UCL Urban Laboratory


Transcript: Blackness and the Urban


urban, blackness, black, frictions, ucl, urbanisms, ferry ride, realities, whiteness, movements, complex


Prof. AbdouMaliq Simone, Dr Alana Osbourne

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  0:00  
What is blackness in its multivalent, ambiguous all over the place connotations. What kinds of questions might this raise for our assumptions about what urban knowledge is?

Dr Alana Osbourne  0:18  
That's Professor AbdouMaliq Simone, senior professoral fellow at the University of Sheffield, opening his talk on blackness and the urban. In November 2019. The UCL Urban Laboratory organised the conference entitled "At the frontiers of the urban thinking concepts and practices globally." The event accommodated a series of talks and panels and there was a particular session entitled Black Urbanisms, which seems like a must go to the session was chaired by Kamna Patel, Vice Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the UCL Bartlett Facutly of the Built Environment. And it featured a fascinating talk by Professor Simone. Alongside the list of speakers, the title of the session grabbed my attention. As Kamna explained on the day,

Dr Kamna Patel  1:05  
this is session B two on Black Urbanism. With an S, please remember the S it's important, it does a lot of work. If you are not in the right session, then please still stay because this is going to be a fantastic session that I think will enliven all of us and our scholarship.

Dr Alana Osbourne  1:23  
I'm Dr Alana Osbourne, and I'm a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at the Free University in Brussels. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to the Black Urbanism session. But the title of the panel resonated with questions that animates my own research on affect race and the urban in both Caribbean and European contexts. I was drawn to the 's' and Black Urbanisms because of the promise of a diverse and varied foray into blackness and the urban. So for those of you who, like me, were unable to hear the session firsthand, or for those who'd like to revisit some of the conversations sparked by the session. This UCL Urban Laboratory podcast will explore the concept of black urbanisms, with the help of academics who bring a range of perspectives to the subject. In this series, we'll be discussing the work of Professor AbdouMaliq Simone, and exploring what his understanding of the term blackness can offer us when used in conjunction with the urban. First, 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 just ensure clarity for who is being referenced, we will be using AbdouMaliq Simone across the series. There are lots of different ways to think about black urbanisms. But in this podcast, we'll be delving into Simone's perspective on the concept. We'll revisit excerpts of his presentation on blackness and the urban with the aim of interpreting some of his insights and transposing them to urban research in various cities. What we aim to do here might best be encapsulated by a question posed by a member of the audience at the conference,

Member of audience  3:14  
fascinating and tantalising you know, speech and writing is visual, but always have a problem when it comes to application of those ideas. What is the utility of this black, black urbanism? What is it that it can explain or cannot explain?

Dr Alana Osbourne  3:36  
In an attempt to answer this question, I'll be joined by several scholars who presented during the conference. I'll also engage with the work of other researchers who were respondents and professors in one session. Together will listen to passages of Simone's talk and reflect on how they connect to our own research. The idea here is to unpack some of the terms and concepts which he offers and reflect on the ways we might use them. The conference sessions and this podcast are funded by the UCL Urban Laboratory, a European Research Council grant based in UCL Geography entitled Making Africa Urban, and by The Bartlett Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Fund. Most of the insights and interesting points made here are Professor Simone's, as well as our guests, any admissions are mine. This podcast series will use excerpts from talks presented at the conference. You can find the full versions on the UCL Urban Laboratory SoundCloud account, the website address is www.soundcloud.com. forward slash UCL Urban Lab. It's a really beautiful talk, and I hope this slightly shortened version will prompt you to listen to the entire thing. First, let's hear the opening of Professor Simone's talk.

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  4:44  
In some sense, there are everywhere in every kind of urban context, these stark contiguity is between very discordant kinds of realities discord and social realities economic realities, realities in the built environment within the same ambit within the same kind of administrative context. And, and these kinds of stark contiguity these seem to disrupt clear trajectories about where where cities are going. That is, in some sense, the kind of linear notion of a developmentalist trajectory seems to be upended by the fact that within almost every urban context, there are these kinds of contiguities amongst the amongst the discordant and, and, and increasingly, the capacity for urban context to contain things that seemingly don't go together seem to resist all kinds of relations and how they become situated with each other. That is, increasingly the that racialisation gets re invoked as the kind of mode through which these kinds of relationships can be elaborated. That is, in some sense to enforce particular kinds of relationships amongst these discordant realities. Oftentimes reverts to a kind of language of racialisation as a way in which to define and to ascribe how these kinds of realities are, are in the in the same bus with with with with each other.

