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Review: J.T. Roane Tells Black Philadelphia's History from the Margins

PEARLY MANAGER is not the type of protagonist who ordinarily propels grand stories about civil rights or worldmaking in the mid-20th century. Manager was a Black working-class migrant who made his way to Philadelphia in the 1920s. An avid smoker and drinker, he largely avoided traditional employment due to his skill as a bootlegger and lived his life on society’s margins. By the time we meet Mr. Manager, he’s lost an eye and most of his teeth and has decided to double down on his proclivities.

More often, the Pearly Managers of the world are nameless, faceless people—present but unheard. In stories about the Great Migration, working-class Black folks make their way from rural enclaves and then largely disappear, only to emerge as “Chicagoans,” “New Yorkers,” or “Philadelphians.” In books about the civil rights movement, they are the ground troops who move and march in response to the exhortations of Black leaders. These leaders are almost always middle-class, straight men who are deeply invested in moving Black folks closer to the mainstream of American life. Additionally, these leaders are, perhaps most crucially, affiliated with mainline institutions like churches or nonprofits.

What does it look like to center someone like Pearly Manager in a story about Black social life? J. T. Roane answers this in his exquisite new book, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place. Chronicling and making meaning of the lived experience of people who exist on the margins is no easy task. Roane’s meticulous research, brilliant analysis, and prodigious dedication render a powerful and compelling retelling of the construction of Black social life in Philadelphia.

Dark Agoras (the title is a riff on the Greek agora, meaning public space) provides us with a view of the lives lived and worlds built by Black migrants who made their way from the rural South to Philadelphia across the 20th century. Roane’s entryway into Black working-class life was inspired in part by the groundbreaking work of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro. In that 1899 text, Du Bois identified two social categories associated with Black migrant cultures.

The first one he described as the “institutions of the ‘vicious and criminal,’” spaces in the Black sections of the city where migrants built an underground, a space where they participated in alternative economies and built social relations not defined by traditional institutions. The second category was the set apart—homes, rented domiciles, and public spaces that hosted prayer meetings, street revivals, and other contingent (frequently non-Christian) religious activities. Using the underground and the set apart, Roane charts how rural ways of being impacted the cultivation of Black social space and shaped modes of resistance in the face of intransigent white supremacy.

Roane anchors his reading of Black working-class life in an exploration of slavery and the immediate post-emancipation era, when Black people worked mightily to confront and confound the logic of the institution. Roane begins here because it is where we see the earliest efforts of Black folks to create and maintain public spaces for themselves—spaces for work, pleasure, mourning, and all the other activities enjoyed by autonomous individuals. It is that placemaking—the construction of dark agoras—that concerns Roane. Throughout the period of enslavement, Black people cultivated an ability to engage in what he calls “unsanctioned placemaking,” a practice of placemaking that “provided the cover for collective self-creation and belonging in excess of domination.”

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books