that section.

Victoria Okoye  13:44

Good afternoon, my presentation today shares reflections from ongoing collaborative research with Spreadout Initiative, which is an NGO based in the Nima neighbourhood of Accra in Ghana, so I tried to draw connections between young people's everyday experiences as they describe them, collaborative reflections with SOI's  team members, and critical black theorists work to contextualise spatial transformation in Nima, as enacted through everyday space making practices. And this is to begin to theorise how a particular group of young people move, make place and imagine in constrained spatial conditions. So through images, photos, and text, these young people describe their fears of navigating these remaining community spaces. So the threats and memories of kidnappings, thefts, fights, sexual harassment and other violences in the lungus. The vendor-appropriated sidewalk pavements that push them into the streets on their walks to school; their trepidations around using the streets for fear of being hit by motorbikes or even other vehicles. So these young people critique their environment and also use everyday knowledge and resourcefulness to initiate their own makeshift solutions. They imagine an act in ways unintended and unforeseen by government planners and designers or other dominant forces. And we connect these in turn to the numerous ways that black peoples in various contexts are continually navigating built-in social structures that would mark them as out of place. SOI members articulate this imagining and acting otherwise as magic, the human mental creativity and the operation of agency in order to make things happen, not necessarily to physically change one's environment, but to bring about a change of one's experience within that environment.

Dr Alana Osbourne  15:19

I love this notion of imagining and acting otherwise as being a form of magic. I think it also speaks to Lioba's work on black encounters as offering space for imagination. And Hélene's work on what performative practices operate, what they enable. Going back to Professor Simone's notion of blackness as a form of sociality, I think that Helen and Victoria's work reveals that this is first and foremost a creative way of dealing with urban changes, insecurities and unsettlement. In that sense, blackness is a vibrant and fundamental dimension of urban life. This has been Episode Three of the UCL Urban Laboratory podcast. In the next episode, 'Black urbanisms and theorising from Africa'. 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 Labor