Texture as a reminder of the pain experienced and the pleasures sought.
Stony the road we trod
The second verse of the song Lift Every Voice and Sing begins “Stony the road we trod. Bitter the chastening rod….” These words make clear that the life experience of African Americans have long been defined by physical sensation. We know our world and our selves by what we feel. Often what we felt is pain and disappointment. occasionally we feel the joy of victory.
The stony road is both literal and figurative. While this particular aspect of life has changed with asphalt and concrete roadways, the memory of it persists. Busses and subways now carry many to their workplace but it is still their feet that gets them to and from the transit stop. While this is not unique to African Americans, and while many African Americans now have cars or trucks this experience of the road on the feet (even in shoes) is a part of our identity.
African Americans even measure their own health by texture. They rub their own or a loved ones skin. If it is dry and ashy they know that something is not well. It might be nutrition or it might be actual illness. Lotions and ointments follow that observation quickly. If touching the loved ones skins reveals it to be soft and smooth then they are considered healthy.
From the skin we move outward to the clothing. Some European Americans marvel at how the poor African American can put such a high priority on fine clothes or even cars. But this too is reminiscent of the value of texture in defining success in African American life. Coarse work pants changed for fine twill suits and cotton dresses exchanged for satin gowns or silk allow us to imagine a life of greater success. It recalls the sumptuous Dressing of African Royalty in ancient empires. These items do not fool anyone into believing that their lives are without problems. But they value these things as both symbol and as experienced reward. Yes, everyone likes high thread count sheets. But for the affluent these are an accepted norm. For the less affluent they are an aspiration.
The texture of hair has been in debate in the African American community for over 100 years. Decades have been spent with men and women both trying to eliminate the coarse curly appearance of nappy har in favor of the smooth look and feel of European hair. Fortunes have been made selling chemicals, hot combs, hair dryers and other beauty implements to create this effect. The other side of this conversation — ongoing since at least the 1960’s — has been that natural hair should be celebrated in all its curliness: locks, afros, braids and more.
Thus, in African American Architecture texture must also find it’s way into the expression of our lives as a built structure. Not every wall nor every floor needs to be smooth. And just as industrial facilities and facilities for those with limited sight use texture was a warning so too might texture be used in residential and commercial architecture beyond that required by codes. The texture of the floor might tell a story or denote a path which, by following it, the user comes to see a perspective of the world that is more nuanced and complete.
What if the perimeter of that large central space did not form a perfect circle but wandered in and out of perimeter columns like a path that skirted the edge of a meadow in the midst of a grove of trees. Seeking refuge in the trees it dives in for safety. Seeking sustenance and to learn of the prey for todays meal or the enemy to attack or defend against, the path just out toward the central space to learn of the prospects. The path dances between danger and safety; between prospect and refuge; between survival and prosperity.
But if paths are one of the primary themes of texture then surely the path one cannot take must be made visible and perhaps even tangible. That path might include visible obstacles. It might be broken or unfinished. There may not even be a way to reach the path no matter how much you seek for it. This is the experience of many in the African American community. Perhaps by experiencing something of the feelings generated, others may have more compassion for the African American experience.
In the illustration below the entrance to a public building is modeled. The approach path breaks at the reflecting pool. To the left at the lower center of the stream is a narrow way that leads to a short stair. This path can be accessed only one at a time.m To the right is a broader way. That path is heavily textured and may be more difficult t cover but leads eventually by a circuitous route and a ramp to the same destination. As you approach at the reflecting pool you can see where the destination is but the choice of how to get there is not as clear. The answer involves ability and foreknowledge or perhaps a lucky guess. The smooth concrete on the short way and the textured stone on the broad way makes for a contrast in privilege as well.
Life is not simply paths. The places defined by paths also have stories to tell. In one place a room might be characterized by a symbolic rough textured wall that one enters by going around it. One side of the wall is a space of sumptuous luxury. The other side is sterile and nearly lifeless but for the people who move through it. The entrances are small. One might think of them as easily defended. One might wonder where those defenders are. But while the path to this hallowed ground might be small dark and sterile, the sumptuous place is filled with light and has broad views from beneath a deep overhang allowing one to see a broad perspective of the surrounding land. The change is not simply about texture it is a story of privilege.
Gradual Change of Privilege Through Change in Texture.
Thus the architecture might describe the increase in privilege of African Americans. While it will not soon match the privilege of our European American counterparts, It is for the most part greater than the pro village the previous generation experienced. So progress into a space becomes a gradually changing experience. It become gradually brighter with larger fenestration, gradually softer with individual wall hangings becoming wallpaper, wallpaper becoming individual tapestries or quilts and quilts becoming a lavish upholstered wall of monumental scale.
The experience of the Space
The use of texture is not simply a statement of historical wrongs and the aspiration of luxury in some future time. It is a reflection of the now. It is a primary determinant of the experience of the space. It defines where the space is one of comfort or work. Whether this is a place of confrontation or cooperation, whether this is a place the welcomes or repulses. This space becomes a definition not simply of use but of Identity. Who are you expected to be in this space. How do you respond to others in this space? Does this space honor you even as a visitor or does it diminish the visitor and aggrandize the primary occupant of a seat of authority? How would courtrooms change in their function and compassion if the metrics of privilege and were more evenly balanced between the authority and the unfortunate?
So in a truly African American Architecture is not simply a political expression or a sociological identity. It is not simply History or Aspirations. Nor is it simply a record of current suffering. It is all these things and more. It, through texture, color and the other aspects, is the heart of having buildings with meaning. What does texture mean to you?
The inclusion of a break in form or surface as a reminder of the broken state of the world and the broken parts of our lives and families. Not to mourn or hold a grudge but to acknowledge the difficulties which built our strength.
Our world is broken and yet it is not. It remains one world beyond human created brokenness. The unity of peoples is broken. It can be seen in pervasive bias and discrimination. The safety of people is broken. It can bee seen in crime, terrorism and mass shootings in particular. Our mental concentration is often broken. Can we really consume all we need to know in rapid fire one to 10 second bursts whether text or video? Our conversations are broken. The understanding of other souls leaks out onto the floor of our discourse creating mud which we track to our homes.
This tearing apart of humanity leaves us bereft of both empathy (sharing feelings of others) and compassion (Seeing from another’s perspective). Our psychology is broken as the illogical and the dis-compassionate vie to wrest control of the public purse strings from the logical and compassionate. Should we mourn this brokenness? Or should we learn to embrace it?
We are human. We are made with a tendency to break and a capacity to heal. In healing we become stronger, until we break again.
This brokenness and tendency to break can be expressed in buildings that are built metaphors pf who we are. In doing so they become more valuable. But for every cracked wall or split finish there must be a reconciliation that gives us hope for healing and which calls us to re-form ourselves in unexpected ways. Circumstances do not have to define our response. We can form new circumstances that allow us not only to survive but to thrive.
For African Americans this state of brokenness has long been obvious. It has been our history. It has helped form us into the people we are. It is at the root of our search for unity and healing. It is the core awareness that has allowed us to survive. Individuals may become broken beyond healing. The people as a whole are resilient. Our spirit remains unbroken. Though badly battered, though edges have worn away, though our healing and growth is slow, we remain persistent in our drive to live, heal and grow. Because of this, we build.
For every slur, curse and despicable act we have endured we have found a vision that says that the evil inflicted on us is not our evil but another’s. We have learned to retreat not in fear but to heal. We have learned to heal through spiritual growth, through expressing our pain in various kinds of music and dance. We manifest celebration of life because to do otherwise would be to allow the forces of darkness and death to eliminate us forever. The darkness of skin is not reflected in the light of the soul.
The time has come to express this brokenness and the desire for healing in our architecture. It is time to acknowledge in large and small ways the nature of this brokenness and the ways it might be healed.
The expression of brokenness might be that of a building built as two halves separated by a healing garden. (See figure 1.) It might be that the required expansion joints in a long structure are designed not as simple straight lines going through the building but actually form a broken edge. The crack being bridged by aluminum, steel and rubber. It might be that a floor surface is broken and varied with irregular strips of carpet cutting through the broken terrazzo like a river might separate a plain.
Walls might be separated by full height windows shaped not in rectangular frames but in frames which show and represent the brokenness. Yet these ‘broken’ windows may bring in healing light and hope filled views. Or perhaps the break is crisp and rectangular with the gap filled by a translucent glass block wall. That wall, an obv ious patch, may be the background for a waterfall that trickles water, light and sunshine into the space. Brokenness might be expressed as a circular gathering space that is unevenly split into various physical sections. Bridges may connect those sections to remind us that we can cross over and be rejoined so that none need be alone.
The broken parts of these designs represent and honor those of our families that have themselves been broken, especially those who did not survive the break. While in a sense this honor is a way of mourning, it is not a homage to death nor a way of locking the past in place. Rather, it is a memory of what it has cost to move forward. It is an acknowledgement of the price paid and an encouragement to move further toward being one people united in vibrancy of their differences and the persistent vitality of life.
Honoring the brokenness is not a way of holding a grudge. It is not a curse upon those who participated in the acts, comments and laws that created so many of these breaks. There is no need to honor the evil if you remember what the evil has cost. Yet it is evil itself to curse the perpetrators. Rather emulate the stance of wiser people from our history and focus on forgiveness. So the expression of brokenness is an encouragement to forgive those who will not ask forgiveness or do not understand that forgiveness is needed for what they perceive as nothing but the past.
The recognition of the loss of what is broken is a dream expressed for the desire of new forms and answers to make of what was broken something much more radiant and fulfilling. Like the dull grey stone that when split and polished becomes an abundance of diamonds, so too will the brokenness result in the radiance of a people.
Brokenness through a sense of time.
There is another kind of brokenness which African Americans experience. It is a temporal brokenness where the events of our live have been forced into a discontinuity. It is the brokenness of an enslaved family being split up and sold to different owners in different locations. It is the brokenness that causes a father or husband or brother to be jailed for short or long periods of time. It is the brokenness of untimely death by the police at a traffic stop where an innocent person is executed without benefit of trial, judge, jury, or verdict. It is the brokenness of untimely death due to drug addiction. It is the brokenness of untimely death through gang violence. It is the brokenness of multiple job losses because of a lack of fit in a European centric workplace. It is the brokenness of poor schools which derail dreams. It is the brokenness of opportunities sought but not offered. It is the brokenness of poor medical care offered too late and too far away to be part of a life of wellness and vigor. It is the brokenness of a social structure the leaves the African American feeling disconnected from the larger society and wondering where they fit. Some turn to the church for support. Some to family. Some surrender to the brokenness.
This brokenness, too, has meaning. It too, creates a need for healing. This is however a one sided brokenness that is not easily healed. It is not a matter of two halves being separated. It is the matter of one side being crushed and leaving a fragment of a life surviving. This brokenness is easy to conceive of as jagged edges left sharp and threatening; as unfinished structure and seemingly ill considered endings of otherwise smooth polished surfaces. But for African Americans this brokenness is healed by a complete transformation to another kind of life. A life that remembers the path that collapsed but is a new path none the less. There is beauty in that new path, a new destination. Traces of the old path may be visible but their importance is diminished by the new.
For the African American it is not healing to simply forget the old path. However wonderful the new destination and the new path, we must remember the old path because it made us who we are. It developed our dreams and skills, our talents and strengths. It showed us our weaknesses and our adversaries. If we were to forget it, we would be forgetting who we are, loosing our identity and losing our place in a community of those who have overcome. Losing our purpose to make unbroken paths for future generations. So we remember. And in our African American Architecture we express all these discontinuities as a way of expressing that remembrance.