Dr Alana Osbourne  6:28  
Professor Simone points out that there are many discordances and dissonances that exist within urban contexts. And it is those differences and anomalies that have become a common denominator for how we view the idea of urban space across both historical and geographical landscapes. He also explains how racialisation is almost a shorthand that's used to describe how all these differences can coexist in the same space.

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  6:55  
One can look all around the world, all kinds of urban contexts with various histories of urbanisation and fold some kind of designation of the black of the black city. So I mean, within within within Indonesia, within the Philippines within Latin America within context that we don't usually wouldn't usually assume as being black. Still within local vernaculars, there is a kind of invocation of blackness as a way in which to point out particular kinds of differential relationships of things that are happening within the same overarching municipal and urban space.

Dr Alana Osbourne  7:38  
Observing that blackness is used throughout temporal and geographical locations as a reference to certain urban relationships and juxtapositions of process rather than to race per se, Professor Simone probes what blackness wields, and I'm quoting him, as "atmosphere apparatus conundrum aspiration ontology." Here, blackness is much more than gesture to what the urban is, or how it is practised by and for people of colour. Of course, this way of using the term goes against much of the political parlance of today, where blackness is used to refer to racialised bodies. But as Simone explains,

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  8:17  
Black urbanism, in some sense, that does not deal with racialisation per se, or the situation's of black person's institutions writ large across the world. That is, if we simply see black urbanism as having something to do with the kinds of social and economic and political and historical realities of particular black people ensconced within particular kinds of contexts. We also miss something fundamental about the what black urbanism is or could be, it's it's not that it's not about those things. But if we simply attribute black urban ism to an account of the kinds of race specific empirical realities and historical realities, then I think that somehow there's something then missing about what then the notion of black urbanism is and could be, rather addressing the fundamental incompleteness of the urbanisation process itself. So that there's something about the extensivity of urbanisation processes, that remains incomplete when we simply attempt to account for it through a kind of invocation of a kind of structural process of urbanisation per se, like extended or planetary urbanisation or if we simply re defined it as particular kinds of modes of imperialism or modes of subjugation, or settlement or conquest. It is those things, but there's something else in some sense besides the operation of these particular kinds of empirics which black urban ism point to In terms of the incompleteness of whatever language, whatever kind of account we presently make so far.

Dr Alana Osbourne  10:09  
In the midst of today's racial politics, Professor Simone invites us to stretch the term "black" beyond its everyday uses. I'm drawn to this idea, drawn to seeing what the term can offer when users more than a descriptive category to refer to a racialised group. This invitation to rethink the category of blackness, at least when put in relation with urban processes, reminds me of the work of several radical Caribbean scholars. In my work, these scholars have pushed me to unsettle the labels we often use to describe and classify people. Of course, we can't dismiss the tense and urgent racial politics of today. But maybe we can stretch the word blackness so that when paired with the word urban, it begins to make room for bodies and ways of being in the city that don't neatly sit within the black and white binaries that we often use. While I like this idea, an important question remains. What is blackness about if it's not about racialisation, per se?

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  11:03  
It's about the abolition of the normative architectures of thresholds. It's about the abolition of those architectures that define who can go where, when, and under what circumstances and who can circulate and how.

Dr Alana Osbourne  11:18  
Then blackness, as Professor Simone suggests, points to the absences, frictions and arrhythmia of city life that we often overlook. He seems to be saying that it's about the urban borders that we must navigate, the movement from public to private spheres, from allowed to forbidden places, and from homebound to precarious shelter. All these complex movements we make in the city that require the crossing of thresholds.

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  11:44  
And so thresholds are always beliefs, their frames are always tentative, it's a matter of trying to frame others and avoid being framed. I mean, in order for us to pass and we're always attempting to pass, we're always trying to go from one place to another place, it always requires a sense of a kind of deception to come off looking as if we're eligible or we're able to go from one context to another without trying to cause many different kinds of alarms. The notion of going from one place to another is not is not seamless, it's not without question, you know, to pass is never one of simply flute fluidity.

Dr Alana Osbourne  12:25  
For me, this evokes the process of passing through airport security. It's a crossing of thresholds, in this case, entering a national territory, which can be complex for some of us, or even the fear I sometimes experience in public spaces. Think of museum for example, where I'm worried about being framed in a certain way, hoping I look like I belong, or that I'm inconspicuous enough to go unnoticed. If on the one hand, blackness draws attention to the friction-filled crossings of people as they move through the city, then whiteness, on the other hand, seems to do a different kind of work. For Professor Simone, it creates a deceptive hallucination.

