From the Series: An Otherwise Anthropology
Where is the otherwise? And how do we get there?
In 2015, my comrades at Women With A Vision (WWAV) and I affirmed: “We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch.” From this interstitial expanse of southern storytelling, we claimed at once the life-giving presence of this thirty-year-old Black feminist collective and the wellsprings of dreams that have steadily been sheltered in these hallowed grounds for generations (Woods 2009). We also refused the histories of violence (too often masked in the language of “progress”), which required the erasure of the very forms of spatial prior-ness held and nurtured in front porch space (Thomas 2016). What we affirmed in 2015, however, did not begin in 2015. And while researching front porch strategy (McTighe with Haywood 2018) became an essential part of our praxis, the terrain of our engagement always exceeded the end of the ethnographic text and the means of fieldwork methods. I did not go to New Orleans to write, nor did I go to do research. My commitment to liberation came first.1
In this essay, I develop and practice insurgent cartography as an otherwise spatial process of excavation and sedimentation—of being together on the ground, in time, with time, and through relationships. Practicing space in this way—temporally and materially—changes the way (and the reason) that we write. The argument is not linear; it accumulates, even as it ungrounds. It makes space.
I first met my dear friend and WWAV’s Executive Director, Deon Haywood, in 2008 at a gathering of prison abolitionists and AIDS activists. At the time, I had spent nearly a decade with my comrade John Horace Bell on front porches in Philadelphia building a radical education program at the intersection of HIV and mass criminalization; the WWAV foremothers had been doing that bone-deep work on front porches in New Orleans since 1989. My first conversations with Deon traced the contours of a crisis WWAV was just beginning to piece together: the New Orleans Police Department was using a centuries-old “crime against nature” statute to criminalize street-based sex work as a registerable sex offense. A year later, she invited me to New Orleans as an “accomplice” (Indigenous Action Media 2014) to WWAV’s NO Justice Project. On March 29, 2012, WWAV won an unprecedented legal victory against the statute. The erasure of their work started immediately. Local reporters re-centered the story around the judge who ruled in the case and the attorneys that WWAV had recruited to lead the constitutional challenge. Two months later, that narrative erasure turned physical. On May 24, 2012, still-unknown arsonists broke into WWAV’s office and set it ablaze.
In the wake of this attack, with nearly all material traces of WWAV’s decades of work destroyed, research became a form of survival. Between the reality of WWAV’s grassroots organizing and the labor exerted to suppress, invisibilize, and exterminate it, we had a vast terrain to map. To do so, we had to become “undisciplined” (Sharpe 2016, 13): the work we were doing required new modes and methods of research. It required insurgent cartography. This was no isolated attack. Nor was it merely an attack on a singular organization at a single moment in time. There was immense epistemological and ontological work involved in unearthing the depth of WWAV’s willed narrative and physical erasure. By refusing this double erasure, we hoped to learn how to rip these historically interlocking systems of violence up by their roots. And by simultaneously speaking WWAV’s history in and through the stories of generations of southern Black feminist organizers, we imagined that we might be able to ensure that these deeply enduring resistance visions could take place and have a space.
Insights came patiently, as different histories were revealed to be always already materially present in the places we inhabited—enchanting our present, demanding justice.2 I use the word “enchant” here not as it is often deployed in a series of footnotes to Max Weber (1946), but rather as a way of naming the very different understanding of our present that M. Jacqui Alexander (2006, 14) calls us into when she describes “memory as the antidote to alienation, separation, and the amnesia that domination produces.” The vital, healing power of transgenerational memory is what Alexander calls “spiritual work.” It refuses the emptiness of linear time imposed by coloniality, disaster capitalism, and arsonist assault, which severs us from the long-sheltered “freedom dreams” (Kelley 2003; Davis 2016) enchanting our present and hermetically seals them in a time called “past.” Instead, it presents an insurgent way to enter space, one that uncovers a generations-honed geographic story to build worlds in which it is possible to live and thrive, not just survive (McKittrick 2006).
