Book review: Native Space

I got this book because I saw Natchee Blu Barnd speak at the AAG in 2019 and was really interested in his work. I’m trying to read more about settler colonialism and geography, in part because of a course I’m teaching on U.S. regional geography, but also because I’m trying to read more by indigenous geographers. Given the full title–Native Space: Geographic Strategies to Unsettle Settler Colonialism–I thought it would be about strategies within the discipline of geography. Instead, it was about the geographic strategies that indigenous people use to resist, which was just as interesting.

From Oregon State University Press

I love geography studies that focus on the mundane, taken-for-granted aspects of life that nevertheless have a strong place/space component. In this case, that includes street signs, license plates, and hometown parades. Brand’s detailed analysis of the communities across the U.S. with Native American-themed street names, both in and outside of reservation spaces, does a nice job of showing the value of looking at something so quotidian with a fine parsing of meaning and implications. There’s also an interesting chapter on Satanta, KS, and the descendants of Set-Tainte, for whom the town is named, that gets at some of the complexities of a White town trying to honor Native Americans while the Kiowa people try to honor their ancestor.

Brand then switches to looking at indigenous artists who use maps and other geographical elements in their work, first in a chapter on prints and paintings, and then in a chapter in installation art. I was glad to see Edgar Heap of Birds discussed here, because he had an installation on my campus in Urbana-Champaign for a while that was incredibly thought-provoking (see below). One of the things I’m learning from reading more books influenced by Ethnic Studies (Genevieve Carpio’s Collision at the Crossroads, Eric Avila’s The Folklore of the Freeway) is the importance of considering artists’ work alongside what social scientists might consider as more traditional academic subject matter.

I really enjoyed this book. I would definitely consider using it in my undergrad class because it’s a perfect combination of how we can look at seemingly minor aspects of the landscape like street signs–something students can do no matter where they are–and then use those elements of the landscape to understand how settler colonialism is an ongoing process that can still be “unsettled” and resisted. At the same time, and most valuable from a theoretical perspective, Brand illustrates in a number of ways how White and Native spaces overlap each other on the same territory, and that this overlap itself is a different kind of spatiality: “Contemporary Native space continues to defy the spatial absoluteness, certainty, and singularity that colonization intends to generate. Native space maintains layered geographies, and provides for coexisting partialities” (p. 97). Getting students to understand these simultaneous ways of seeing space would be a worthy goal in and of itself.

Book review: Patterns in Circulation

So I bought Nina Sylvanus’s Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa because I’m a quilter and am interested in fabric. I know very little about West Africa and its position in global circuits of trade, or about the wax cloth representative of this region. But man, was this book interesting. It was so well put-together in terms of separate topics in separate chapters that all tie in to a main theme, and in attending to both global capital and local culture, nationalism and livelihoods, symbolic meaning and (literally) materiality, individual women’s stories and anthropological theory. I would definitely recommend it if you’re interested in gender and development, post-colonial Africa, and/or cultural economic geography.

Part of why this book is so rich is that it’s based on over thirty months of fieldwork spread out over a decade. That’s what enables Sylvanus to get at the multiple meanings of pagne, the wax-dyed cloth that is so important economically, socially, and culturally in Togo and other parts of West Africa. On the one hand, she’s taking a commodity and tracing it through its colonial origins in the Dutch East Indies, its postcolonial role in connecting female traders to Togo’s dictator, and the post-postcolonial neoliberal regime that creates new entrepreneurial subjects focused on making individual connections to Chinese factories. In the process, Sylvanus argues that West Africa has been “global” for centuries, and not only as a site of resource extraction: Dutch clothmakers had to learn to pay attention to the styles and preferences of African consumers in order to produce a successful product.

Si tu sors, je sors (if you go out, I go out), is worn to indicate to your spouse that you know he’s been seeing someone on the side, and so now you have license to do the same.

At the same time, this book is an anthropological study of the different patterns of pagne in terms of how the designs communicate meaning to others (see above). There’s also the matter of how women wear this cloth to public events in deliberately performative ways to evoke status, ambition, and identity. The pattern, how the clothing is shaped, and how it’s accessorized are all key. More recently, knockoff versions of traditional clothing create a whole new level of complexity, as bystanders evaluate not just the pattern, but how high quality an imitation it is. It’s not just a matter of sight: it’s also how the cloth feels on the skin and drapes on the body, something that has to be personally experienced.

This design I found on Pinterest is a good example of the skilled tailoring required to use the pattern of the pagne in just the right way, centering the starburst design so that it also expands into the double-ruffled shoulders.

