What Remains?

Ethnographic Archives and Speculative Black Geographies

Ashanté M. Reese

“What do we do with memories in the wake of spatial loss? How do they help to reconstruct places that may only live in the stories we tell?”

In April 2018, I returned to the neighborhood in northeast Washington, DC, where, over the course of six years at that point, I had conducted ethnographic fieldwork. It was not my first time returning. Every time I went to DC after relocating, I tried to visit, at least stopping into the small grocery store where I spent much of my time. But this visit was different for several reasons. It was the first time that I was in the city since the passing of the grocery’s owner, the person who assumes the pseudonym “Mr. Jones” in my book Black Food Geographies. He had passed away a few months prior, in January, and it was a loss that I was still making sense of. I knew he had been sick. During a visit before his passing, I noticed that his stamina was lower than usual, but I did not think it my place to ask, and he told me no more details than those necessary to convey that he had been in the hospital but was recovering. I was, as always, happy to see him, though I did not know it would be the last time on this earthly plane.

The second reason it was different was because I was not alone. Part of my visit was to share my research with a journalist who was writing a story about food, self-reliance, and community. We spent six hours together that day, first sharing lunch and talking about my research broadly and then driving to the neighborhood so that I could point out significant places and recount some of my days walking the streets and meeting new people. When we got there, I first took him to Mr. Jones’s store. Everything on the outside looked the same: it retained the same signage, the same well-swept street corner, and the same bars on the window. I was nervous. I had not been to this store without Mr. Jones being there. I didn’t know how I would feel entering it, but I thought I was prepared.

I was not. When we entered the store—me first and the journalist following—I gasped. The space had a completely different configuration. The counter where Mr. Jones used to sit and people-watch and give me unsolicited advice was replaced by shelves. The makeshift bench in the window where I sat while listening to this unsolicited advice was gone. In fact, the window was not visible at all. Instead, there was an enclosed space with bulletproof glass standing between me and the cashier behind it. Presumably responding to me gasping while frozen in place, the person behind the glass stood to ask if I needed help. “No,” I responded. “I used to come here a lot. The owner was my friend.”

I was overwhelmed by grief, not having expected to feel a double loss of Mr. Jones and the store. I stood outside for a moment, arrested and stalled by my acute awareness of the journalist and his tape recorder. If I was going to fall apart, it would not be then. I jotted down a few notes, took a deep breath, and directed the reporter to the next stop—a community garden at a public housing project. It was also gone.

Over several months, I would come to wonder: what do we do with memories in the wake of spatial loss? How do they help to reconstruct places that may only live in the stories we tell? Further, what am I to make of the archive of photos and audio of places and people that no longer exist?

Mr. Jones’s store and the community garden were two experiments in how freedom gets lived out, within and through mundane everyday practices like maintaining a Black-owned store across two generations and saving and planting seeds on stolen land that would soon be “revitalized.” The store and the garden exposed the limits of subjecting Black space to “traditional” knowledges and measurements that are typically used in geography and offer insight into reflecting on urban spaces as marronage practices—the imaginative, creative, and everyday ways Black people make lives. Black food geographies both reveal the “uncertainty of space” and are “the terrain of political struggle itself.”1

Black places that no longer exist in a material sense are important. They force us to contend with how the memories of residents and the archives of ethnographic data we collect function as alternative geographies. These alternative geographies can inform our understandings of who and what remains in the wake of disappearance. To explore memory and ethnographic archives as alternative geographies is to question scales of analyses that lose the granular, everyday practices that alter space. They also illustrate Black livingness as a fugitive practice that reimagines and ruptures space-time in ways that create additional pathways for a totally different form of living.2

What changes if our ethnographic or research practices are reconceptualized as archival methods that capture those imaginings and ruptures in real time before (or as?) they become traces of themselves? What if our ways of naming, documenting, capturing, knowing place were not primarily constructed as research practices at all but as contributions to a different kind of worldmaking—one that we may or may not live to see? What if the urgency of our work is not primarily understood through the timelines of writing a dissertation or submitting a tenure package? What if our work is guided not by saving or preserving a space forever but rather by building the conceptual and methodological tools that will help craft more equitable, sustainable futures?

