The Geography of Despair (or All These Rubber Bullets)

Aretina R. Hamilton

This article was originally published on Medium. Follow Dr. Hamilton on Twitter at @BlackGeographer.

As a scholar, I entered the world of academia as a planner. I examined urban planning and the devolution of American cities — and then I discovered Geography. The original scene of the crime. This original technology was used to cut up the world into pieces and to fulfill manifest destinies. When non-Geographers think about Geography, they imagine GPS maps, landscapes, physical terrain, and valleys. They don’t think of culture, people, conflict, contestation, imperialism, or exploitation. In the same way, geographical thinking frequently ignores how geographies enact violence, create spaces of belonging, reproduce systematic equalities, and codify race. Yet for Black People, geography operates across multiple sites and multiple planes, and it is all-encompassing, frequently defining the outcomes of our lives.

My first site of geographic containment occurred within the walls of my mother’s uterus. It was a site of warmth, love, and nourishment. Even before I sprang into the world, I could feel the yearning for me and the love of my parents as they spoke to me. As a Black child growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1980s, I began to understand that my geographies were filled with visceral meanings and assumptions. At my elementary school, I attended one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse schools in the city. We were a fulfillment of the dream. However, as I grew older and reflected back on those times, I remember how the Black kids who lived in Southwick, Parkhill, and the West End were disproportionately called out for behavioral or socio-emotional issues. They lived in spaces that lie along the margins of the map, sites on “the other side of the tracks,” and there was a definite difference in how they were treated. At that age, we never discussed where we came from, but we knew that geography had a dramatic impact on where we might end.

Gavin H. Cochran Elementary School, Louisville, Kentucky
Gavin H. Cochran Elementary School, Louisville, Kentucky

In March, when one of my best friends called and told me that a Black woman was murdered by police in Louisville, I sighed. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency room technician, was killed by police who used a battering ram to crash into her apartment and kill her. I was so sick of hearing stories of Black Death, but this one happened in my hometown. For months and years before, I had heard stories of shootings in the city but had tried to block it out — if only temporarily. I think I had become numb or was trying to isolate the pain. I hadn’t lived in Louisville in over 20 years, but I remembered the racial politics and understood that the history of racial residential segregation, gerrymandering, white flight, and educational disparities had set the stage for this event. The police who murdered Breonna and David McAtee had a particular understanding of the geography and understood that these geographies and the people that lived in them didn’t matter. They were considered disposable and irrelevant.