June Jordan and a Black Feminist Poetics of Architecture // Site 1
Black women’s geographies and poetics challenge us to stay human by invoking how black spaces and places are integral to our planetary and local geographic stories and how the questions of seeable human differences puts spatial and philosophical demands on geography. These demands site the struggle between black women’s geographies and geographic domination, suggesting that more humanly workable geographies are continually being lived, expressed, and imagined.
-Katherine McKittrick in Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle
The Bottom of the Barrel
When June Jordan imagined “Skyrise for Harlem” the architectural plan that will be the model for this ritual of recitation and resituation, she was scraping the bottom of the barrel. After witnessing the Harlem riots in 1964, June Jordan abruptly found out that she was a newly single mother. She also offers frankly in a reflection in her first collection of essays, Civil Wars, “There was no money. Those days I didn’t eat.” Her son Christopher had to stay with her parents because she could not feed him. Sometimes friends dropped off milk and eggs and scotch and cigarettes. The money that she eventually got from selling her article about the architectural plan “Skyrise for Harlem” a plan in collaboration with her close friend R. Buckminster Fuller, was the only money that she had. On December 24th 1964 the money finally came and she was able to get Christopher back and assemple a semblance of Christmas. There was no money. Those days I did not eat. Some of June Jordan’s cousins have gone on record saying June Jordan was dramatic. She exaggerated. But I have seen the records of June Jordan’s phone getting cut off, I have seen the medical records that show the impact of poverty on her physical and psychological health. And knowing that for June Jordan who loved and admired her parents, but who also experienced abuse growing up in their home, I trust that it was really dire circumstances that had her make the difficult choice to send her son to live with her parents at this particularly dire economic time in her writing life.
This is important to state because for those of us who know anything about her June Jordan is a miracle. It is as if her life and her smile were sent out of the sky specifically to inspire us. She was a poet, skilled to create a language for living that contradicted the logic of global capitalism that institutionalized itself during her lifetime, but she was an architect because she built an ethical life out of difficult decisions everyday. Skyrise for Harlem, came from the very bottom of the barrel, the place where as womanist process theologian Monica Coleman and many others say, we make a way out of no way. Like Jordan’s tangible architectural work and blueprints, Jordan’s work as an architect, building something out of space filled by an empty belly is forgotten. As my partner Julia and I have travelled the country interviewing, honoring and documenting the work of innovated black queer feminist elders we have found that some of our genius elders have been couch surfing past middle age, face homelessness and worry daily about where they will house the priceless vessels of brilliance that are their bodies, and where they will keep the priceless boxes of archival materials they have saved from a life deciding to build something bigger than what capitalism would imply.
So the bottom of the barrel is a place, and I say it is a site of intervention. What does an architect who is accountable to the bottom of the barrel, who can give an account of what that rock and hard place space of choosing feels like, what does that architect imagine and build? And what happens to those plans in the context of capitalism? If you were to flip through the April 1965 issue of Esquire Magazine, the source of just in time money that allowed June Jordan to have Christopher home by Christmas, where June Jordan’s article and the plans for Skyrise for Harlem appear you would see the most expensive cars and liquor and clothing advertised. Not bottom of the barrel but top shelf, enticing the imagined audience of white men with disposable wealth. And maybe if you thought about the difference between the audience for these ads and the bottom of the barrel Harlem existence June Jordan was navigating as single mother you could predict but probably still never understand the violence of the editorial revisions the staff of Esquire made to her piece. June Jordan created a vision and an article called “Skyrise for Harlem” but here between the top-shelf scotch and the pall mall cigarettes and the newest Pontiac and the Italian leather shoes you will see a title June Jordan never approved, but consented to when she signed the paper that gave her the money to have Christopher home by Christmas. The bottom of the barrel. If you look you will see the title, not Skyrise for Harlem, but Instant Slum Clearance.
This instant. We were never meant to survive. Because that is what happens at the bottom of the barrel. You don’t get a say. But this triumph. On the bottom of the barrel what Katherine McKittrick calls a more humanly workable definition of life is being created. So visionary and transformative and dangerous to the unsustainable sponsors of Esquire magazine that it must be made into a joke. This is what happens at the bottom of the barrel the unglamorous and frightening space where housing is a basic need, where it is obvious how love and life and imagine suffer how home is impossible when whether you have water depends not on whether you go pump some, but on whether you can convince an absentee landlord to imagine you as human. June Jordan published a plan for Harlem generated from and accountable to the bottom of the barrel which is a place where we should not have to live, but is also an ethical space, a space of knowledge, a space of clarity about what life requires. So as architects of discourse and as builders of a movement, what do we know about the bottom of the barrel? How is that place of knowledge, clarity, injustice and violence reflected in our work? What everyday choices would we make if we were accountable to that place?