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  13:03  
That is, you know, urban life is always about who can do what with whom, under what circumstances, when, and how. The hallucination of whiteness, in some ways is the possibility that these questions can be settled. And rather, what black urbanism points to is the fundamental incompleteness always the need to continue to ask these questions as what as one goes along. So whiteness is somehow is the claim to circumvent deception, that the claim of whiteness is that there's an apparent infrastructure of seamlessness of easy passage of friction free development that's been as critical to the white life imaginaire that is, the white imaginary is, in some sense, the illusion of a subject that somehow is endlessly transparent, and free from the need to deceive and to be deceived is this is the illusion that is the hallucination that one passes through different points of life simply because one is transparent in who and who one is. But urban life in particularly is replete with frictions and a density of manoeuvres that generate emergent conditions.

Dr Alana Osbourne  14:15  
Just as blackness is about something other than being black, Professor Simone's use of whiteness doesn't refer to white people in a restrictive sense. I think it gestures more to the way that privilege and related to notions of property and security operates in the city. Professor Simone is interested in the frictions and the embrace of movements, that many experience in urban space, as opposed to the dominant idea that movements are fluid and that everyone can go everywhere. And he's interested in these frictions, because rather than seeing them as bleak and difficult, which they can be, he wants us to focus on the generative capacity that they hold. For him, it's precisely in the working out of these complex urban movements that sociality emerges. Sociality being the degree to which individuals associate in groups and form societies. And he uses the illustration of a passing of thresholds that takes the form of a ferry ride. The gathering of unsettled people during this ferry ride is pregnant with opportunities for certain kinds of sociality 

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  15:18  
May switch to Eastern Indonesia. So switch to a 28-hour ferry ride between Ambon and Sorong in West Papua Indonesia's Far East, it's black world. A ferry with hundreds of young passengers on their way to some plantation, some mining rig scheme, backroom night market. Most of these kids are set loose from any available source of anchorage, lost lands dissolve clans collapse kinships.

What rooted them what anchored them is no longer available as a kind of explanatory framework, let alone a kind of place in which to to endure. And all these fairies there's a wide spectrum of backgrounds and ethnicities and self assumptions that collide in close quarters fueled by heavily sugared coffee and little sleep.

It's these interactions on these long ferry rides of 28, 35 hours are fraught with a certain kind of racial anxiety. That is it everything is prefaced amongst kids with each other about who am I to you? And who are you to me, I mean, who are we in relationship to each other, who's more Indonesian or not? Of who is more proximate to valid claims of opportunity and worthiness and these anxieties are thick. Yet, even amidst these kinds of racial anxieties, because that constant figuring out of how to cross through each other's lives, how to mobilise everyone's presence for some improbable project. And oftentimes, these projects are really improbable. I mean, long hours are spent in putting together a kind of collective thing that, you know, people are convinced will make them a fortune, or make them at least enough money get through a month, nine times out of 10, these projects fall through within a month, but it doesn't, it doesn't preclude the participants have continuing to try and piece something together with each other. So it's a story in the making and remaking for most have really no real destination in mind and have no way no place to return to. And for the time being, everything is unsettled.

Dr Alana Osbourne  17:45  
So blackness for Professor Simone isn't just about race. Of course, it points to the ways in which racialised bodies inhabit the urban to the ways in which they've been historically pushed to the margins and coerced into certain spaces, as well as to the complex crossings of thresholds that they navigate. But blackness above all else, points to the productive, generative and creative moments of sociality that emerge when people are brought together through displacement and settlement and precarious movements in the city. Blackness as a concept enables us to see the ferry crossing as laden with possibilities with new makings filled with promises of easier passage. I like that stretching the term blackness enables us to see beyond the struggles and strife of city life or black bodies. It allows us to focus on the creative, positive and resourceful strategies that people draw upon to navigate the urban. People in bodies rarely fit neatly into the boxes used to organise and categorise them, and identities are always complex and layered. So broadening blackness might be a way to make room for this. To me, this is important because while I'm still working through Professor Simone's proposition, thinking about it helps me define the grounds on which my activism can take place, and resonates with my conviction that to work towards a more just future, we need to be as inclusive as possible. As I mentioned earlier, I've only been commenting on selected excerpts of professors amongst talk, the full version is available to listen to at www.soundcloud.com forward slash UCL urban lab. This has been Episode One of the UCL Urban Laboratory podcast. On the next episode, black urban isms meet the black city. This podcast was presented by myself, Dr. Alana Osbourne from the Free University in Brussels. Claire 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.