Academic journal article African American Review

Housing the Black Body: Value, Domestic Space, and Segregation Narratives

Academic journal article African American Review

Housing the Black Body: Value, Domestic Space, and Segregation Narratives

Article excerpt

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" makes a giddy sound, not strong Like "rent," "feeding a wife," satisfying a man."

But could a dream send up through onion fumes Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall, Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

--Gwendolyn Brooks, "kitchenette building" 11. 1-7

Introduction: Valuing Home

"Iron Ring in Housing," a 1940 article in The Crisis on the significance of the Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee, begins by insisting: "There is no right more elemental nor any liberty more fundamental in a democracy than freedom to move where and when you please" (205). Linking mobility and housing, the article connects these two issues to the rights and privileges of citizenship in a democracy. Hansberry takes on residential segregation by confronting that practice not merely as a restriction on domestic space but mainly as a constriction of civic identity. The case intimates that, given the centrality of segregation to restrictive practices affecting citizenship, the relationship of African Americans to places of residence and to domestic space in general is indicative of their relationship to legal structures. The social and legal developments that directly and indirectly encouraged segregated housing during the mid-twentieth century created the conditions for African Americans to feel estranged from their domestic spaces. (1) The feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction with the "kitchenette" expressed in Gwendolyn Brooks's poem define the housing problems to come for many African American communities, and such sentiments factor into representations of domestic space in mid-20th-century African American narratives.

Frank London Brown's Trumbull Park (1959) and Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha (1953) focus on Black life in Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s, and--like "kitchenette building"--both examine the realities of segregated residential spaces. Accordingly, these novels can be read as segregation narratives. Each text demonstrates how housing policies not only structure where Black people live, but also undermine their relationship to domestic space. Specifically, the texts represent characters as alienated from their domestic spaces due to legal formulations and social perceptions of Black domestic space as "valueless." The construction of Black-occupied spaces as "valueless" functions within both segregated and integrated spaces, and results in "placelessness" for Black subjects or the displacement of the Black subject from the value more generally attributable to belonging and security within the home.

I recognize two elements of the concept that I call domestic space: the family and the physical structures of homes (houses, apartments, tenement buildings, and the like). Black domestic space in both senses has often been understood as a refuge from the racism and oppression of the US social world, bell hooks's theory of "homeplace" as a "safe place where black people could affirm one another

and by doing so heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination" grows out of this way of thinking (42). Her understanding--situated in a world of racially segregated/integrated neighborhoods--posits Black domestic space as a site resistant to effects of oppression. This resistance is rooted in the idea that families are able to create and sustain boundaries that maintain a distinction between interior and exterior space. This ability to distinguish inside from outside is elemental to understandings of domestic space, particularly domestic architecture, that link it to conceptions of interiority. (2) Trumbull Park and Maud Martha illustrate how representations of domestic architecture and the life it houses reveal not simply Black interiority, but also social and legal perceptions of Blackness. In these texts, the spatial realities of segregation construct Black domestic spaces and continuously encroach on families and housing structures. …

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