How, with whom, and where we choose to do our work is a professional and sometimes personal choice. But it is also a political one that has implications for our own work and for that of others in the future. What if our fieldnotes are planned to be read by those who are carving pathways toward different futures? What if the notes, fragments, and images we capture were all that was left at the end of this world and the beginning of the next?

From the Black Geographies Issue (vol. 29, no. 2: Summer 2023)
Illustrations by Nancey B. Price

Falling from the World: Earthseed, Black Geographies, and the Apocalyptic Now

To explore connections between spatial loss, memory, and using our ethnographic research to build new worlds, I returned to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a 1993 science fiction novel set in the aftermath of devasting climate change and vast inequities in the US that have produced an unsustainable amount of violence. We first meet the novel’s protagonist, fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina, in 2024. Though the world outside is crumbling, Olamina’s family and neighbors are relatively safe in a gated community, but they are resented by those outside the walls. Three years after we meet her, the community is attacked and Olamina’s family is killed. Not unlike many Black girls that we all know and love, she does what seems to be the only sensible thing: she gathers survivors and leads them through the chaotic world outside of the gated community that failed to protect them. The journey is not easy, as Olamina is a hyperempath who can feel the pain and emotions of others she encounters, sometimes causing her deep anguish. Despite this, she is clear-eyed about freedom. In this postapocalyptic world, Olamina leads Earthseed, a religion-turned-community destined to sustain human life.3

We know about Lauren Olamina’s movements, thoughts, experiences, and vision for building Earthseed because she documents them. Alternating between journal entries and passages from Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina writes to us from the future. She shows us the future of this world: climate disaster that makes water scarce; multinational consolidation and corporate greed that leave whole communities to die; desperation, murder, and gang violence; constant threats to individual and communal safety. She also shows us what is required to build anew: the clearing, the gathering, the documenting, the visioning. In short, Butler’s Parable shows us now.

To conceive of how we too might build and live as Earthseed by adopting Lauren Olamina’s worldmaking practices into our research, I return to the two sites I began with—Mr. Jones’s store and the community garden. Guided by Olamina’s instructions in Earthseed, I stage a relationship between fieldnotes from my work in DC from 2012 to 2016 and speculative notes that imagine what could be possible if “that which will have had to happen” (i.e., writing fieldnotes for and toward possible futures) takes place. This is a conversation between Butler’s Olamina, me, and an ethnographer/archivist/Earthseeder in the future. It is one version of what is possible if the fieldnotes I collected were freely available, given over to the community and held in a library, public archive, or time capsule for the express purpose of building new worlds.4

In an essay for e-flux Architecture, sociologist Ruha Benjamin offers three fieldnote excerpts, each set two hundred years from the previous one—dated 1816, 2016, and 2216. Together, the fieldnotes think through the past, present, and future of the technological and aesthetic choices made at any given moment, bringing into sharp focus the violent and the “casually eugenic” processes bound up in narratives of progress and modernity. This methodological exercise, she writes, “is a way to fashion possible futures and probable pasts, enabling analysts to critically reflect on the present. In experimenting with the line between fact and fiction, we can begin to question the assumption of inevitability that surrounds technological development” while exploring the “relationality of innovation and containment—who and what is fixed in place, corralled and coerced, so others are free to fabricate the future?”5

Food is the connecting thread in Benjamin’s speculative fieldnotes: in 1816, the forced feeding of enslaved people; in 2016, the question of how to address food insecurity; in 2216, a world of famine in which some have been genetically modified to self-sustain and others presumably survive through malnutrition. At its core, the apocalyptic world that Benjamin writes does not look very different from the apocalyptic world of the now, though in the present we still have time (or at least hope) to refuse the preventable suffering and death that global capitalism produces. The question is and has been: but how?

