Black Fugitivity and the Need for Spaces that Belong to Black Communities
This article is part of Dreaming Out Loud, a media series written as part of the Bioneers Young Leaders Fellowship Program. To learn more, visit bioneers.org/dreaming-out-loud.
Brick and wood-frame homes peppered the landscape, nestled in between an abundance of Black-owned stores that lined the streets for blocks. It wasn’t unusual for residents to dress lavishly as they attended doctor appointments, got haircuts, stocked up on groceries, danced at nightclubs and sat down to a nice dinner.
This was Greenwood in the early 1900s: a bustling, vibrant and thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Built in a northern pocket of the city, this affluent commercial and residential neighborhood became a robust and self-sustaining community and a pinnacle of Black success. By 1921, Greenwood had become so promising for Black futures that American author, educator and orator Booker T. Washington affectionately called it America’s Black Wall Street.
But the prosperous Black neighborhood that took years to build would be erased in less than 24 hours by acts of racial violence motivated by resentment toward Black prosperity. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, as many as 300 Greenwood residents were brutally killed. Their homes and businesses were burned to the ground. All of them were casualties of an enraged mob of white Tulsa residents.
In the crisp morning air of June 1, 1921, a throng of white residents descended on Greenwood. The city’s law enforcement officers had deputized every able-bodied white man, providing them weapons from the city’s armory. The mob threw dynamite into homes and businesses, while planes flew low overhead, dropping bombs across the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture…and heritage,” recounted 107-year-old Viola Fletcher in a 2021 testimony before Congress, 100 years after the massacre. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams.”
Many of the 300 murdered Black Greenwood residents were buried in mass graves, while others who survived the attack fled the city. Property loss claims totaled $1.8 million — the equivalent of $27 million today.
Not a single individual was convicted of a crime.
Black empowerment necessitates Black spaces
Before its demolition, Greenwood exemplified Black economic empowerment. It was a paradigm for how Black communities create their own opportunity and wealth — for the power and importance of Black self-determination.
“If we are excluded from engaging in practices that allow us to flourish in different ways in the outside world, then we imagine that the space we create with one another is where we can begin to build the foundations of all of those things,” said Dr. kihana miraya ross, Assistant Professor of African American studies at Northwestern University. “What was happening [in Greenwood] was happening because that’s all we had. We had to make something for ourselves in order to survive.”
Though Black folks have been dreaming up spaces in which they can thrive throughout history, their endeavors and experiences are continually questioned, attacked and made invisible as a product of anti-Black racism — the dehumanization and systemic marginalization of Black people.
This has been highlighted by a slew of recent, highly publicized and flagrant incidents in which racial targeting of Black people has occurred as they live, work, celebrate and navigate the world around them: a couple is held at gunpoint for picnicking at a KOA campground in Mississippi; the police arrest two men enjoying coffee at a Starbucks in Philadelphia; a birder is harassed while strolling in Central Park; the police are called on a college student napping in a common area at Yale; three filmmakers are surrounded by police as they checked out of an Airbnb in California.
According to Dr. ross, this anti-Black racism is an inescapable facet of society, making it natural and essential for Black communities to seek a reclamation of spaces that “promote the myriad of ways in which Black people practice seeing one another, loving one another, and granting one another breathing room in a world where anti-Black racial violence is normalized and asphyxiating.”
Simply put, Black folks need their own spaces — their own settings and experiences created in solidarity, in opposition to, and as a refuge from the conventional stereotypes and marginalization that permeate the public spaces they are regularly forced to occupy. It is crucial to the resistance of anti-Black oppression that spaces exist where Black folks may gather as their authentic selves to relish in their culture and affirm their humanity, unencumbered by white peoples’ judgment and prejudice.
We need spaces where we may simply be Black.
Black fugitivity is a practice of resistance
As witnessed in Greenwood, it is crucial for us to unapologetically take up space — to escape and become fugitive from the racial apartheid and persecution of anti-Black racism. Our very future is contingent on this fugitivity and our creations of this reclaimed, stolen and fugitive space.
This concept of fugitive space has been utilized by scholars, such as Dr. ross, to analyze a transformational struggle from oppression to freedom. In other words, fugitive space provides a meaningful pathway for us to recognize the possibilities of a just and equitable future as articulated by Black communities and their experiences.
In this context, fugitive spaces are a practice of resistance that acknowledges the reality of the harsh, oppressive systems that marginalize Black communities while simultaneously recognizing the diverse ways in which Black people experience, perceive and find joy in the world.