The last chapter talks about China-in-Africa, contrasting the literature on neo-colonialism and paternalistic Western concerns about infrastructure investment with a ground-up view as to how Togolese women are themselves drawing Chinese investment into Africa. In particular, they are making regular journeys to Guangzhou and Yiwu to supervise their own textile production, as structural adjustment and currency devaluation have made Dutch fabrics too expensive, and WTO agreements have decimated African textile production. At the same time, the Togolese government is under pressure to develop the center of Lomé in a fashion more conducive to international investment than the traditional cloth market that has been a fundamental part of the country’s identity, threatening the livelihood of these women on another front.

Overall, Sylvanus does an excellent job of bringing together multiple scales and registers of analysis. I learned a lot about cloth as an aspect of West Africa that doesn’t get much attention in the literature–perhaps because it is economically and culturally dominated by women, and I would definitely recommend it.

Book Review: Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City

Katherine McKittrick famously wrote that “Black matters are spatial matters” in Demonic Grounds, and Brandi Summers demonstrates that in two interconnected ways in Black in Place: how blackness is employed in placemaking while Black bodies are removed from that same place. These simultaneous processes drive the production of space in the process of gentrifying H Street in Washington, DC. I really enjoyed this book and got a lot out it; I would highly recommend it for urban scholars of any background.

Black in Place | Brandi Thompson Summers | University of North ...
University of North Carolina Press.

Summers’s book was an interesting companion to David Wilson’s book on Chicago that I read earlier this year. Wilson looked at blues clubs and the tension between their role as community centers and their growing importance as tourist attractions, with gentrification looming on the horizon. Summers addresses a very similar concept in the case of H Street, but she develops an analytical tool to understand it: black aesthetic emplacement. Redeveloping H Street means keeping just enough of its African American heritage visible to make it “cool” and “diverse” and a little bit edgy, while brushing aside the lived history and current inhabitants of this place. She points out the importance of “authenticity” and notes that it’s usually attached to things and experiences, but not people. So a neighborhood is “authentic” if its built environment evokes a certain kind of past, or if newcomers can eat certain ethnic foods, but interacting with the people who produced that built environment is not important.

Black aesthetic emplacement for Summers functions as a kind of diversity indicator, because diversity itself is an aesthetic. Diversity is on the surface, appearing to take in all comers in a harmonious whole, but it ignores the histories and social processes underlying the presence of different groups and what they’re allowed to do in that space. On H Street, Summers argues that Irish and Jewish pasts were unearthed and put on display to demonstrate that this had not always been a Black neighborhood, but that African Americans were just one of many groups who had lived here over the years. That makes it okay for white gentrifiers to move in as just the latest group to inhabit an ever-changing, always-diverse space.

The flip side of black aesthetic emplacement is Black displacement. Actual Black people don’t drive up property values and increase the coolness factor the same way that a black aesthetic does. So as H Street has been redeveloped for white suburbanites to move back into the city, that process has pushed out existing residents not just through higher rents, but through the elimination of the businesses that had managed to remain through decades of disinvestment. Summers shows how city programs to develop small businesses explicitly exclude Black-owned businesses like hair salons and convenience stores in favor of “innovative” shops like Pilates studios and dog boutiques. Unlike my vague, passive voice above about “being redeveloped,” Summers therefore identifies the specific mechanisms by which commercial gentrification occurs.

What I was most interested in, of course, was the relationship to mobility. While the H Street streetcar isn’t a main focus of the book, Summers does discuss the ways in which formal and informal surveillance work to police Black mobilities along H Street. “Diversity” still benefits from the presence of some Black people, but not too many, and only if they’re in motion on the bus rather than socializing on the sidewalk. This comes back around to the aesthetics argument in my favorite line from the book: “Urban should not look suburban but can feel suburban in its visual representation of safety” (p. 116). As a white child of the suburbs who grew up afraid of cities and who acknowledges that even today, I’m only comfortable in some kinds of urban neighborhoods, this really hit home. Actually, the whole book made me think a lot about my past and present relationship to cities, above and beyond its excellent critique of specific elements of gentrification and placemaking.

Below is a scan of my mind map of the book, if that might be of interest. I try to do this for most books that I read, either chapter by chapter or for the whole book. (The line down the middle is just the center of the hand-bound book.)

Book review: The Heartland: An American History

I’ve been trying to start my new book project on the Kankakee-Des Plaines confluence, and when I was telling someone on campus about it, they asked if I’d read this book. My description of my project as being about the different layers of transportation and flow that have swept through this one particular Midwestern place made them think of Hoganson’s book on how the Midwest has always been global. Finally, I sat down to read it. The Heartland: An American History eBook: Hoganson ...

Kristin Hoganson is a history professor on our campus, and her main argument is that the “Heartland” myth of an interior, protected space within the North American continent that is isolated and unchanging belies that this has long been a lively, vibrant space intertwined with the wider world in many important ways. She notes that the “Heartland” moniker only came about during WWII, even though it relies on an understanding of this place as timeless and central to U.S. identity. She argues that it has actually been a dual borderland, both between east and west as the frontier of white settlement, and between north and south due to agricultural flows between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada.