While I am necessarily concerned with how we write different futures, the willingness, ability, and urgency to do so is firmly located in the now, and the “future” we’re writing toward is not so far out of the scope of possibilities as it may have felt thirty years ago when Octavia Butler published Parable of the Sower. Near the end of Listening to Images, historian Tina Campt poses these questions: “How do we live the future we want to see now when confronted with the statistical probability of premature black mortality? How do we create an alternative future by living both the future we want to see, while inhabiting its potential foreclosure at the same time?”6

This reimagining takes up Campt’s unanswered questions to think through methodological challenges and possibilities of how memory and ethnographic archives might intervene in the time of now.

Belief
Initiates and guides action—
Or it does nothing.7

Fieldnote: Planting the Future | 25 October 2013

OK, back to Mr. Harris’s home. When we opened the door, the first thing I said was “Wow!” This man has turned his apartment into a greenhouse. Plants in recycled plastic juice containers and planters, and seeds and leaves in recycled plastic gelatin and fruit containers crowded the single window in the living room. He’s growing various peppers, tomatoes, lemon and orange trees, and experimenting with a pine tree . . . all in his apartment! He’s also growing a plant that he calls “the mother tongue,” which is a species of snake plant. He started them from a cutting he took from his grandmother’s garden. She is the person who taught him about gardening. One of his neighbors was so excited about the garden that he ordered seeds from China. Neither he nor his neighbor know what those seeds are. I googled them and nothing came up. Anyway, it’s truly amazing. He told me they tried to get funding for a greenhouse but did not receive it. So, the next best thing? He cares for each plant in his home. Moves them around to get more light. Waters them. Repots them. The plants spill over into his kitchen. I wondered does he have any space to cook.8

He explained every single plant to me: where it came from, how he cares for it, how it behaves inside versus outside. He’s trying to keep the plants alive until the next planting season. We spent about forty-five minutes inside his home talking about the plants. One of his gardening partners arrived about fifteen minutes after us. She came in, took a seat, and seemed to be just as awed by the explanations of the plans as I was, even though she hears about them fairly regularly since they work together.

The gardeners compost. They save the seeds from peppers, apples, and oranges, and those have been used to plant the current crop. Now, it is unclear whether they are doing this as a result of not having much money (making a way out of no way), but I don’t think that matters at all. The current interest (obsession?) with sustainability in this country is so marked by visibility. Conspicuous sustainability. But the people here aren’t doing this for airtime. They are trying to keep their gardens alive by any means necessary. They sure fit well within a legacy of creating opportunities and sustainable lifestyles that is so much a part of Africana history. How amazing is it that even as they watch their neighbors be relocated to other parts of the city in anticipation of the housing projects being torn down, members of this community are still planting life (literally and figuratively).

Your teachers
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to youor taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you—
If you will learn.
God is your first
And your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher.
subtle,
demanding.
Learn or die.

Fieldnote: Today We Plant | 17 May 2114

They try to feed us intravenously. We refuse. They laugh. We still refuse. They think that we do not know that there are other ways. They think that we do not remember that food grows in the ground—not only in labs. They talk about efficiency. They tell us we do not have to be hungry. That is one point on which we agree. We do not have to be hungry, and we will not be. The books and guides that teach people how to grow food on their own have all been destroyed. Except the ones we have. Our ancestors who were growers saved seeds, and some others documented their practices. Some artists created art with the seeds, which turned out to be a good thing, because they were hidden in plain sight. About a hundred years ago, researchers, writers, artists, and activists created archives outside of traditional institutions—collecting and storing seeds, stories, books, art, and tools in vessels buried under the ground. That is why we have the seeds and know what to do with them. We dug those up, and along with the knowledge of the elders who still live, we have planted. Harvest soon comes.