To understand fugitive space, it is crucial to explore the historical roots of the term “fugitive” — which is rooted in chattel and plantation-style slavery. When enslaved Africans escaped from the plantations that shackled them, they were cast as fugitives of the system — criminals of the plantation economy, soon to be known as capitalism. They were considered property, which meant they were considered simultaneously thieves as well as the stolen goods.
“That act is a criminal act, and so if we’re thinking through that lens, then we can think about it as something criminal,” Dr. ross said. “But if we think about the system of chattel slavery as criminal, then we can start to reframe how we think about what is criminal, who is criminal. What does it mean to steal or not in those contexts?”
Today, “fugitive” is utilized in the same sense — to describe a journey toward freedom. In a society infested by anti-Black racism and white supremacy, this freedom is only achievable when we actively participate in acts of escape. We can undermine these oppressive systems when we fearlessly seek love, joy and rest in spite of them — when we seek creative methods of refusal and resistance.
“I think that in this particular case, we are saying that we honor our ancestors who dared to become fugitive, and we think about what it must have taken,” Dr. ross said. “As much as we read these books, as much as we listen to these audio files, as much as we watch, [we will] never, ever, understand the experience of the enslaved. And so, for me, a part of honoring that experience is trying to imagine what it must have taken for a person to literally risk their lives, risk the lives of their families, in order to get free.”
Black fugitivity is always present
These spaces don’t only take form as the edifices we erect. Most fugitive space is easily overlooked as it is commonly unmarked by the protests, walk-outs and burning buildings often associated with the resistance of nation-state practices and violence.
As seen and heard on plantations in the antebellum South, fugitive space also takes shape as the community, relationships and experiences that are built in spite of the anti-Black racism and immense oppression imposed on the lives of Black folks. Drawing on both African musical heritage and western European sources, enslaved Africans created a rich musical tradition of spirituals known as sorrow songs — a name given by American sociologist, writer and civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois.
These songs, while generally conveying an atmosphere of melancholy and mourning, transcended the constraints of chattel slavery through meaningful self-expression. They embodied a critique of the conditions of enslavement and the broader social systems that supported it while simultaneously articulating and preserving the communal values of enslaved people.
Enslaved folks continued to find joy through the oppression that sought to strip them of it. After the Stono Rebellion — a 1739 slave revolt — enslaved Africans were forbidden to use drums on plantations for fear that they were hiding secret codes in their drumming patterns. In lieu of drums, enslaved people began creating dances to accompany their songs. This fugitive space was known as Juba.
“There is a term of shouting Juba, or singing Juba, which to white folks from plantations, seemed very chaotic and non-linear, and it didn’t make sense,” said Dr. Justin Coles, Assistant Professor for Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Director of Arts, Culture, and Political Engagement for the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research. “But for [the enslaved], it was a coded celebration of language. That sort of fugitivity is always present.”
According to Dr. Coles, fugitive space is all around us. It exists where Black folks are afforded the grace to live a full and valued life. It exists as any moment of time or experience where Black folks are honored and celebrated in ways that are humanizing and beautiful and where Blackness is not seen as deficient or less than.
“It might simply be a [Black] person walking down the street, and they see another Black person, and they give a head nod,” Dr. Coles said. “What if we also look to just the everydayness of Black folks where they’re not fighting, like a white supremacist nation; where they might simply be relaxing or resting?” Dr. Coles said.
This practice of peering into the ordinariness of Black life is illustrated by Black feminist writer bell hooks’ interpretation of the concept of “homeplace.” According to hooks, the homes that Black women create, however fragile and tenuous, provide a space where individuals and families can freely live within their Blackness. They can resist their subjugation and nourish the soul and self. Throughout history, homeplace has offered space to organize and unify Black communities toward the common goal of achieving Black liberation.
hooks explores Black homes – or homeplace — as space that Black folks need to understand their humanity as it relates to themselves and the world around them.
hooks says the mere existence of Black homes represents resistance against racial domination and oppression: “Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world…Historically, black women have resisted white supremacist domination by working to establish homeplace.”
While wanting to avoid further entrenching normative gender roles that continue to alienate us in the Black community, hooks also wanted to display the political power of homeplace and Black women’s power to uplift their people and their voices.
According to Dr. Coles, the voices of Black communities and the stories those voices carry can help shed light on the essential existence of fugitive spaces. Dr. Coles refers to these stories as “Black literacies” — the narratives that make Black identities and social practices the focal point and shamelessly proclaim Black aspirations, experiences, imaginations and artistic expressivities.
