This past summer, my friend and I were perusing the exhibits at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture when she urgently called for my attention. “Psst… Isn’t this where you are from?” she asked, pointing at a placard titled African American Life in Montgomery County. Yes! I grew up, I was educated, and I was churched in Montgomery County, Maryland. So I eagerly read the exhibit’s description:
By 1900 there were at least eight African American communities in Montgomery County, Maryland. Unlike many rural African Americans, the residents were not tenant farmers—they owned their property and homes. This gave them greater control over the land and the crops they produced. They also directly benefited from improvements to their homes, which was an incentive to make additions and to stay in place. Descendants of these early settlers still live in these communities today.
These communities had stability and opportunities for development derived from the power to claim their spaces for themselves. I felt joy and pride for these early communities, but I was confused. Why had I not heard of them before? Where exactly were they located? I pondered this while standing inside a reconstruction of one of their homes, something else I had not previously seen.
There are doubtless many reasons for my lack of exposure to this history of African American self-determination, homeownership, and land investment. One significant reason is a general unawareness about the importance of ordinary buildings – of everyday architecture – to shape the conditions of possibility for human lives. Architecture comprises a significant part of the material conditions of our lives. A building’s design reflects societal, group, and individual decisions about aesthetics, allocation of resources, and function. These decisions are informed by values and priorities, some of which are part of our moral orientation. While decisions about whether a space should be painted sky blue or cerulean blue may not rest on moral factors, decisions about who has access to a space, and consequently, how entrances should be designed, have moral implications. There are countless decisions made about every building’s design that will ultimately affect how people dwell within it.
Many accomplished scholars of religion examine religious architecture for what it expresses about religious traditions, practices, and forms. However, their research tends to overlook the spiritual interpretations of more humble dwellings. That overlooked area of research is part of what I do as a scholar, informed by black feminist and liberationist commitments.
The system of constructed spaces that humanity inhabits comprised of architecture, landscape design, and infrastructure is known as the built environment. Over the past few months, I’ve been working on an article about the built environment and its relevance to religion, spirituality, and contemporary justice movements like Black Lives Matter. This essay, “’Let’s Imagine Something Different’: Spiritual Principles in Contemporary African American Justice Movements and Their Implications for the Built Environment” has been published in Religions and is available online.
My article examines spiritual principles in contemporary African American justice movements and imagines the possibilities for infusing them into the design of built environments. Through analysis of the spiritual practices and themes in the Black Lives Matter movement as described by its founders, the paper identifies three principles and relates them to similar concepts in African American religious thought, womanist ethics, and ecowomanism. Applying these three spiritual principles–liberation, inspiration, and healing–to the design of architecture and public spaces can enrich and affirm African American life. Appealing to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as an example, I articulate the possibilities of architectural projects to symbolically and practically support liberative goals in African American religious systems and political movements.
The article is recently published, and I invite you to read it to begin to explore how religion and feminism can inform the material tasks of (literally) constructing a just world. It is in an open access journal, so you do not need to pay or subscribe to see the essays in it. You can find the full article here. There are other fascinating essays in this issue of the online journal, Religions. It is a special issue on “Race and Religion: New Approaches to African American Religions.” The issue is a window into the diverse landscape of African American religious thought and practice, and many of the essays reflect concerns that our FAR community shares—or should be interested. I would love to hear what you think about justice concerns and the built environment as I continue to pursue this area of scholarship.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: Academy, Activism, American History, Art, Black Feminism, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, environment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Healing, Justice, Race and Religion, Sacred Space, Social Justice, thriving, Womanist Theology, women of color