Alisha Mathers, Universities of Southampton and Exeter
Spatial theory, like most fields, is dominated by white Eurocentric voices.
Having situated my research in spatiality since my undergraduate dissertation, I have found that works from the likes of Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Michel De Certeau still sustain the loudest echoes when it comes to discussions on space today.
While their texts are full of beautiful and sometimes poetic conceptualisations of space, can white European men tell us all we need to know about spatial experiences? What about black experiences of certain places and spaces? What about the nuances of black domestic spaces that only black people, or specifically black women, can experience?
A few months ago, I discovered two wonderful pieces of writing by black scholars: bell hooks and Zenzele Isoke that provide a fascinating insight into black domestic spaces. Not only do the texts function without relying on the works of the spatial ‘forefathers’ mentioned above, but moreover, they also crack open feminist understandings of space that associate the home with being a place of violence, powerlessness, and imprisonment, and demonstrate that black women-led homes can be places of sanctuary, love, culture, anti-racism and resistance.
bell hooks’ essay ‘Homeplace (a site of resistance)’ describes her grandmother’s home as an example of how black women create was she calls a ‘Homeplace’ which she defines as site of resistance and sanctuary for black families against the often racist and white-centric outside world that surrounds it. hooks conceptualises the home as a black-female-powered space as she writes that:
‘in our young minds houses belonged to women, were their special domain, not as property, but as places where all that truly mattered in life took place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls’bell hooks, 1990. ‘Homeplace (a site of resistance).’ (383)
Furthermore, hooks demonstrates that the black experience of home differs from that of white women, as black women have often had to navigate and hold responsibility for the physical and emotional labour of more houses than their own. In other words, black women often worked for white people: cleaning, nannying, cooking etc. while having to ‘conserve enough of themselves to provide service (care and nurturance) within their own families and communities’ (383). Although sexism has forced women of all races to sustain and nurture the domestic space and those residing within it, hooks argues that black women have the added task of creating their homes into safe havens from ‘the brutal harsh realities of racial oppression’ (384) for the whole family. According to hooks, the homeplace has always been considered as a possible site of political resistance throughout black history. Even in the contexts of slavery, apartheid and ongoing racial violence, black women have transformed homes into spaces where: ‘all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, […] where [they] could restore to [them]selves the dignity denied [them] on the outside in the public world’ (384).
Isoke’s ‘The Politics of Homemaking’ collates and examines homemaking narratives from black women living in Newark, New Jersey. Isoke reflects on her ethnographic findings and ‘develops a political theory of homemaking that attempts to make sense of how space, place, and identity shape black women’s activism’ (117).
From the 1950s to the late 70s, Newark was a city victim to high unemployment rates (specifically effecting the African-American communities), and growing gentrification that impacted the poorest of the population. Isoke’s article delivers this history of Newark and demonstrates how domestic spaces were used as sites of political resistance that brought positive life-altering changes to the city as a whole; specifically aiding its black communities. By adopting bell hooks’ conceptualisation of black homes as ‘homeplaces’ she writes that:
‘homemaking involves creating homeplaces to affirm African-American life, history, culture, and politics […] that black women create to express care for each other and their communities […] to re-member, revise, and revive scripts of black political resistance’Isoke, Z. 2011. ‘The Politics of Homemaking: Black Feminist Transformations of a Cityscape.’ (117)
According to Isoke, black women in Newark envisioned and created positive change to the city from their ‘imaginative’ (127) ideas for change; all of which began from their practice of political agency and resistance in their homes. While the outside world often damaged black lives and livelihoods, black women in Newark shaped their homes into ‘political spaces to tell and to actualize counter-narratives of the harsh realities of the city’ (127). Isoke argues that this transition from forgetting ‘a legacy of black resistance’ (127) to actively remembering black political resistance and power in Newark enabled its revival. The sanctuary created by black women in their homes shifted black people’s relationship to the city, enabling them to create safe spaces outside of the domestic sphere and explore their sense of belonging in Newark.
Isoke’s article—like bell hooks’ work on homeplaces—demonstrates that home is not simply a space that is universally experienced as a place of oppression and violence for women. Rather, black feminist scholarship (which often retells narratives from black women themselves) reveals two vital points that are unique to the black female experience of home. Firstly, black women often use their homeplaces to create safe havens for not only their families but also for large black communities. Secondly, black women reshape and tackle the unwelcoming and unhomely realities of the outside world by using their domestic spaces as utopian microcosms of their desired visions for the future of Newark and beyond.
Going forward, it is crucial that spatial research—including my own—addresses the potential differences and added dimensions to black domestic spaces to better conceptualise what sanctuary and refuge mean specifically to black women.
hooks, b. 1990. ‘Homeplace (a site of resistance)’ Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press.
Isoke, Z. 2011. ‘The Politics of Homemaking: Black Feminist Transformations of a Cityscape.’ Transforming Anthropology. 19:2. pp. 117-130.