Once or twice
each week
A Gathering of Earthseed
is a good and necessary thing.
It vents emotion, then
quiets the mind.
It focuses attention,
strengthens purpose, and
unifies people.

Fieldnote: Farmer’s Market | 17 May 2014

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had not been to this park or the market. When we drove up, my partner asked, “Is that it?” There was a building to our left with some people milling around it. I said, “I think so.” We parked and hopped out of the car. Andrea (pseudonym) suggested we walk inside to see the artwork there. It was called “The Visual Harvest.” There was a sign describing the exhibit as “a collection of art from artists who are community minded, environmentally friendly, and visually intrigued. The art represented in this exhibition is that of what Harvest really is, a pulling together of community to celebrate life.” Our favorite piece looked to be an African woman with a baby on her back. The artwork was made from seeds.

As we were walking out of the room that showcased the artwork, we ran into a woman we came to know as Christian. She introduced herself, and since she seemed like someone in charge, I assumed she was the woman I had contacted on Facebook about interviewing. I introduced myself, saying I was the one who had emailed her, and we embraced. I love that about Black people. We greet and hug. Anyway, we started talking about the market. This was the first year she had organized it, and she had big plans. She saw it as something that can bring community together. The Market itself had a great little vibe. We didn’t stay to witness it, but the man who was at the raw food and juice table brought his saxophone to offer a little music. Black folks are some of the most creative and talented people in the world. This is one of the reasons why food can’t just be about food for us; it has to encompass nourishment beyond the body. In a lot of ways, we seem to understand food’s connection to life more holistically.

The sustainability organization I’ve been following was there too. They were passing out information about the plan to make DC the greenest, healthiest, most affordable city. I need to contact them to find out more information about how they are planning to do that. I spoke briefly to a person who talked about the initiatives to increase urban farming and farmer’s markets. There’s also a push for “local,” meaning food within one hundred miles of the city.

The event was marketed as a “Farmer’s Market,” but there were more artisan vendors than actual produce. Vendors—vegetable or otherwise—could participate free of charge, an experiment to both increase participation and reduce barriers to access. Strawberries, watermelon, potatoes, bell peppers, and apples rounded out the produce available today. The bell peppers didn’t have a price, strawberries were five for one dollar, and apples were fifty cents each. There wasn’t much, but locals were coming over to buy what was there. The organizer talked about the people who hang out in the park. She mentioned that some of the men bought most of the strawberries, at least twenty dollars’ worth. As we were getting ready to leave, a man who appeared to be intoxicated came over from the park to buy an apple. The organizers and vendors welcomed him and others, and it was nice to see them not ignoring the visitors or pretending that the park, formerly the site of a well-known open-air drug market, was not also part of the community.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.

Fieldnote: And to Survive | 16 April 2214

There is no more space to build. Here, on this bridge between starshine and clay, one cannot buy more space. One cannot buy relevance or stature or importance. Here, on this bridge between starshine and clay, we marvel at our survival. The elders say that the end of the world was not sudden, but that is hard for me to believe. One day we were there, and today we are here, trying to make a way out of no way. But they tell us that it took years for Monsanto to own the patents to almost every seed that exists, except the ones held by us and our Indigenous kin. They say we have those only because of something called a “seed swap” back then. They also tell us that the Gates corporation didn’t always own 85 percent of the arable land in the world, that they first made people believe they cared about others through modernizing the world through technology and then through philanthropy. And one day we looked up, and they were buying land. But our elders say that they and our ancestors trained for this, that this making-a-way is not new to them and there are signs all around us. Those ancient ways are how and why we survive. The ancestors braided seeds in their hair. They painted paths to this bridge in their artwork. They practiced systems of exchange that were not based on money so that those practices would carry on in memories. They knew we would get here. They knew that we could not depend solely on the earth to contain us or our secrets. So they hid and carried them—in their hair, in their bodies, in their art, in their stories. We planted those seeds. We hung that art. They tell us we were never meant to survive, but I don’t believe them. If we were not meant to survive, how and why did the ancestors leave us so much? God is change. Thank god for roadmaps.9

Any Change may bear seeds of benefit.
Seek them out.
Any Change may bear seeds of harm.
Beware.
God is infinitely malleable.
God is Change.