Here, Black literacies seek to explore the multiple ways Black folks live within and experience joy in the world.
“Black literacies, for me, are essentially the tool or the energy source that keeps us being able to continue these various cycles and fights toward liberation,” Dr. Coles said. “Allowing us to, on those journeys, celebrate and relish in the joys of it all, to carve out time to understand that our totality is not suffering from those structures. I see that as a tool or a pathway, rather, toward those liberatory futures.”
Fugitive space: separation vs. segregation
Some may feel that creating Black fugitive spaces is a regression to pre-Civil Rights-era segregation. That feeling, however, highlights a disconnection with the reality of anti-Black racism as it persists in America today.
“Regression” would assume that we have achieved a certain level of equality and are now regressing from it. It would mean that we’ve successfully created spaces in which everyone can easily find jobs, housing, healthcare and justice in the legal system — where everyone has equitable access to being felt, seen and heard. This is simply not our reality today.
When Black folks create space to be with only each other, those spaces aren’t acts of oppression. They’re responses to it. They’re our opportunities to separate ourselves from the abuses of anti-Black racism and patterns of white dominance.
When Black folks find themselves in community — whether it’s occupying a makeshift piece of land, singing songs in the plantation fields or gathering in the homes where we find refuge — there can be healing. We’re able to offer and find support in a way that allows us to reclaim the beautiful parts of ourselves that have been repressed by anti-Black racism and white supremacy. This togetherness offers us resiliency for bringing our full humanity into spaces where it will inevitably be challenged.
‘I love my hair, I love my nose, I love my skin, I love myself’
Ember Charter School’s halls are lined with pictures of Colin Kaepernick, Harriet Tubman and scenes from marches of the Civil Rights Movement. From the auditorium, the predominantly Black student body can be heard in chorus: “I love my hair, I love my nose, I love my skin, I love myself!” A teacher raises her fist in a Black power salute. The students mirror her actions and then make their way to their classroom – or schoolhouse as they are called at Ember.
This message is recited every morning at the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn school. Ember is Afrocentric with an aim to empower Black children in ways traditional public schools in America have historically and consistently failed to do.
Although very few exist, Afrocentric schools like Ember provide educational spaces to Black children that mitigate the racialized harm they experience in the traditional school system. Ember’s approach to education is holistic, with a curriculum that focuses on love, mindfulness, community, and is trauma-informed and culturally responsive. Black life is not only honored at Ember, it is celebrated.
Ember is a school explicitly designed for Black children. It’s a reprieve from the New York City public schools, which are among the most racially segregated in the country.
Dr. ross and Dr. Coles’ academic work in fugitive spaces play a major role in the envisioning of Black educational spaces like Ember Charter School. Both scholars agree that Black educational spaces are crucial to the development and socialization of young Black people, as these spaces afford Black students the grace to navigate their own education, their identities and the broader anti-Black landscape.
“It is absolutely, 100% necessary for Black students to have exclusively Black space because it is the only space that they are allowed to, encouraged to, and free to unpack what it means to exist as a Black student in an integrated school — what it means to exist as a Black person in an anti-Black world,” Dr. ross said. “It’s the place where they start to, from my experience, understand that the predicament that they’re in is not just a predicament that they’re in, it’s a predicament that all of us are in because of the way we’re racialized in society.”
Afrocentric schools and Black educational spaces engage in educational practices that provide healing and liberation — that allow Black youth to explore themselves and their history and arms them with a political analysis of the world and the tools to oppose anti-Blackness.
According to Dr. Coles, Black educational spaces encourage youth to learn who they are, who they are not, what they can achieve and what they can’t based on the way they are racialized in this society.
Ember Charter School is just one of many examples of a modern-day Black fugitive space. They exist everywhere, all around us. They exist in every setting, every experience and every thought that allows us to relish, unapologetically, in the Blackness of our minds, our bodies and our souls. Every community standing in solidarity, every dap given, every act of self-care. The blossoms of Black liberation are rooted throughout the nation.
This isn’t to say that they can’t be difficult to find. Whether medical, agricultural or creative, it can be arduous to find yourself in a space that values and humanizes Black life. And for white folks, this doesn’t mean that those spaces want to be found. It is undeniable that for Black folks to move freely toward liberation, they must be able to exist within spaces that are unburdened by the white gaze and the anti-Black racism that comes with it.
In the fugitive pieces that follow, explore with me several ways in which white supremacy has sowed its dangerous seed deep within different systems and institutions that compromise integral parts of society. The journey will expose to us Black fugitive spaces, Black refuge and a path toward an anti-racist future.