I learned a lot about the place where I live from this book, because Hoganson bases her work on Champaign-Urbana. For example, I had no idea that this used to be a major center for raising cattle and hogs; we think of the corn-and-soybean landscape as having always been here, but in the late 1800s, cows and pigs were driven here from points further south and then fattened before final delivery to the stockyards, thanks to the Illinois Central. Beyond agriculture, the chapter on airspace discusses “flyover country,” wired and wireless communications, weather forecasting, early attempts to understand the ecology of birds, and early aviation and the development of Chanute Air Force Base.

I also had no idea that many of the Kickapoo people (some of the original inhabitants of this land) went to Mexico and their descendants remain there today. This was the best chapter of the book as far as I was concerned, arguing that “In affixing security to this particular place, the heartland myth has attached it to particular people, at the cost of detaching it from others.” The tension between the mobile lifestyle of the Kickapoo and the settled lifestyle of the settlers is well-known, especially in terms of its implication for the land, but Hoganson takes it farther by discussing the multiple times the Kickapoo were displaced, including across the Mexican border.

One reason for this specific choice of place, of course, is the ease of conducting research when you live near the archives you need. Hogan argues that since “no single place in the heartland could serve as a microcosm for such a vast and variegated whole,” “Champaign seems as good a starting point as any” (p. xxv). And the book is definitely based on this singular place, though it expands outwards as needed to incorporate Champaign County or east-central Illinois as a whole.

However…I’m not convinced. True, other cities in central Illinois are atypical in their own ways: Springfield as the state capital, Decatur as the headquarters (until recently) of ADM, Bloomington-Normal as the headquarters of State Farm Insurance, etc. But to use a city with a major research university to argue that it’s surprising how global this place actually is concerns me. And then, Hoganson undermines her entire argument about how the heartland isn’t that insular and isolated with the story of an international student who arrived on campus from India in 1906 and said, “The general outlook of the students…was extremely narrow and parochial in this Middle West University. There was nothing of the freedom of mind and spirit of adventure which is generally associated with Universities” (p. 186-7).

Now, Hoganson argues that this does not mean the heartland was isolated, since there was all of this international contact taking place. But it brings to mind life in 2020 in Champaign, where increasing numbers of international students moving to town mean we have more bubble tea shops and international grocery stores, but also suspicious locals complaining about foreign drivers and writing into the local paper about the need to test Chinese students for COVID-19. We are globally-connected here, but those very connections are seen as a threat by people who have a few generations’ history on this land. Hoganson addresses this to some extent when she discusses how hogs were prized for their origin if they were from Britain, but not if they were from Mexico. But I would argue that a place which comes into contact with distant places without really engaging with them, is, in fact, a place that is isolated and inward-looking.

At any rate, the book is very readable and provides an interesting model for the same kind of broad-ranging study on a specific place that I want to do myself, including the “archival traces” at the end of each chapter that highlight key quotations from the archives to illustrate points in the chapter. The writing style is straightforward and non-jargony (it’s from Penguin, after all), and there’s a ton of illustrations. I would get into more detail about the notion of “place” and the relationship to transportation and mobility, but then, I’m a geographer and not a historian!

Book Review: Chicago’s Redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs

I have a goal for myself of reading one academic book a month outside of my regular research. It’s more challenging than I would have thought to find the time to just read one chapter here and there, but it’s good to know what’s going on in the world of geography.

This month, I read David Wilson’s Chicago’s Redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs. Let me say first that I highly recommend reading the work of people in your own department: you can just hear them saying the words that are on the page, and you also get to know them better through their writing.

Image result for redevelopment Machine and Blues Clubs"

I’ve written my own book about Chicago, and I always love reading others’ takes on one of the most well-studied cities in the world. Wilson’s perspective is from a part of the city that academics don’t often see: the residents of the South Side and their participation in urban life through the blues clubs for which the city is famous. These clubs are under threat, however, from the “redevelopment machine” and the ways in which it draws on those clubs as authentic local culture while bringing in the forces of gentrification to eventually tear them down or commodify them into an “authentic” experience for outsiders rather than a vital community resource.

I really enjoyed the chapters that put forth an ethnography of blues clubs, because they clearly showed the internal trade-offs and the push-pull nature of gentrification at the level of the establishment. Club owners try to bring in different kinds of music or more expensive drinks to attract a more upscale clientele. Club patrons recognize this as a business strategy, but they also resent and sometimes push back against the perception that this place that’s so important to them is trying to change. One of Wilson’s main contributions with this book is to illustrate how gentrification operates through commercial establishments, not just changes in housing stock, and I think it’s worth reading for that alone.

When David was doing the ethnographic work for this book, I remember him telling me about making the two-hour-plus drive home to Urbana from these clubs very, very late at night, not to mention the time it took to just hang out in order to gain the trust of the people he was studying. Judging from the book, I would say it was worth it!