How do we recognize blackness? Is it something we feel?

According to recent data, medical professionals believe we don’t feel pain at the same intensity as white people, and therefore are administered less pain medication.

Is it something we taste? Black culinary traditions are rooted in history and experience, but only a few have been selectively acquired and represented as culturally significant. On the other hand, the brown, rusty water ingested by poor, black people in Flint, Michigan, was viewed as an aesthetic issue and therefore not regulated by safe-water laws.

Is blackness something we hear? Some scholars emphasize the importance of sound in the accrual of black value and therefore suggest that we know blackness through sonic renderings of joy and pain.

Is it something we see? It is from this final question that I start with a story about an unlikely place to think about blackness and aesthetics: Whole Foods Market. 20 years ago, the Atlas District in Washington, D.C. – what most still call “the H Street NE corridor” – was one of those familiar neighborhoods that no one could imagine would have a Starbucks (which it now has), let alone a Whole Foods. Nevertheless, last year, Whole Foods opened their third D.C. location on H Street.

A few months after the store’s grand opening, I walked in to look around. It appeared to be like any other Whole Foods Market in terms of its layout, selection, and ambiance. A couple of aisles down from the organic produce section, next to the non-dairy milk products, was an immaculately organized, color-coded display of gourmet chocolates. Above the multi-tiered tower was the phrase “Chocolate City” featured prominently in white block letters foregrounding a dark brown backdrop. Above the sign was a generic city skyline, resembling paper cut-outs, dipped in various hues of chocolate brown. The name “Chocolate City” (from the 1975 Parliament song), was adopted by black Washingtonians to reflect a sense of pride in the face of horrifying social, political, and economic conditions facing black Americans. “Chocolate City” was conceptually linked to the political and cultural imaginations of the civil rights and black power eras. The Chocolate City of the funk era referenced an aesthetic of black empowerment and nationalism produced through music, fashion, politics, and the visual arts. In light of this popular and recognizable history, it became immediately clear to me that the “Chocolate City” sign at Whole Foods doubly authenticated remnants of the waning black culture that had been prominent in the neighborhood and aestheticized the meaning of blackness in this first majority-black metropolis. The display also highlighted the ways that social and political histories are casually decontextualized in the service of capital.

© Brandi Thompson Summers

It is important to note that the “Chocolate City” tower was physically positioned alongside common aesthetic markers of a gentrifying landscape. Three colorful posters hang on the interior windows depicting abstract images of H Street, with phrases like “History & Legacy,” “Culture & Arts,” and “Heritage & Tradition” emblazoned on them. The organization of images on the posters resembles a quilt. Small thumbnail pictures displaying scissors, presumably representing the many black-owned barber and beauty shops that historically lined the corridor, a coffee cup, music notes, an admission ticket to the local Apollo Theatre, and other symbols that evoke notions of history, continuity, community, and rich culture. The posters also have pictures of H Street’s historic Victorian-style buildings, and in one of the images is the representation of the new streetcar. These posters show a combination of the historic and contemporary; a seamless blend of the two evoke notions of local authenticity that are welcoming, accessible, diverse, and cool. The images are positioned so that shoppers will see them as they enter and leave, no matter which route they take (to the parking garage below ground or at street level).

A few weeks later, the management team at the H Street Whole Foods received significant backlash after images of “Chocolate City” went viral on social media. As a result, “Chocolate City” became “Confectioner’s Corner,” with a brand-new tan and white color scheme. Even though “Chocolate City” lasted less than a month, displays like this one shed additional light on why the movement of white residents into predominantly black neighborhoods generates tension and feelings of exclusion. The aesthetics of stylized diversity and blackness work together within transitioning spaces to make them more approachable, appealing, and consumable. The presence of these racial aesthetics also disrupts narratives commonly associated with gentrification; namely displacement. With aesthetic markers of blackness and diversity prominently on display, ready for immediate consumption, “revitalization,” “renewal,” and “redevelopment” enact violence upon those who lived and toiled around the neighborhood in previous years, despite the euphemistic characterizations (Smith 1996; Kern 2016).

The philosopher Paul Taylor (2016) writes about black aesthetics as the aesthetic of self-fashioning; black aesthetics insist “on agency, beauty, and meaning in the face of oppression, despair, and death” (p. 2). He defines black aesthetics as “the practice of using art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds” (p. 12). Black aesthetics are part of a radical tradition, emphasizing cultural production for and by black people. Similarly, bell hooks asserts that aesthetics is “more than a philosophy or theory of art and beauty; it is a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming” (1990: p. 104). In this sense, it is not only important to think about how aesthetics ground our experiences but also how aesthetics shape the way we come to see, know, and practice race. I look to aesthetics to explore how the visual logic of race, specifically blackness, operates in our current landscape. As Clyde Taylor (1998) has argued, the aesthetic functions as a historically and culturally constructed category of knowledge. I suggest that there is a direct relationship between aesthetics and the ways that racial knowledge about blackness is organized today – an assumed knowingness related to how blackness is expressed, recognized, and visualized.

I am interested in the mutual constitution of “black aesthetics” and “blackness as an aesthetic,” especially as it relates to space. Rather than making a case for true or authentic representations of blackness, it is important to look at the ways blackness is aestheticized and deployed to achieve particular social and economic ends. To think of blackness as an aesthetic speaks to its constructedness and a discursive investment in its presence especially in light of our presumptive movement towards the “post-racial.”

