Academic Rant: Rural Realities vs the “Black Metropolis” (Part 1)

The intersections of race and place in Anthropological, Urban Studies, and Africana Studies inquiries are beginning to take root in academia, placing importance on the social, economic, and geographic impact of the city on black experiences. The conceptualization of the “Black Metropolis” considers the urbanization of Africa and other locations, diasporic processes and influences, as well as transnationalism and insurgent citizenship. This focus on black urbanism is becoming increasingly important—urban populations are rapidly increasing and cities are sites of high environmental and social vulnerability. A focus on the history, socialization, and resilience of black populations is crucial to understanding a global reality. However, a focus on the Black Metropolis may overemphasize the urban influence in black experiences and may further silence the experiences and relationships of Black populations to the natural or rural environment.

The linkage of urban experiences with black experiences is pervasive, and has deep historical roots within black diasporic studies. Emphasis on this inquiry can mask the significance of the natural/rural environment on black communities and their formation, as well as mute attention to those experiences. In this paper I will trace the influence of race and place on experiences with the “environment,” (which will encompass both the rural and wilderness), with a specific focus on the ways in which blackness has become synonymous with the urban experience, against that of experiences in rural or natural experiences. In turn, the consequences of focusing on the black metropolis include the silencing of rural environmental injustices and the history of trauma associated with rural environments, as well as overlooking black environmentalism and activism. I will highlight Melissa Checker’s book Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town as an example of the ways in which voices in rural areas are disregarded and as an example of the ways in which prejudice and structural racism exists beyond city limits. Finally, I argue that a new framework for the Black Metropolis should be reworked, that focuses not only on the urban lived experiences of black communities, but also provides a link to communities outside of the physical and conceptual limits of a city that emphasizes the influence of history and the environment (urban, rural and natural).

Literature Review of the Black Metropolis and Rural “Othering”

This inquiry begins with a brief literature review of urban and black experiences against that of rural experiences. The “city” or “metropolis” is essential to the study of the Black Metropolis because urbanization has been and will continue to be a major force of human dwelling in the 21st century. Several frameworks for analyzing the city are essential to understanding the Black Metropolis. Michel de Certeau’s analysis of the city and everyday life in “Walking in the City” from The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) emphasized the significance of “the arts of doing” such as walking, and talking.[1] He argued that everyday life works by a process of encroaching on the territory of others using and subverting culturally determined rules and products.  Henri Lefebvre, a neo-Marxist and sociologist of urban and rural life introduced a key framework in The Production of Space (1972), in which he suggests that the production of space and the structure of everyday life exist within a conceptualized triad of the perceived space, conceived space, and the lived space.[2] His work greatly influenced later scholars of Urban Studies and Anthropology, such as Deborah Stevenson, who wrote in The City that “the city is at once conceptual (an idea and the object of theory), material (occupying real space and being formed in response to a range of macro and micro processes), and experienced (lived, sensory, enveloping).”[3]

The frameworks open the conceptualization of the Black Metropolis to further study beyond physical and geographical borders and structures. Instead, the city becomes a space formed also by social influences and lived experiences. When combined with Critical Race Theory, analyses of the African Diaspora, and key methodologies including historical, archival, ethnographic studies, Black Metropolis can be conceptualized, studied on a case by case basis, and compared. While this creation of the Black Metropolis as a concept and reality to study is crucial and useful, how does this focus on the urban overlook rural geographies and experiences? The frameworks in which the Black Metropolis is formed can also be applicable to the formation of black rural communities, and can also be reflective of black experiences with the natural environment (within both urban and rural communities).

An expansion of literature on cultural rural studies and the groups that are constructed as “Other” to rural society (those marginalized by race, age, gender, and disability) is also needed. Jonathan Murdoch and Andy C. Pratt argued in “Strange Ruralities,” that a reflexive awareness of Others and its location at the margins (physically and socially) is necessary in current theoretical and methodological approaches in rural studies.[4] They assert that the rural is “contingent, fluid, detached from any necessary, stable socio-spatial reference point” with several kinds of spaces in which operations take place—regions in which objects are clustered together, and are traditionally illustrated as purified representations of rural spaces; networks, or activities of powerful actors in rural environments who marginalize Others; and fluidity, which encompasses spaces without the solidity of topographical properties like those of regions or the formality of networks. [5]

The framework suggested by Murdoch and Pratt can be compared to those aforementioned in the formation of the Black Metropolis. The formation of the city as at once conceptual, material, and experienced can be compared to that of the rural. Furthermore, social and institutional racism and the consequences and influences of the African and Southern Diaspora (within the United States) also permeate rural environments as well as urban environments. Julian Agyeman and Rachel Spooner illustrated the ways in which racist attitudes exist and impact the lives of people of color as residents and recreational visitors in the English countryside, citing the countryside as a place regarded as free of issues of racism due to perceived whiteness and the exclusion and othering of ethnic people (and plants).[6] Furthermore, Carolyn Finney expanded racial discourse on relationships with the environment as informed by history, memory, media representation, and dominant environmental narratives in rural Florida. It is not my argument that the experiences of black communities in urban environments are the same as those in rural communities, but that they share roots as a consequence of the African diaspora, and that a focus on one experience over the other can have harmful repercussions.[7]

Part 2: Migration, Urbanization and Impacts on Relationships with the Rural and Natural Environment

[1] Carter 2/5/15

[2] “Introduction to Lefebvre”

[3] Stevenson 2013: 3

[4] Cloke, Paul and Little, Jo. Contested Countryside Cultures: Otherness, Marginalization, and Rurality. London: Routledge. 1997

[5] Ibid. 4

[6] Ibid 4

[7] Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. UNC Press Books, 2014.


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