Leaning into the blues epistemology

Rachel Brahinskyby Rachel Brahinsky, UC Berkeley

There was a terrific session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers this year that looked at the life and work of Clyde Adrian Woods, a brilliant and kind scholar who passed away last summer. I’ve wanted to put down some thoughts toward a larger essay on Woods’ work for some time. Here, I’m sharing a piece of that work.

In 2002, in a special issue of the Professional Geographer that’s worth reading in its entirety, Woods commented that he had spent his life witnessing the death of African Americans and their communities – through environmental disease, through the redevelopment bulldozer, and through what he elsewhere described as “asset stripping” of poor communities of color (see Woods 2009a). He lamented about the ways that mainstream social science ignores so much about how these disappearances take place, and questioned the ways that even well-intentioned researchers, with a well-formed critical analysis about race and power, can play a role in declaring the death of communities and people: “Have we become academic coroners?” he asked. He went on:

Have the tools of theory, method, instruction, and social responsibility become so rusted that they can only be used for autopsies? Does our research in any way reflect the experiences, viewpoints, and needs of the residents of these dying communities? On the other hand, is the patient really dead? What role are scholars playing in this social triage?” (2002:63).

It was of course an echo of that much-quoted line from Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, in which Marx insisted that academic pursuits be directed towards social change: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. It’s a message that Woods and others (Crenshaw et al. 1995) have urged scholars to apply to our work on race and racism, lest, as Woods was warning, we fall in the ‘pure objectivity’ trap, which might require us to simply record the speed at which people die preventable deaths.

Because that’s what it means to look at racism – it’s not about ideas alone, it can never be. The study of race and racism, as they are reproduced and challenged before us and within us is a study of “death-dealing” (Gilmore 2002) processes that play out through bodies and in material space.

Clyde WoodsIn that vein, Woods was especially interested in making the racist underpinnings of post-civil rights development visible, to remove the socio-historical shroud that has implied that the civil rights successes of the 1950s and 60s had in fact scrubbed our cities clean of institutionalized segregation. He wrote about how racially-inscribed urban processes were foundational for power building on a broader scale:

In many studies of urban African American communities, even progressive scholars seem to be incapable of seeing the new regional social and spatial foundations of post-civil rights racism: suburban residential and industrial re-segregation; massive state investment in predominantly white areas; massive state disinvestment from rural and urban areas with large African American, Native American, Latino populations; the triumph of the state’s rights movement; the fracturing of any semblance of national social policy; and so on. By first understanding the central role of race in the [spatial] restructuring process at the regional level, we can then trace how dominant regional blocs use race to reorder national and international realities” (2002: 64).

So, Woods argued that race mattered – not as simply yet another vector of power, but because his empirical research had shown that race was a central principle in the organization of post-civil rights real estate development in the Mississippi Delta. And that one of the effects of this was the subordination of black culture and people to the white plantation power bloc – so the impact was both spatial and political-economic.

On the other end of the spectrum he found resistance. One mode of political and social survival for the subordinated, he found, was the refinement of blues music as critique, as news, and as remembrance. Describing makers of the blues as “sociologists, reporters, counsellors, advocates, preservers of language and customs, and summoners of life” (1998: 17), Woods developed the concept of the blues epistemology in his book Development Arrested. He used the concept to argue for a research vision that allows us to see the connections between culture and political economy – rather than separating them into isolated strands of history. It was an important part of his efforts to help us see the multiple ways in which those who are socially evicted can build power, below the radar.

In the face of a neoliberal monolith, which he carefully documented, and in the context of a world of social science that claimed objectivity as it narrated the death of communities, he argued for research that offered new stories: “new epistemologies, theories, methods, policies, programs, and plans for communities confronted by the…neo-Bourbon/neoliberal agenda” (2009: 448).

For Woods, uncovering the blues epistemology was one important way to find the cracks in prisms of power through which people might pry open spaces for social change, even if such change is slow to arrive. To understand a place, he wrote, we “have to explore the subterranean caverns that shelter the wellsprings of dreams during the seasons when hope can’t be found” (2009: 430). Those wellsprings were fed by the poetry and subterranean political force of the blues.

References, and selected further reading

(Thanks to Katherine McKittrick for contributing to this list.)

Crenshaw K, Gotanda N, Peller G and Thomas K (eds) (1995) Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: New Press

Gilmore R W (2002) Fatal couplings of power and difference: Notes on racism and geography. The Professional Geographer 54(1):15-24

Isenberg A, Connerly C, Lipsitz G, Wilson B, Thomas J and Woods C (2004) Symposium on Clyde Woods’ Development Arrested. Journal of Planning History 3(3):241-260

Lipsitz G (1998) The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

McKittrick K and Woods C (eds) (2007) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place. Toronto: Between the Lines

McKittrick K and Woods C (2007) Introduction: “No one knows the mysteries at the bottom of the ocean”. In McKittrick K and Woods C (eds) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (pp1-13). Toronto: Between the Lines

Woods C (1998) Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso

——- (1998) Regional blocs, regional planning, and the blues epistemology in the Lower Mississippi Delta. In Sandercock L (ed) Making the Invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History (pp78-99). Berkeley:  University of California Press

——- (2002) Life after death. The Professional Geographer 54(1):62-66

——- (2005) Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Katrina, trap economics, and the rebirth of the blues. American Quarterly 57(4):1005-1018

——- (2007) “Sittin’ on top of the world”: The challenges of blues and hip hop geography. In McKittrick K and Woods C (eds) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (pp46-81). Toronto:  Between the Lines

——- (2009) Katrina’s world: Blues, Bourbon, and the return to the source. American Quarterly 61(3):427-453

——- (2009a) Les Misérables of New Orleans: Trap economics and the asset stripping blues, Part I. American Quarterly 61(3):769-796

——- (2012) Development Arrested: From the Plantation Era to the Katrina Crisis in the Mississippi Delta (new edition). New York: Verso