Interview with Joshua Aiken

4004 and 4008 Cook Avenue, December 24th, 2016, Photo by Joshua Aiken.

Kierstan Carter, posted on April 27, 2017

Interview with Joshua Aiken: Joshua Aiken is a Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative. His research focuses on the impact of displacement and criminalization on the Black freedom struggle.

 How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about that particular place?

I ended up finding the Cook Avenue site when I was working on broader projects on the relationship between black self-defense and gun laws. I found the Cook Avenue sites by looking at the NAACP records from the publication, The Crisis, and finding all of these instances of black people needing to take up guns in order to resist, everyday, violence either being enacted on them by White vigilante groups, by police officers, or by other entities that were supported or protected by the state. When I stumbled upon a site in St. Louis, it really struck me as a place that took place at the crossroads of St. Louis’ long racial histories. Cook Avenue is one of the many streets in St. Louis, that in one direction transforms into fully developed neighborhoods and when you turn the other direction you find vacant lots. Houses falling apart. I knew Cook Avenue in that way and finding this instance of armed black resistance it drew me to think “what this place be able to reveal?”

What kinds of questions do you find yourself asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?

I wanted to think about two things: (1) How can we talk about abandonment and displacement as defining features of racial life in the United States and especially in a city like St. Louis? I don’t think you can really live in St. Louis and not experience a discourse of vacant lots of abandoned neighborhoods; live here and not see buildings in slow collapse. I wanted to ask questions of what that meant when infrastructure is defined by anti-blackness—defined by race. I thought the Cook Avenue demanded that kind of question[ing] because this was where multiple black families were moving to begin desegregating the city. These were once highly desired places and places of state investment. You have state laws and city ordinances and Post-Dispatch articles about these homes and now they’re empty vacant lots that the city is selling for a couple thousand dollars. What does it mean when the state invests, disinvests, abandons, and vacates properties that are defined by blackness? And (2) what do processes of segregation and desegregation actually mean in a particular historical moment? I think I’m really trying to add complexity to how we talk about segregation and desegregation because the reality is that desegregation in the United States is part of a dominant narrative of civil rights progress that tries to neutralize and obscure the “afterlives of slavery.” The ways in which properties have been invested in along segregated lines even as people have been “desegregating” is a much more complex story. Amidst racial capitalism, black people lack the economic access, resources, and opportunity and any version of state investment to make what desegregation was nominally and supposed to be coupled with--which was some type of equality. So I’m trying to situate that conversation around segregation and desegregation in the different infrastructures of 20th and 21st century American racial life.

What challenges are you encountering with site-based study?

The biggest one is not being in St. Louis and not having the chance to read the archives in the way that I would want because I think what makes site based research super exciting is you can trace a site’s genealogy. I’ve had moments when I’ve thought, “Yes I’m looking at these sites in the beginning of 20th century and today and placing them side-by-side, but also I’m interested in what’s happening in between or what’s happening in moments when families were just living in these homes but there was still inflamed racial moments happening in the 1930s and 1980s.” Not being able to be in St. Louis makes reading the archives of a space and a place particular hard. It’s been a challenge but it is also what is broadly exciting about the Modern Segregation project. We’re not all writing manuscript works on these sites even though we probably could. We’re trying to piece together impressions of what writing about historical processes of segregation might allow. So I think it has been a limitation but it is also opening up a kind of historical inquiry: how can I look at two moments and ask about what’s happening in between without acting as if I’ll be able to do over a hundred years of history justice.

What were your expectations about the project and site, and what have you found that has surprised or even shocked you, and forced you to revise those expectations?

Part of it has been the sheer amount of stuff that’s come up from just two historical moments. It’s been reading about the families that moved into these homes and had white neighbors routinely throw rocks in their window and form a local committee to attempt to buy back the property and say that the value was going down because these black families moved into this neighborhood. The idea that this grew from the piece that I saw in The Crisis and then a couple articles in The St. Louis Post Dispatch. These moments had ripple effects in the families’ lives. Coming upon another moment with the Hudlin family and realizing that the family that moves into the house on Cook Avenue had been part of a number of racial transgressions and civil rights movement in St. Louis. They helped desegregate tennis tournaments and tennis courts. Arthur Ashe’s coach was one of The Hudlins. These people are able to tell a much richer story than we might think from just picking a historical story to tell about a place.  It’s just been the fact that the people have obviously informed the site but the site also informed the people and the generations of these particular families that have continued to—in my mind—push ideas of what resisting racialized living looks like. I think it’s really easy for us to pinpoint marches or protest as particularly political moments but what does it mean when your family’s everyday life and generations of their lives in a City has been exhaustively transgression legal and social boundaries. How have black people done that in ways that are often times risky and scary but generationally, is a social fact of black life in the United States. Black people have had to develop alternative modes of existence in a country, and a world, that negates the value of their lives at every turn. So that’s been kind of a surprise in a site that I was only looking for a couple of moments that I knew got big news, but also realizing that there were dozens of those moments in the context of just the Hudlin’s and Cook Avenue.

