June Jordan and a Black Feminist Poetics of Architecture // Site 2: The Intersection

This entry is by guest author Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Phd.  Alexis is a queer black troublemaker, a black feminist space cadet time-traveler and an inspired embodiment of love. She is the founder of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind Planetary Community School and the co-creator of the Mobile Homecoming Project: An Experiential Archive Amplifying Generations of Queer Black Brilliance.  
This article is the 2nd in a 4 part series:
Site 2 The Intersection
Site 3 The Queer Reproduction of Black Life
Site 4 The Presence of the Future

Site 2

The Intersection


Long before Kimberly Crenshaw demarginalized the intersection, black women and other multiply oppressed people were experiencing the intersection as a site of injury.   For Jordan, in 1964 and after, the intersection was not the academic site of nuanced marketability that it has become today in our academic and non-profit industrial complexes.    The intersection was a literal and psychic place of injury that Jordan sought to transform or even eradicate in her work as an architect and visionary urban planner.   In one of the letters that June Jordan wrote to her collaborator R. Buckminster Fuller about the Skyrise for Harlem project in 1964 she focuses on the site of the intersection as one of the major problems in the impoverished urban landscape, noting that at every corner the resident emerges vulnerable to harm from at least two sides.   As a Black woman, and as a proto-queer poor single mother, as everyone she was, June Jordan knew something about being vulnerable to harm from at least two sides, and not just in the street.  In a sense the very situation of the publication of her architectural plans was such a site of multi-directional harm from collaborating forms of oppression.   As we saw the title “Skyrise for Harlem” was replaced with the cruel joke, “Instant Slum Clearance,” and on top of that the wording of the article was shifted to attribute the entire architectural plan to Fuller, Jordan’s white male collaborator.  Marginalizing June Jordan in relationship to her own theories of what the cityscape would be.   These multiple harms, maybe best described as twin harms that were predictable along intersecting lines of oppression and collaborating methods of disempowerment.   Many of us have learned from experience what June Jordan learned, which is that from the position of privilege there is no contradiction between demeaning the intellectual work of black women and then also co-opting it.   This is part of the reason that Jordan published one of her letters to Fuller in her series of essays, Civil Wars, to reclaim the theoretical work that she did in the creation of the plan, which not only included an astute analysis of the feasibility of what Esquire dismissed as a “utopian” plan in terms of the master plan of the city of New York and the agendas of the current local officials with a state in New York City and Harlem, but also an analysis of the intersection itself as a site of violence in need of reparation.

In her letter she describes the intersection as a site of “psychological cruxifiction” within the cityscape which is especially pronounced in the Harlem section of Manhattan because Central Park, which provides the only major reprieve from the grid in New York City ends at 110th street.   For Jordan the intersection is a structuring logic as well as a physical liability for the residents of Harlem.  The impact of intersection after intersection for Jordan represents a “physical pattern of inevitability” which in her opinion actually impacts the Harlem residents ability to relate to life as possibility as opposed to struggle.   In her young adult novel His Own Where Jordan’s protagonist Buddy is also a subversive urban planner, he convinces his neighbors to combine their backyards and garden together, imagines the temporary hospitality of the hospital as a model for how the city should be structured and not surprisingly Buddy, born in to print in 1971 also has a scathing analysis against the intersection.    In the opening scene of the novel Buddy, whose father is in a hospital dying because of an accident at an intersection says:  (read from the book), then remember that Jordan has written to Fuller that the intersection is a site of “psychological cruxifiction” Buddy explains his own experience of the intersection… “you be crucify like Jesus at the crossing…”

Central Park / the grid / the intersection /

June Jordan is an architect because she believes in what she calls “the determining relationship between architectural reality and physical well-being.”   So the design of a new round and winding Harlem free of corners is based on her belief that a curved landscape will suggest the possibility of generative surprises not only on a walk through the new Harlem, but also in life in general, that it will cultivate patterns of discovery and imagination in the lives of Harlem’s children and adults, situating them as dynamic participants in an ecology of urban living, not just everyday targets of moving harm.   In our contemporary appropriations of the concept now called “intersectionality,” many of us have departed from the actual site of the intersection as a place of harm, and moved towards intersectionality as a description of complicated identity formation which departs from the use of the metaphor by Kimberly Crenshaw, but without the visionary potential that Jordan offers us with her literal spatial plans about what to do about the intersection.   What we do now with intersectionality is to describe ourselves by our pedigrees of oppressions and flip those oppressions into self-identifications that we use to navigate those same oppressions, forgrounding grids of fragmentation and injury on our bodies and in our paths.  But Jordan’s injunction through her vision of a round existence says that we are more than that.  We are more than crucified, we are possible.   Beyond mitigation of harm, Jordan’s work to create a post-intersection Harlem affirms a revaluation of life where we are the more than the inverse of our liabilities, more than the sum of our uses to the machine, where we are priceless, and cherished and about to be surprised by what we imagine and create as we move.

Which leads us to site 3…