Fieldnote: He’s Tired and Sick | 29 July 2016

First stop: Mr. Jones’s store.

When I walked in, he was sitting in his same rolling desk chair with one leg propped on the counter. I said, “I came to see a man about a dog.” He laughed. I leaned over to give him a hug, and he kissed my cheek. I noticed that he did not offer to get up and give me a hug, and I figured maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he wasn’t as mobile or feeling well. I took a seat and, of course, we began chatting about everything. I noticed he was still wearing the necklace I gave him in 2014 after returning from South Africa. At some point while I was there, he let it slip that he had surgery (he wouldn’t say what for), and he told me that he took out his earrings but he refused to take off the necklace. He hasn’t taken it off since I gave it to him. Just typing that right now makes me emotional. Mr. Jones is aging and his health is failing. At some point I looked up and noticed someone in the back—a stout black man who would occasionally look up at us. I waved. He waved back but didn’t introduce himself. I thought about going to introduce myself to him, but I did not. I just kept glancing at him as he cleaned, stocked the cooler with more water, and organized the shelves. That man is Hank, Mr. Jones’s son, a forty-four-year-old police officer. Mr. Jones said he has been doing it for twenty-two years and plans to retire. Hank mostly paid us no attention as he went about doing his work. I took note of him mostly because during the week, there is usually no one in the store except Mr. Jones. His other son, Reggie, comes on the weekends. That was another sign that he must not be doing very well.

About an hour into my visit, my student, Ashley, came. She is helping me in the field and getting some experience with doing research. She sat down and started talking to Mr. Jones. They got into a little debate about dating white boys/white girls. It was so funny. Mr. Jones said something about sistas giving men a hard time, and Ashley went off. Mr. Jones backed down a bit, until Ashley said she liked dating white boys. We did not formally interview Mr. Jones then, but I told him I would come back on Saturday.

While we were there, he mentioned that he is giving up the store. “I can’t do another winter. I don’t wanna do another winter.” That caught me off guard. I offered sympathetic understanding, but it made me really sad. I half-jokingly said that he couldn’t leave because I wouldn’t know where to find him. He told me he’d give me his address.

I know that neighborhoods change, businesses change, ownership changes. Yet I cannot shake the feeling of incredible loss that will come when Mr. Jones closes the store. It isn’t because the store feeds a lot of people. They don’t get much business. It’s mostly because of the symbolic, cultural, and historical loss that will come with its closing. Regardless of how much business the store gets, it means something to people. Even to many of the young kids who come in. Mr. Jones knows them and many of their families. Not only will the store close, but so will his brother’s barbershop. And the old restaurant his family owns will likely never reopen. I also learned that the nearby Black-owned liquor store is looking to sell as well. It seems as if so many of the staples of that community will no longer be around. On the other hand, I feel like it is really selfish to want to hold on to these stores, especially if the owners are tired and old and their children can’t or won’t take over. Why is it that our Black-owned businesses have to carry so much weight, have to fill so many voids? How and why is that we know in our hearts that if/when these businesses are sold, the new owners will likely not have any stake in the community beyond economic gains and will not honor the histories and legacies of these enterprises? It seems terribly unfair that these are the considerations we have to have and that despite them, life really just goes on and everything they worked toward will just be memories. I realized this morning that I might have some of the few recorded interviews/oral histories of Mr. Jones’s store. I hope I can find a way to honor it.

Earthseed
Cast on new ground
Must first perceive
That it knows nothing.

