LaKisha David at the home of her friend, Nana Flora of Ayigya, in Kumasi, Ghana.
Last summer you published a series on CoLab Radio about discovering community through exploring family history, where you traced your family’s genealogy and history from the present back to American slavery. What did you gain from the experience of sharing this story?
Putting my narrative out there made me feel like I was creating a space for my people. It affirmed that I belong in a community and I have a spot in history. This is particularly important in an Anti-Black society where most people want to forget the history of slavery. Putting my narrative out there is a way of resisting that erasure of my history and that of Black people in America more broadly.
Recently, I shared the blog series with my PhD academic advisor who originally did not understand why any of this– African identity, slave history, and genealogy — matters, even though we’d been having weekly conversations on these topics because my work is centered around them. I shared just one of the blog entries with him. But he decided to read all five pieces. After reading them he emailed me and said that through my personal narrative, he finally saw the importance of these topics and felt that I really should go in this direction with my research. He comes from European ancestry and up until that point he hadn’t really considered that many African Americans didn’t have what he considers to be common ancestry knowledge nor had he seen the connection between this missing knowledge and community development.
What role do you think personal narratives ought to play in urban planning research?
I think personal narratives help to explain the ways that we live in community and why we choose the communities that we do. As urban planners we are supposed to be these experts who help shape the city, but so many urban planning theories are based on white American, capitalist experiences. Listening to the personal narratives of folks you aren’t as familiar with should be the starting point in planning.
My particular focus is on planning within the African American community. Urban planners tend to plan for the Black community from a framework of the community being plagued with problems. My advisor once said to me, that generally speaking, folks don’t know what to do to plan for Black communities. I see this as a confession that a lot of planners really don’t know Black people. There is an assumption that because we are born in the US we are already known. But really hearing personal narratives of Black life is crucial.
Now, to be clear, I think the most important value of personal narratives from Black perspectives is for Black people. It helps us recognize that we do have a story, a history, and a place to go. While there is value in the rest of America listening to these narratives, it is a mistake for me to position myself for that audience or to make that my number one goal. It will be a natural secondary byproduct of the Black community reclaiming our narrative and sharing it.
Your current work as an urban planning PhD student is centered on the relationship between Africa and African-Americans. What is the connection you see between this work and your exploration of your own family’s history?
The more I look at my personal narrative and genealogy and trace back my heritage to a modern day people of origin, the more I see being able to connect Africans and African Americans as a matter of restorative justice. It is restorative justice for my second great grandfather that came over from Africa on a slave ship in chains, when I am able to reconnect to the community he left from. I feel like I owe it to my family to make these connections. Some people think that tracing my genealogy and sharing that story is simply my response to racism in the US. It is not. Just like an adoptee, even if they were raised in a good family, would want to know their biological family, this too is about reclaiming something lost.
I know that there is a lot of work to be done, a lot of anti-black sentiment even within the Black community. I’m not romantic about that. But I think accessing our histories is important.
We often talk about how Africa is exploited. How so many resources– diamonds, oil, land– are and have been taken from it; but we often forget the most important resource, humans. We should always lead with humans. Once we got to the new world, slave masters purposefully tried to sever us from memories of home whether via language or kinship. To me it is a matter of justice to be able to claim my family narrative, genealogy, ancestry and those lost relationships with the African continent. We talk about reparations as one form of justice. There will never be a way for the African diaspora to be completely repaid but another form of justice is to restore relationships, and culture and language. Exploring our family narratives can help us do this.