The afternoon we professed our belief in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch, WWAV had just moved into its first home after the arson attack. The significance of that homecoming is hard to overstate. On that front porch, we sat, taking up space, locked in conversation. We extended WWAV’s post-Katrina present into the recesses of the organization’s past and further still through generations of Black women organizers who had seen their work to live and thrive eviscerated through the same tactics of erasure. And we affirmed the space otherwise we were making and participating in—in all its enchanted layers and transgenerational momentousness: “We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch.”
The otherwise is not other-where; “the otherwise in all its plentitude vibrates afar off and near, here but also, and, there” (Crawley 2015). The challenge of “insurgent cartography” as otherwise spatial praxis is to loosen our grip on the impulse to locate the very geographies that have systematically been made to vanish from our intellectual consciousness and from the material world—and to instead become part of their slow sedimentation and ungrounding. To do so we must open ourselves to the possibility of conversion (Jackson 2005).3 The research does not come first; the commitment does. And the commitment is action. What are we committed to? Who are we accountable to? And what do we believe in?
1. Here, I am paraphrasing Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez’s (1996, 24) injunction that “[t]heology is a reflection—that is, it is a second act, a turning back, a re-flecting, that come after action. Theology is not first; the commitment is first. Theology is the understanding of the commitment, and the commitment is action.”
2. I use the language “always already materially present” to underscore both the deliberate work of erasure in the new New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as well as the persistence of WWAV’s work before, during, and after this violence. In other words, temporally I insist that the tradition(s) of which WWAV is a part is coeval (Fabian 1983) with the tradition(s) that seek their dismemberment. They are also constituted through different means and take profoundly different forms.
3. I understand this ethical imperative in the tradition of what Tracey E. Hucks (2010, 13) calls “participant engagement,” a term that for her emphasizes how for generations ethnographers of African diasporic religious cultures have refused the “normative understandings of participant-observation" and have instead “revolutionized traditional methods of ethnography. . . to include formal participatory initiations into these religious traditions.”
I would like to thank Deon Haywood for the decade of collaboration, friendship, and struggle that makes this essay possible. Our work has been undertaken every step of the way in partnership with Women With A Vision's Co-Founders Catherine Haywood and Danita Muse, her wife and WWAV's Director of Research and Evaluation Shaquita Borden, and all of the people that WWAV has stood with since their founding in 1989. Each of you taught me what it means to fight for a world I want to live in; every day working with you I have seen that world take shape and take place.
Alexander, M. Jacqui. 2006. The Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Crawley, Ashon. 2015. “Stayed | Freedom | Hallelujah.” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 10.
Davis, Angela Y. 2016. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1996. Essential Writings. Edited and with an introduction by James B. Nickoloff. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Hucks, Tracey E. 2010. “Perspectives in Lived History: Religion, Ethnography, and the Study of African Diasporic Religions.” Practical Matters 3: 1–17.
Indigenous Action Media. 2014. “Accomplices not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex.”
Jackson, John L. 2005. Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kelley, Robin D. G. 2003. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2006. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
McTighe, Laura, with Deon Haywood. 2018. “Front Porch Revolution: Resilience Space, Demonic Grounds, and the Horizons of a Black Feminist Otherwise.” Signs 44, no. 1: 25–52.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Thomas, Deborah A. 2016. “Time and the Otherwise: Plantations, Garrisons and Being Human in the Caribbean.” Anthropological Theory 16, nos. 2–3: 177–200.
Weber, Max. 1946. “Science as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 129–56. New York: Oxford University Press.
Woods, Clyde. 2009. “Katrina’s World: Blues, Bourbon, and the Return to the Source.” In “In the Wake of Katrina: New Paradigms and Social Visions,” edited by Clyde Woods, special issue, American Quarterly 61, no. 3: 427–53.