Fieldnote: A Return | 28 July 2316

It has been a long fight—almost one hundred years—but the place is ours again. Today, we take a pilgrimage back to the neighborhood we lost during the intense periods of gentrification that forced us out. We touch the ground, and we remember. We offer our first fruits of the season, and we remember. We recommit to the communal practices whose roots are deeper than the beginning of this world. And we remember.

* * *

This methodological exercise of writing speculative fieldnotes is not only about the work of imagining various futures; it is also about how the work we do now participates in (or anticipates) writing our way towards or away from various possibilities. It is, as anthropologist Anand Pandian writes, a “tacking between close attention to what is and sweeping imagination of what else might also be.” In my engagement in this practice, I have not chosen to write futures where there is no hardship, no loss, no pain, and no inequity. Instead, I am thinking about the consequences of the apocalyptic now—a world where billionaires like Bill Gates steadily purchase arable farmland and Monsanto patents seeds, for example—alongside the question of what the food and communal practices I observed and recorded during fieldwork might look like in the future. What lives do they make possible? I want to think about how imagining a world a hundred years into the future opens up many possibilities for thinking about today/now and how we orient our research practices.10

And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.

In 2025, Lauren Olamina writes, “I don’t know how it will happen or when it will happen. There’s so much to do before it can even begin. I guess that’s to be expected. There’s always a lot to do before you get to go to heaven” (85). From the past, April 26, 2021, I write back: Lauren, I wish I could say that on a global scale we are doing things differently to avoid the catastrophes you experience in 2024, but we are not. Instead, I fear things will get much worse before they get better. Just last week, we lost a beautiful Black girl who should still be here, changing the world with her creativity. Daily, thousands around the world die from this ongoing pandemic because profit continues to reign over people. And then there’s the violent removal of Black people everywhere—where else can we be displaced to, I wonder. And we who work for universities are getting restless, questioning their utility, trying to find new language, new methods for wrenching our labor from it and toward the building of Earthseed. It is hard. We’re faced with enclosure on all sides. But they do not know that our destiny is among the stars. We do, and many of us are ready to put it all on the line to catapult us there. And if not us, those you lead in the future. So, we collect, we document, we use our university resources to support community work. We train, we train, we train. I don’t know how it will happen or when it will happen or at what cost.

We ARE EARTHSEED. WE are flesh—self aware, questioning, problem-solving flesh. We are that aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife preparing to fall away from the parent world. We are Earthlife preparing to take root in new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose, its promise, its Destiny.


This essay is from Black Geographies (vol. 29, no. 2: Summer 2023).

ASHANTÉ M. REESE is assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. and the coeditor of Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice.
NOTES
  1. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 2, 6; Willie Jamaal Wright, “The Morphology of Marronage,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 110, no. 4 (2020): 1134–1149; Celeste Winston, “Maroon geographies,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 111, no. 7 (2021): 2185–2199.
  2. Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). Kevin Quashie, Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021). Justin Hosbey and J. T. Roane, “A Totally Different Form of Living: On the Legacies of Displacement and Marronage as Black Ecologies,” Southern Cultures 27, no. 1 (2021): 68–73.
  3. It is outside the scope of this essay, but as I write this, it sits heavily with me that it is a fifteen-year-old Black girl who imagines and then sets out to save her world. I am pained to think about the salvations, the worlds we lose with every murder of a Black girl.
  4. Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 107.
  5. Ruha Benjamin, “Designer and Discarded Genomes,” e-flux Architecture, October 2016, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/superhumanity/66875/designer-and-discarded-genomes/.
  6. Campt, 107.
  7. Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (New York: Open Road Media, 2012), 47. All subsequent verses are quoted from this edition; page numbers are indicated in the text.
  8. Sansevieria is also known as mother-in-law’s tongue.
  9. “On this bridge between starshine and clay” is a reference to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” in Book of Light(Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1993). The poem can also be found at the Poetry Foundation website, accessed February 21, 2023: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me.
  10. Anand Pandian, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).

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