Paying Homage to Black Space in Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”

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Like every black woman in the United States, I sprinted to buy Michelle Obama’s Becoming when it was released in late 2018. For a quick second, I thought about buying an electronic copy, but as soon as I saw my forever first lady’s beautiful smile and flowy hair in front of an angelic blue background, I knew I needed my very own hard copy. In 2016, I wrote a piece titled “Once Upon a Time, Our FLOTUS was Black” which paid homage to Michele Obama and all she represented as the first black First Lady of the United States, so when I began reading “Becoming” I felt overwhelming excitement that I was being brought into her world and getting to get to know her on a more personal level (because of course, she’s my best friend in my head!).

 Nothing surprised me about the way the book was written or Michelle’s honesty about her life because even throughout her family’s presidency, she always had a vibe of authenticity and connectedness that made her so relatable.  

 As an urban planner, one of the things I appreciated most about Becoming was Michelle’s description of black spaces through her life – in her childhood home in Chicago, at Princeton where she reflected on finding her tribe, and even in the White House where her family worked hard to create and be in community with other people of color despite navigating their predominately white environment. I decided to go back to the text and pull out the accounts that stood out to me the most so here are a few.

Michelle obama’s childhood home. southside, chicago.https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/celebrity-homes/g4121/first-ladies-childhood-homes/?slide=3

Michelle obama’s childhood home. southside, chicago.https://www.housebeautiful.com/design-inspiration/celebrity-homes/g4121/first-ladies-childhood-homes/?slide=3

1. Aunt Robbie’s House – Michelle grew up in a house in Southside, Chicago where she lived with her mother, father, brother, great aunt, Terry, and Terry’s husband. She and her family rented the second floor of the house, while Terry and her husband lived on the first. As Michelle describes her multigenerational upbringing, I am reminded of how common this story is within the black community. Historically, we have opened the doors of our homes to those outside of our nuclear family, carving out small rooms and even floors for our relatives, and sometimes outsiders, to reside. I think back to my own experience in New York City, where my mom, brother and I lived with my aunt Mildred who had migrated from the South in her 20s to live in New York City. As Michelle talks about great aunt Terry, we get the sense that she was a stern and curt woman, but we also learn how growing up during Jim Crow impacted her life, how she “carried around an unseen history” (p.7).  The beauty of great aunt Terry’s home is that it reminds us of the complex memories and lived experiences of black folk living under one roof.

the Carl A. Field’s Center for Equality and Cultural understandinghttps://www.archdaily.com/140245/princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects/50148dcc28ba0d395000051d-princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects-photo

the Carl A. Field’s Center for Equality and Cultural understandinghttps://www.archdaily.com/140245/princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects/50148dcc28ba0d395000051d-princeton-university-carl-a-fields-center-ann-beha-architects-photo

2. Princeton’s Third World Center (TWC).  Renamed the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding in 2002, TWC was homeplace for many of Princeton’s students of color, including Michelle Obama. During a time where black students represented only 9% of Michelle’s freshman class, she found community with other students of color in this space. These types of spaces matter, especially at historically white institutions where students of color are often expected and sometimes even required to adjust to and navigate spaces that were created to exclude them. Recently, Dr. Eric Grollman, a sociology professor at The University of Richmond wrote a piece about the toxic culture of cisgender, heteronormative white supremacy at the University of Richmond (I know. Heavy stuff, but a good one). In it he writes, “campus buildings are overwhelmingly named in honor of white men donors and former university presidents. Worse, some of these men are known for their active resistance to equality”(The Collegian). Even growing up in Southside Chicago, Michelle was used to way more diversity than Princeton offered. Like many people of color who endure TWI’s, our survival literally depends on having access to spaces where we feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, some universities don’t even offer full lodging for students of color to access this, but Michelle describes how this space became a safe haven for students.

black kids at play in chicago. 1950s. https://mymodernmet.com/southside-chicago-great-migration/

black kids at play in chicago. 1950s. https://mymodernmet.com/southside-chicago-great-migration/

3. South Side Chicago. Michelle has always claimed her Southside roots. She describes how during her time at Princeton when asked where she was from, she’d always say Chicago, and add South Side with great pride. She recognized that this probably evoked images of crime, destitution, and poverty in the minds of her wealthy Princeton peers, but she didn’t feel ashamed of where she was from.  “Southside,” she writes, “was something entirely different from what got shown on tv…home was my past, connected by gossamer threads to where I am now” (p. 85).  Even today, whenever someone asks me where I am from, I say Manhattan and am always sure to add Harlem, “the upper Westside,” to be exact.  These urban spaces, although portrayed as poverty stricken neighborhoods in the media, are home to extraordinarily black folks. They represent our roots, our pride, and places that reflect our identity and resilience. No matter how far removed we are from them, when we claim our spaces, we remind people that, “yes, even the First Lady can come from the Southside of Chicago.”