 How has collaboration played a part in your research process?

Sowande’ Mustakeem kind of inspired this line of site-based inquiry for me. I’m in a Facebook group with my former classmates, some of her former students, and when I was working on my dissertation and was in England, I came upon this bit in The Crisis and I posted asking, “Has anyone heard of this site? Mustakeem would often post in this group and drop little historical tidbits and number of people were still in St. Louis and so I just asked, “Has anyone heard of Cook Avenue or know anything about this?” and nobody did, but people were excited about it and I had a couple people volunteer to go take pictures and look at the site for me. This was part of how I learned that this story of Cook Avenue as a place where the violence of segregation, desegregation, and abandonment resonated. Although it has been pursued on the research end independently, it was borne out of a community of people who are all interested in looking very closely at seemingly small historical sites or texts and realizing there was so much to draw from them.

 How do you plan to incorporate visual content into the publication?

I went to the site in December and I saw it two summers ago and have kind of been keeping tabs but before that I was just Google Earth viewing it obsessively. Just because I knew the project would completely change if the property sold and started developing it. It’s very much a neighborhood in flux. There’s a couple new single story home that have been built across the street from a few brick homes that are empty and falling apart and if they’d been kept intact would be like a lot of really beautiful historic St. Louis homes that today are venerated and treasured, but instead are falling apart and are fire hazards and are slowly disintegrating.

There have just been some really exciting pictures that I’ve gone and taken and images on Google Earth of these lots. I’ve taken a lot of screenshots of Google Earth images of people using one of the vacant lots as basically as a makeshift parking lot. Different people in the neighborhoods will just park their truck. At another point, someone was tending a small garden in the lot. Different people in the neighborhood will just park their truck there. So I have images of all these different trucks being parked there. People have used the space of this demolished home and a slowly disintegrating one next door casually, which is fascinating when you consider that this was a place where white communities were ready to pass an ordinance to get this property out of black people’s hands. This was a place that white people were ready to and tried to burn down, this a place where the St. Louis police force had to patrol and protect this black family despite simultaneously being a primary enactor of violence against black people in the city. The images give for me the metaphor for what has happened in St. Louis. That was just my experiences of St. Louis as a city. All of these vacant lots and falling down home were a metaphor for the State’s relationship to spaces that have been marked by black social life. So I’ve just been asking, what visually can I capture to convey the type of transgression and also violence I see in those sites that most people wouldn’t identity as transgression or as violence because they aren’t anything that out of the norm. I think visuals will be a big part of what the project works with.

How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?

The reason I am studying the relationship between anti-blackness, gun laws and forms of state violence is trying to draw a connection between the fact that the United States has a unique relationship to gun laws that leaves black people susceptible to incredulous amounts of harm but at the same time doesn’t see gun laws, and notions of fear and safety that inform gun laws, in the context of racism. For me, telling the story at Cook Avenue is trying to give more complexity to the debates that happen in the United States around gun laws and how people talk about state violence against black people. Because I think if we start thinking about Cook as a site of state abandonment then we start thinking more critically about the way that black neighborhoods always get abandoned by the state and if we think about Cook Avenue as a site of transgression that has to do with gun laws. It’s a place that a black person was arrested for armed carry because he was defending a black home. I think one of the think one of the reason that gun control is so challenging, and that gun rights are so bound up in American identity—we act like notions of standing-your-ground are new, and the reality is that our laws, especially gun laws, have always been structured to keep white people and property safe, and specifically to leave communities of color unprotected, susceptible to state and state-sponsored harm. Black people today nominally can carry guns and practice their 2nd amendment right, but let’s be clear that gun laws have never been about protecting black life. These laws, and police practices, have always been about protecting white safety. This project is very much about a set of racist laws, polices, and practices that are embedded in gun laws and arguments for and against gun control, but get treated as race-neutral.

Read more about Joshua’s site here. Learn more about Joshua Aiken by visiting the Contributors page. For additional information about the MWMS project please go to our main page.

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