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When I first approached the question, “What is infrastructure?” my mind trailed back to the rhythms and rhymes of ‘trains, planes and automobiles’ that I learned in childhood. From mule-powered barges in Thomas S. Allen’s “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” to the ‘ribbons of freedom highway’ in Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” songs about infrastructure were useful instructional tools and unique instruments of socialization in my elementary classrooms. Year after year, I’d watch my teachers use catchy tunes about major US infrastructure projects as an indelible form of citizenship education.
Each time we’d gather together in song reinforced that infrastructure was to be understood as a centripetal force in US nation-making; something that young American ‘patriots-in-training’ ought to be unquestionably proud of. My classmates and I were not so subtly instructed to celebrate infrastructural projects for their innovations and never mistrust them for their shortcomings. The musicians’ artistic renditions and our teachers’ colorful commentaries presented pipes, cables, wires and engines as joyful representations of modernity. The songs shared historical knowledge about the ‘what’ and ‘where’ of transit, machines and circulatory systems, while strategically muffling and obscuring how these infrastructures were made possible in the first place: including (but not limited to) Indigenous dispossession, Black enslavement, Chinese indentured labor, and US imperialism at local and global scales.
These sonic exchanges, much like the infrastructural wonders they extolled, were far from ill-conceived or inert. Wills’ (2005) conceptualization of classrooms as ‘critical mnemonic workplaces’ explicates that these infrastructural sing-a-longs were deliberately designed with a particular politics of public memory and history in mind. Wills (2005) suggests that classrooms are ‘critical mnemonic workplaces’ in the sense that, “…teachers and students are able to draw on a diversity of cultural resources for remembering multiple, even contradictory, pasts” (109) and ultimately produce commemorative narratives that are, “…both culturally understandable and socially sensible” (126). In these instances of “mnemonic socialization,” collective exercises of selective remembering and forgetting are “regulated by unmistakable social rules of remembrance that tell us what we should remember and what we can or must forget” (Zerubavel 1996: 286).
Songs like “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” and “This Land is Your Land” are mnemonics (defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a device to aid the memory”) in the literal sense that they assist students in memory recall with their simple lyrics and melodies. Songs about infrastructure also act as mnemonics in a spatial sense; as the collective action of singing these songs aloud is an educational place-making practice. The act of gathering in song actively re/produces (un)critical mnemonic spaces in the classrooms where these soundscapes and accompanying teacher-student knowledge exchanges take (and make) place.
Auspiciously, the politics of remembering and forgetting in critical mnemonic workplaces like classrooms are not always defined by the opaque denial and historic amnesia that often accompanies the dominant, white-washed narratives of US infrastructural ‘triumphs’ (Wills, 2005: 127). The “occlusion” framework for conceptualizing the production of collective memory and educational geographies suggests that memory blockages are often “…an issue of salience and accessibility of collective memories that may still be available in various social sites of memory” (Wills, 2005: 127). The occlusion paradigm is significant in its insistence that multiple politics of memory can co-exist in a single space and that memory blockages have the potential to be ruptured.
Within the discipline of Geography, the collective occlusion of public memory has informed both the (un)critical spaces we study and the methods we use to study them. As Woods (2002) argued, Geography’s progress has been strained for decades by its attempts to alienate theories of marginality from mainstream disciplinary thought. The omnipresence of occlusion illuminates that there is much to be un-learned and re-learned in Geography; in particular how we choose to remember or forget the lasting legacies colonialism, militarism, anti-Black racism, patriarchy and white supremacy have left on the discipline (Eaves 2016).
Unlike the historic amnesia framework, which suggests that absolute forgetting is both achievable and most desirable, the occlusion paradigm demands that we ‘unblock’ new opportunities and possibilities for remembrance (Wills, 2005). In the context of infrastructure and spatial mnemonics, the politics of collective occlusion suggests that alternative methods of memory-making, meaning-making and place-making might be imagined and actualized by contemporary geographers. It is along this road that I would like to signpost the (im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure.
The ‘(im)possible’ character of the spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure makes reference to the work of scholars (see Eaves 2016; Ferreira da Silva 2014; and McKittrick 2017) who have theorized black geographies by locating questions of power, subjectivity and the ‘unknowable’ at the foci of their critical spatial analyses. Literature from the growing black geographies canon suggests that black infrastructure is not statically 'set in place,' but instead a set of revolutionary place-making practices with ‘unknowable’ and (im)possible contours. Drawing on Moten and Harney’s (2013: 8) definition of blackness as the, “…willingness to be in the space that has been abandoned by colonialism, by rule, and by order,” these (im)possibilities have been essential to the survival of Black peoples for centuries. (Im)possibilities have allowed for black place-making practices to be illegible to the forces of domination that built violent White supremacist societies by extracting from Black lives and enacting Black deaths. This illegibility is dually significant considering that sacred community teachings and practices within Black communities could be weaponized against Black people if they were universally perceptible and ended up in the wrong set of hands.
The routing and rooting of the ‘unknowable’ across multiple times, spaces and cosmogonies that has been made possible through black geographies and black infrastructure has involved the occlusive politics of collective memory. The ‘(im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure’ refers to black infrastructures (mechanisms which have transported and transformed Black life globally for centuries) that are remembered and reproduced through spatial mnemonics attentive to the (im)possibility of ever fully knowing black geographies and Black lived experiences in their entireties. While Black peoples have historically been positioned as ‘out-of-place’ or ‘placeless’ in Geography, black infrastructure and black geographies suggest that the discipline might engage with Black spatialities differently.