I’d share more, but I don’t want to tell you everything. If you are interested in learning about how Michelle Obama pays homage to black space in her text, I definitely recommend reading Becoming. And if you didn’t pay attention to the ways she reminds us of exactly who she is and where she’s from, read it again. It’s worth it.

 

 

Celebrating Our Spaces: A Recap of University of Richmond's Connecting Womxn of Color Conference

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The prompt was simple: If there was a mural or a piece of art created about you, that told your story, what would it look like?

As urban planners, we have the power to radically shape the built environment. In graduate school, I was often told that urban planners build in concrete, so when we are making decisions about what what should go where, we must be aware of the things that cannot be undone. Unfortunately, the planning profession has a long history of development with harsh repercussions for neighborhoods and communities, and it is no surprise that black, brown and working class people have typically been most negatively impacted by this development.

Last month I had the opportunity to lead a workshop at the University of Richmond’s 10th annual Connecting Womxn of Color Conference. This year’s theme was CELEBRAT10N,  in honor of the last decade of womxn of color on campus and in celebration of the magic and beauty that is us.

In prepping for the workshop, I knew I wanted it to be a tactile experience for the attendees, something that required us to collectively create a piece of work we felt reflected who we were as women of color in our communities, something we’d want to see as we walked down the streets of Richmond and how we’d want our experiences and stories to be reflected.

Fortunately, when I enter my office each morning, I get to see the mural of Angela Patton, founder and CEO of Girls For a Change, but this is not often the case when I choose to wander the roads of my neighborhood in the West End, and sometimes not the case when I am in the City of Richmond, so I was excited to lead a visioning session where we as women of color could converse and create while imagining spaces for ourselves.

I began the session by telling my story. Born and raised in Harlem, NY on 143rd between 7th and Lenox. I say this with great pride because my block was one where I felt safe, a sense of belonging and a part of an extended family. At any given time, I’d leave my building and be met by folks hanging on the stoop, girls jumping double dutch between the fire hydrants, kids running through the water that flowed from it, or boys playing cee-lo in the corner. I mean, I could speculate what some of the people hanging on the corner were doing, but quite frankly it wasn’t my business and they didn’t bother me. In fact, they looked out. They’d greet  me with the proverbial “How you doin’ ma” in that New York accent that I’ll forever love, and sometimes during the summers when straight back cornrows were poppin’, I’d sit outside in between the legs of the girls who braided my hair. Surrounded by all black and brown faces, I felt safe and I felt at home.

This is my story, but during the workshop similar stories emerged from the women who, as we talked, were creating a collage from the newspapers, magazines and other materials I had provided them.

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What does this have to do with urban planning, and why is it our jobs to engage in discussions around how women of color, or people of color in general, envision our spaces. Well first, gentrification. The process of renovating and redeveloping neighborhoods to increase the property value and spur economic development also comes with the insidious process of social displacement, leaving folks who once lived in a community feeling as though they no longer belong there.

In the City of Richmond right now, there is rampant discussion about the The Navy Hill Neighborhood Redevelopment, where the blocks between 5th to 10th Streets and Marshall to Leigh are to be revitalized using an economic development tool called Tax Incremental Funding, or a TIF. I’ll leave you to look into the project yourself, but in short, some are excited about the project’s possibilities but they are also skeptical. Like Jackson Ward, Navy Hill was once an predominantly German and then African-American neighborhood that fell victim to the construction of I-95 in the 1950s, displacing thousands of families in the process. In 2011, a marker commemorating the history of the neighborhood was finally replaced after it was displaced by the construction of Altria’s Center for Research and Technology. One could imagine that if it had never been replaced, many people would have never learned crucial facts about this once black space, such as the Navy Hill School was the first school in the City of Richmond to employ black teachers. There would be no representation, no memory that the neighborhood was once a space where black people called home.

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The stories we tell using historical markers, murals, and other forms of visual representation are important. What we don’t see in a neighborhood is just as important as what we do see. Being able to walk through a neighborhood and see ourselves reflected and to read about our history isn’t just about place-making, it’s tells us who belongs and has a right to the space.

As I think about the creations that the women made during the workshop and the energy that permeated throughout the room, I am encouraged not only by how we see ourselves, but how we want to be seen in our communities, how we want our stories to be reflected. My hope is that as I continue to use this visioning tool it helps others truly see us, recognize the danger of white-washing out spaces, and serve as a message that our blackness, our culture, and our stories cannot be built over with concrete.