A Negative Utopia: Protest Memory and the Spatio-Symbolism of Civil Rights Literature and Photography

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"Whereas Aragon persists within the realm of dream, here the concern is to find the constellation of awakening ... here it is a question of the dissolution of 'mythology" into the space of history"--Walter Benjamin (Arcades Project [N 1, 9] 458)

"As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.... The photograph is a thin slice of space as well as time. In a world ruled by photographic images, all borders ... seem arbitrary"--Susan Sontag (On Photography 9)

Segregation and the Deep Space of Time

In 1940, Richard Wright defined a central struggle of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Imagining segregation as both physical and psychological, he juxtaposed the "alleys of the Black Belt" with the "centuries-long chasm of emptiness" in individuals like Bigger Thomas ("How" xxvi, xxvii). Five years later, he again fused notions of psychological and physical exclusion, this time in the South: "the environment the South creates is too small to nourish human beings" (Black Boy 3). Further fusing literal ("Black Belt") and symbolic ("centuries-long chasm") segregations, Wright created a series of confined spaces--Big Boy's hole in "Big Boy Leaves Home" (1936), Bigger Thomas's coal bunker in Native Son (1940), the sewer in "The Man Who Lived Underground" (1942), and the underground corridors in "The Man Who Went to Chicago" (1945). Across his canon, Wright used a cultural borderland of manholes, coal-bunkers, and sewers to express the literal and figurative margins of American society. (1)

Wright's segregation aesthetic was one of many such Civil Rights fusions of physical and symbolic space. From the Montgomery bus boycott to the 1965 march from Selma, activists battled for space. They struggled for the physical space of buses, public schools, and lunch counters: Rosa Parks remained in her seat on a bus in 1955; the Little Rock Nine refused to accept the line drawn on the street in 1957; and in 1960 six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated William Frantz Public School while four freshmen in Greensboro staged a lunch counter sit-in. But activists also battled for symbolic space. For example, the ballot box was a literal site of segregation. After Reconstruction, black southerners were turned away from voting centers by white clerks and driven away by mob violence, and Civil Rights activists pointed to the example of Medgar Evers, a black veteran turned away from a voting booth in Mississippi in 1946. It was also a deeply symbolic site of exclusion: "the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men," concluded Lyndon Johnson in August 1965 (qtd. in Lawson 3-4).

Fusing literal notions of space with figurative notions, Civil Rights activists, writers, and artists saw their battle in spatio-symbolic terms. Their rhetoric spatialized segregation, as though they anticipated Liam Kennedy's charge that while "our common understanding of space is that it is simply there, intangible but given," we should instead consider space as an indicator of "embedded ideologies" (8). And their representations also overthrew the confined space of civic and physical spheres in the United States, creating instead what bell hooks calls "spaces of agency" (Black Looks 116). If, as Ralph Ellison once claimed, African Americans were the "negative ground upon which our society shall realize its goals" (Essays 351), then the Movement demanded a space beyond the "negative ground" and entry into what Martin Luther King, Jr., called in 1956 a "choice place" ("The 'New Negro'" 19), or in 1968 the "promised land" (I Have 203). Beyond the "negative utopia," as Lutz Niethammer once put it, was "a cultivation of alternative forms of life in the margins and cavities of the system" (4, 9): artists turned the no-place of America's margins into a space of resistance and freedom, and transformed the very concept of margins (to the point where King insisted in 1963 that "anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country" [I Have 85]). …