Reflections from J.T. Roane, IRT ’08

I have the honor of serving as the co-editor of Black Perspectives, the award-winning digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) along with Dr. Sasha Turner. Dr. Keisha Blain founded the site in 2017 with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi serving as associate editor. Black Perspectives emerged as an outgrowth of the original AAIHS blog founded by Dr. Chris Cameron in 2014 as part of his efforts to build AAIHS. I began writing for the platform in 2017, in 2018 I became an associate editor, and in January 2019, I assumed the role of senior editor.

This experience has been quite a journey for me. To be honest, I could barely envision myself as a writer, let alone an editor, before 2016. Previously, I enjoyed historical research and writing since I was first inspired by Drs. Claudrena Harold and Wende Marshall and others as an African and African American Studies major at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute. However, I found that the PhD process, while bringing my research capacity forward immensely, had made me into a very timid writer. Beyond sending work to my committee, who I reasoned knew my writing ticks well, I was paralyzed by sharing work, often too nervous to forward my work-in-progress, even to supportive friends.

While I think that part of this fear about writing and publishing was par for the course of PhD work, I also felt constrained by being ‘country’—not only Southern but from a rural background.  I grew up in Tappahannock, Virginia—the town and surrounding county have just over 10,000 residents. Before moving to Harlem for graduate work, the largest city in which I had ever lived for more than a month or so was Charlottesville, VA, which had somewhere just under 50,000 inhabitants at the time. Not only was I intimidated by the scale of New York, but I struggled to “fit in”- sartorially, in discourse, and in every other way imaginable. In class and in talks, I struggled to make my thoughts legible—to translate them from the modes of intellectual engagement that are organic to me and that are inflected by my twang, into the rarified and often exclusionary discussions that define graduate school in many of the US’s elite institutions.  Although I found intellectual community at the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), I struggled to compose my thoughts in the heated and sometimes mean spirited debates in history seminars. I wore baggy clothes and wrapped my hair when it wasn’t fro-ed out. I went to class ready to “go off” about the works we were reading in my Essex County vernacular but was silenced because I couldn’t find my own voice among the clamor – the intent was to shred, rather than generously appreciate works.

It was only after an invitation from Dr. Alondra Nelson (then serving as Dean of the Social Sciences at Columbia) to participate in the Op Ed Writing Project in the spring just before I defended my dissertation that the switch clicked for me in terms of writing and publishing. It was following that workshop—two days in which award-winning journalists Mary C. Curtis and Deborah Douglass encouraged us to own and hone our expertise in public-facing writing—that I began to seriously consider that my work might be resonant beyond my committee. Deborah Douglass in particular guided me through the two-day process, encouraging me along the way. After the workshop she went above and beyond helping me to connect with an editor to land the piece at Standard Pacific as one of my very first published essays. This process opened the floodgates for me. Soon after , I began to publish with Black Perspectives.

From there I began in earnest to map my book project through entries for the blog, writing for venues like The Brooklyn Rail, and later The Immanent Frame. While on postdoctoral fellowship at Smith College, under the astute mentorship of then-chair of Africana Studies, Dr. Kevin Quashie, I wrote my first peer-reviewed essay for publication. At the time, as I conceived it, “Plotting the Black Commons” was a side essay in anticipation of my second book manuscript. (I was naïve about what it takes to finish a first book!) The article published in Souls examines Black communities’ engagement with practices of place and alternative figurations of land and water in the antebellum and post-emancipation periods around the lower–Chesapeake Bay.

Although at the time I had not intended this work as directly informing my book manuscript, I have subsequently come to see it as part of what journalist Dani McClain described to me during a public discussion as “working my beat”—the process of writing smaller pieces that help set the contours of your book manuscript over time.

My work has come full circle. Not only have I come to see my country vernacular as my greatest intellectual resource—as the source of ancestral power in my writing voice—I now center the ways that rural and southern Black communities remade Philadelphia. The dissident visions of urban society and futurity that emerged as Black southern migrants trekked to Philadelphia and translated and remixed the social outlook of the plot, are the center of my book “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” The book, under contract with NYU Press investigates multiple modes of insurgent spatial assemblage and queer social formation—or dark agoras—from within which Philadelphia’s Black communities articulated disparaged forms of knowledge about the city.  “Dark Agoras” recovers counter-intuitive historical connections between various progenitors of Black queer urbanism including Father Divine’s esoteric spiritualist movement, the Peace Mission, the followers of John Africa’s radical environmentalist “law of life,” MOVE, and Philadelphia’s unsanctioned frontline queer HIV-AIDS and harm reduction organization, Prevention Point. To the historiography of twentieth century urban social movements my book contributes the account of a six- decade tradition whereby ordinary Black city dwellers traversed the spaces of the Black underground and the set-apart spaces of esoteric Black religious life, tracing a rogue urban phenomenology, and generating a challenge to key aspects of the pro-growth formula of social-spatial order prescribed by dominant urbanists.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in history from Columbia University and he is a 2008 graduate of the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia. He currently serves as co-senior editor of Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Roane’s scholarly essays have appeared in Souls Journal, The Review of Black Political Economy, and Current Research in Digital History. His work  has also appeared venues such as The Brooklyn Rail, Pacific Standard, The Immanent Frame, and Martyr’s Shuffle, Roane is a 2020-2021 Research Fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: