C ON V E RGE N T VOICE S
Portals to Freedom or Researching in Limbo Time Andrea Roberts as a planning and preservation researcher with a passion for the poetic, the just, and the pragmatic, it seems fitting that I would be enchanted by in-between or liminal spaces. Solutions to the challenges we face (creating, protecting, and preserving sustainable built and unbuilt landscapes) are often catalyzed by a sense of wonder or possibility. Often, it is remembering something seemingly irrelevant that perfects a formula, addresses a design flaw, fills a budget gap, or increases forgotten people and places’ access to resources and agency. I am perpetually seeking spaces of possibility imbued with significance by African–American memory. These spaces may manifest as virtual discourse on Twitter, decaying wood on a pier at a water’s edge, a capped spring, or even an abandoned church in a historic settlement. Spatial conditions and uses change over time, but meanings are constant. In-between fuzzy municipal boundaries, farm roads, and manmade rivers, these often rural spaces take us somewhere both forward and backward in time—recalling what was and imagining what could be—particularly when unadulterated black voices and images are able to clearly define the present as they see it. For African-Americans, these spaces may lend themselves to tapping into one of many iterations of diasporic experience. In between a shared past of displacement and forced disconnection from our cultural continuities, a present sense of disorder or yearning for a more just future, and a perpetual search for safe, unsullied, real, and imagined collectivities emerges and informs the way we create places, buildings, and art. My ethnographic and archival research documents the planning, placemaking, and heritage conservation innovations situated in these moments and spaces.
The natural spring at Shankleville Settlement. I was drawn to this lush green entryway, pulled into its dark center when I first saw it in 2014. This wooded area leads to a spring where two formerly enslaved Africans reunited after being divided in Mississippi. After the sale of Jim Shankle’s wife and children, he attempted to find them. He is said to have crossed several “great” rivers as a fugitive slave running away from Mississippi. He found Winnie in Newton County, TX in the early 1840s at the spring at the end of this swirling circle of green. His descendant, Harold Odom maintains the spring at this site surrounded by crepe myrtles, once bushes are now towering trees. Harold lives in almost 3 hours away in suburban Houston, but returns to the spring and family homestead in Shankleville as often as he can.
voices of those traditionally on the margins of placemaking to the center. The focus of the film is a settlement called Ibo Landing, a cinematically constructed place Dash concedes is an imagining of the island off America’s southern coast where enslaved members of I think those of us who deal with the Ibo tribe from West Africa purposely hid and later the built environment must be drowned themselves rather than be taken as slaves to open to improving our practices the mainland. Existing in what Sheila McKoy calls “limbo time,” the film captures a moment in which by recognizing, validating, Ibo Landing serves as an intergenerational, dialogic bridge between life in the settlement that appears to and integrating various forms have sustained itself and its Africanisms despite the of expertise into our notions of Atlantic slave trade and mainland encounters with what expertise looks like. South Carolina and Christianity. This construction of time, explains McKoy, is a “Diaspora notion of time, While conducting research in the marshy, wooded one that is a fusion of African cyclical time and the bottom land of East Texas Freedom Colonies in 2014- disruption of this cycle forced by the Middle Passage. 15, I recalled poetic images that helped me formu- The impetus here is to defy Western temporal notions late an understanding of how black settlements and of time; time becomes a means to challenge Western landscapes enable us to contemplate possibility and attempts to disfigure Diaspora culture.”ii Ibo Landing collectivity amid ongoing struggle against oppression is in danger unless its residents learn to reconcile these and cultural annihilation. They were flashes from two seemingly disparate forms of change and conserJulie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.i Though fictional, vation in a way that allows the young to flourish while the surrealist spatial narratives in the film illuminate embodying limbo time and living in-between. Elders the ways that descendants of the African diaspora who hoped the youngest generation would stay on the (in America) use storytelling and memory to move island and others who wished people would return
10 / P L AT FOR M / 20 17 / C ON V E RGE N T VOICE S
US 190 Bridge at Neches River. This bridge hovers over the many bodies of water serving as both recreation venue and flood prevention. Founded in 1933, the Lower Neches Valley Authority created the Neches River Basin and Sam Rayburn Reservoir and Dam B in the 1950s. There are several reservoirs in the area which often government seizure of Black and poor farmers’ land.
from the mainland coexisted with the voices of those who saw salvation in leaving the island. In much the same fashion, though with nowhere near the elegance of Julie Dash, I documented Freedom Colony stories of those living in-between, in limbo time. These placemaking and preservation stories, transferred across space, class, age, residency, and notions of rootedness varied, but one constant was a commitment to reconstituting a point of return to a diasporic past through cultural reproduction. These performances in ritual celebration and remembrance are aimed at preserving place continuity and sovereignty within sparsely populated black settlements founded by former slaves. Accessing these spaces to record story and memory required building an intimacy and locating entryways, portals into these liminal spaces. It also required a willingness to learn to move, listen, and feel limbo time. These intimacies of field research, relationships, and feelings, these affective mnemonics in wooded spaces along manmade lakes, bridges, and even sterile, masterplanned suburbs, open doors to limbo time. I am always warily pursuing these spaces in limbo time that include people’s homes, thickly wooded green spaces and