Emphasizing blackness as a source of material and epistemic change rather than just a set of differentiated, ‘marked’ and dis/located bodies, the spatial mnemonics framework can be seen interrupting the prevailing emphasis on deficit, disadvantage and exploitation in the study of Black lives. Layered with McKittrick’s (2006) “spatial poetics” framework, my investigation of black infrastructure is aimed at responding to Woods’ (2002) invitation for Geography to more meaningfully engage with anti-racist, anti-oppressive and liberatory paradigms in its scholarship (also see Hawthorne and Meché 2016). Moving away from spatial models that award primacy to “…landscape seen by the eye,” to “…seriously take up questions of power and resistance” (Armstead 2007: 141-142), I would argue that the (im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure is a particularly useful detangler and volumizer for some of black geographies knotted narratives. In tandem, spatial mnemonics and spatial poetics frameworks, “…create a way to enter into, and challenge, traditional geographic formulations without the familiar tools of maps, charts, official records and figures” (McKittrick 2006: xxii). They trouble several of mainstream Geography’s taken-for-granted assumptions by: a) drawing attention to subaltern socio-spatial practices that go against the traditionalist grain, and b) rooting their theoretical premises in case studies of Black resistance, Black creative re/productions and Black counter-topographies (McKittrick 2006).
Routes and Roots
Fortunately, I learned alternative ways to sing about infrastructure outside of school. My “mnemonic socialization” (Zerubavel, 1996: 286) in educational spaces beyond the classroom is what first led me to consider, “What is black infrastructure?”
Music was central to the cultural fabric of my diasporic household. The constant sonic presence of African, African American, and West Indian musicians in my childhood home established strong routes between Rochester NY, Toronto ON, Brooklyn NY and Antigua. On the living room sofa, songs by Black artists were important cultural tools for learning about infrastructure in the spaces and “homeplaces” (hooks, 1991) my multiple ancestries are routed through. Bob Marley and the Wailer’s “I Shot the Sheriff” taught me about infrastructures of state violence, police brutality, and Black resistance in the West Indies with the lyrics; “Sheriff Brown always hated me/For what I don’t know/Every time I plant a seed/He said, “Kill it before it grows”/He said, “Kill it before it grows,” I say/ I shot the sheriff, but I swear it was in self-defense…” African American spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” made important references to the Underground Railroad and Black fugitivity in a US context.
Paying close attention to the different styles and geographies of this music became instructive to my nascent theorization that the songs themselves could be understood as forms of infrastructure in their own right. Further, it was through African American spirituals in particular that I began to conceptualize songs and musicians as forms of infrastructure ‘routed’ and ‘rooted’ in African, Indigenous, and multi-racial/multi-cultural ways of knowing and being. To my family and I, songs and the people who sang them were infrastructures for circulating, transforming, transporting and transcending Black resistance, Black survival and Black liberation across the African diaspora. For example, the ways in which Black slaves on plantations used songs like “Wade in the Water” to provide fugitive slaves with instructions on how to avoid capture while escaping to freedom (in this case disseminating that traveling by water would curtail search dogs’ ability to locate and re-capture them) both served as a critical aural tool for communicating routes to emancipation in Northern US States and, simultaneously, acted as an invaluable vehicle of social preservation. African American spirituals nourished Black slaves’ cultural rootedness in African civilizations and musical traditions (including call and response arrangement styles, body percussion, and other unique forms of sound making) that might have otherwise been eradicated by the attempts at cultural genocide that were weaponized through the Trans-Atlantic slave project.
I would argue that the establishment of these routes, roots and cultural circulations through sound maps illustrates the (im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure. Here, the spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure refers to the spatialized forms of collective remembering and forgetting Black people have carried on slave ships, on terrestrial and Underground railroads, by foot, by freight, via airplane, and in a present day context, on social media sites and music streaming apps. In this essay, I have chosen to focus on the production of sonic space as a mechanism for memory- and meaning-making, but spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure are certainly not limited to soundscapes. Spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure might also include an array of other place-making practices and sensory geographies that include: the visual, the guttural, the olfactory, the visceral, the emotional and the bloody. Models of tactical, kinetic and auditory spatial mnemonics can be seen in black infrastructures around the globe.
A striking example of a tactical spatial mnemonic of black infrastructure is routed and rooted in Colombia. Historically, enslaved Afro-Colombian women used African hair braiding styles and techniques to relay messages. As detailed by Brown (2011), “…to signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes.” Brown’s interviewee, contemporary Afro-Colombian hairdresser Ziomara Asprilla Garcia, explains that the departes style, ‘“…had thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top.” Hair patterns were also designed as maps; where the particular curvature of the braids would represent the roads fugitive slaves would use to escape. Slave owners were largely unaware of the symbolism embedded in these braiding practices which left them unsuspicious of women who attempted to escape captivity.
The making of maps out of braids is a spatial mnemonic of black infrastructure both in the sense that these hairstyles acted as a memory tool for fugitive slaves en route to freedom, but also in the sense that these braiding practices are still taking and making place in Colombia today. When Black women gather to braid hair, they create important spaces of social reproduction that have been central to memorializing Afro-Colombian identity historically and contemporarily. This place-making practice continually fosters sites that celebrate multiple generations of Black female resistance in Colombia’s post/colonial contexts.
Spatial mnemonics and spatial poetics provide an optic through which black infrastructure and black geographies can be understood as producing space and spatial relationships in critically ‘unknowable’ ways (McKittrick 2006). The (im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure suggests that as we move forward in multiple directions, theoretically and practically, infrastructure’s ever-expanding roads and roots will continue to push us into exciting new directions- if we are open to being re-routed.