In my own research, I show how aesthetics and race converge to locate or map blackness in Washington, D.C. by exploring the role of race as an aesthetic in D.C.—as it shifts from a chocolate city to a cosmopolitan metropolis. Race has been weaved into the physical rebuilding and symbolic re-imagination of a historic commercial district. I use the examination of one urban space to demonstrate the ways in which race is aestheticized, but also that the racial logic of blackness is organized in different ways that subtly transforms the landscape. The production and deployment of blackness as an aesthetic matters to the development of urban geography. An analysis of aesthetics will help reveal the quotidian operations of inequality as I consider aestheticization as a representational practice that constructs symbolic boundaries to affix difference. Of course, that means I have to talk a great deal about gentrification. But rather than discussing gentrification generally, I look at practices of gentrification that are tied up in aesthetic conventions and influence how we see urban space and the function of people within them. Neoliberal urbanism via gentrification does not simply involve the displacement of black families from historically black neighborhoods. Along with the displacement of these bodies comes the circulation of visible markers of blackness in the form of images (public art, marketing materials, etc.) and text (cultural tourism guides, commercial signs).

Blackness is an aesthetic that can be attached to black bodies, but is also present in objects, performances, language, etc., whose deployment is the result of a historically situated formation. Central to this argument is understanding blackness as an aestheticized social and cultural continuum. In other words, when I say blackness, I am thinking of it as a logic, not necessarily constrained by body or color. I am imagining a definition of blackness that is expansive enough to speak to shifts in the urban terrain. As an aesthetic, blackness no longer relies on the presence of black people for social traction. Aesthetics not only define blackness in particular ways, but also opens up a space to play with the fluidity and instability of blackness when black bodies are both present and absented. Once recognized as an aesthetic, blackness can be re-mapped upon the black body and through this overdetermination, be asked to perform blackness in designated ways. Rather than operating primarily as a political and cultural identity, blackness is used to draw in tourists, customers, capital, and authenticity to urban spaces.

As an example, several post-industrial, metropolitan cities have been enacting policy to preserve the historical character and design of neighborhoods (which typically involves restoration of modern-era architectural elements). Prior to these changes, several gentrifying neighborhoods had been the site of a “ghetto economy.” In D.C. that means the overwhelming presence of check cashing facilities, Chinese carry-outs, discount clothing stores, liquor stores, and go-go music outlets that targeted and served long-term, poor and working-class, black residents. If they are still around, these buildings are typically adorned with steel security gates on the exterior and bullet-proof glass on the interior, creating a discordant image of the city’s revised aesthetic vision for the space.

The menacing gates and bulletproof glass, for many, are aesthetic symbols of a violent past and in direct contrast to an area’s transformation and prosperous future. The gates are visual and sonic markers that connect to the meaning of the space. Original need for the gates, also known in the security industry as “riot architecture,” arose in inner city neighborhoods during periods of social turmoil, economic decline, and disinvestment. Especially after the 1960s, cities implemented these architectural changes in neighborhoods all over the country. Defensive, disciplinary architecture like those steel security gates, large concrete walls, barrel-shaped “bum-proof” benches, and barbed-wire fences effectively produced and policed social boundaries through architecture (Davis 1992). Soon after, city officials, business owners, policy makers, and developers began to address these conditions by using “urban revitalization” as a strategy – precipitating gentrification – rather than fostering equitable development. Both crime and fear came to be explicitly linked to black bodies, and the process of criminalizing these bodies (as the primary offenders, not victims of crime) produced a fear of blackness. The result was the implementation of “riot architecture” in primarily lower income black communities. For some cities, ridding the buildings of riot architecture is part of a strategy to dictate what information the architecture of these urban spaces conveys and transform how the neighborhoods are experienced. Nevertheless, repealing the “riot architecture” does not delink blackness from fear or criminality, but it does absolve the state from taking responsibility for perpetuating systemic racial inequalities by disengaging racial inequality from history and social relations of power. What remains is the labeling of objects and spaces as black even when black bodies are not present; underscoring the ways in which urban decay and ruin are often attributed to blackness. As a social scientist, I often struggle to make blackness legible to a field that makes it singular. Blackness has been studied as an object, instead as something interwoven into everything and usually a part of whatever we are doing. The field is expanding, however, from what was available in the past. Blackness as an aesthetic is being cultivated in a way that it has not been before.

So, once again, how do we recognize blackness? The answer is somewhat complicated. Blackness is both metaphor and lived experience. It is both aestheticized and a space of becoming – of possibility. I am drawn to visual artist Toyin Odutola who proclaims that she is an investigative artist that views the black figure as a medium. She says: “What I’m trying to do is show you that you can use black bodies in a way that explores ideas, rather than simply the condition of blackness.” We have come to recognize blackness as a productive aesthetic that is instrumental to the formation of anything from cultural imagery to political movements like Black Power and most recently, the Movement for Black Lives. I now wonder what kinds of politics are possible in the space of blackness. Blackness itself is a space of practice and productivity, where a different kind of politics is possible – where blackness is not mimicry, aping, desire, or loathing. Therefore, it is especially important in this cultural moment that scholars continue some of the work that is being done in art, culture, and politics by recognizing the aesthetics of blackness as deeply interwoven into our political and visual culture. It is through these spaces that eschew the perils of visibility, for its own sake, and adopt a politics that is aimed at a larger, grander vision of blackness: one that incorporates the marginal excesses of blackness namely by making concepts strange, foreign, inexplicable, and distracting.

Brandi Thompson Summers is assistant professor of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She specializes in race, gender, urban aesthetics, fashion, media studies, and visual culture. Follow her on Twitter @sleepyscricket.