In the decolonial climate we find ourselves in, I have maintained an interrogative lens constantly questioning and checking the information provided to me by the knowledge generating institution also known as university. I have found myself particularly questioning epistemology and methodology in relation to my positionality as a Black womxn. The mere existence of Matr-Archi is a manifestation of what constantly churns in my head through this position.
Collins gives a great description of what we can understand by epistemology as constituting, “an overarching theory of knowledge (Harding, 1987). It investigates the standards used to asses knowledge or why we believe what we believe to be true” in Black Feminist Thought which will make more of an appearance as you continue to read this article and blog generally.
We live in what seems to be quite a visual generation, with images speaking volumes in forms of art, film, documentary, vlogging… the list goes on. The intent of these visuals serves various purposes according to the author and context at hand. Everyone is constantly telling their story, and expressing it in different ways. This expression isn’t only visual; at times it is expressed in the form of music, performance and writing. Last week’s post prefaced the topic at hand today which deals with lived experience as a credible source and contributing element to knowledge: Storytelling. Throughout time knowledge has maintained an exclusively objective viewpoint, which makes storytelling as a credible source of knowledge a contested space. This is quite ironic because we refer to knowledge in order to conquer and tackle the challenges and issues of a lived reality, but knowledge is rooted in objective scientific Western academic language.
This brings us to question why anecdotal information is not a quintessential element in knowledge production, particularly in a world that seeks intersectionality, or I can at least say a South Africa that does. Last week’s post dealt with challenging forms of knowledge media by revealing that visual art gives access to those who are incapable of accessing written knowledge. Today we speak about how storytelling reveals hidden and valuable information that is lost through a dominantly quantitative and objective Western epistemology. Leonie Sandercock, an urban planner and academic focusing on community planning and multiculturalism as a teaching academic at the Univeristy of British Columbia writes about storytelling in her writing titled Out of the Closet: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice and extensive reference to this will be made.
History as it stands, seen dominantly as credible knowledge in written form, is a retrospective problem we face today as a result of Western consciousness constantly and strictly validating knowledge through social institutions in relation to a Western context. This is not to negate writing as a valid means of knowledge production, that would be silly considering how it is the very tool I use to validate the information I give you every Sunday in blog form. There are many advantages of this means of media, the ease of archiving being the most important. In a transforming world, we have to ask ourselves how to dismantle this solely written epistemology in order to preserve valuable knowledge that comes through the insight of individual anecdotal experience in it’s preferred form. As a black womxn I find it incredibly difficult to find historical resources written by black womxn (from various contexts of course). Of course there are a few, but if we are speaking about Ancient Architecture, most books are centralized about Vitruvius, sometimes Ancient Rome, perhaps with the last chapter being a ten page commentary on “vernacular” or “indigenous” Architecture – less important, an after thought, an accessory.
This is because access to knowledge production maintained white male power and favored white male production. Colonialism never made space for black writers on their shelves. People of colour never stopped producing knowledge, however they did so through media that wasn’t and to an extent today, isn’t recognized by social institutions. Patricia Hill Collins, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland writes, “Traditionally, the suppression of Black women’s ideas within White-male-controlled social institutions led African American women to use music, literature, daily conversations and everyday behavior as important locations for constructing a Black feminist consciousness” (Collins 2000). She is the go-to black academic I refer to in exhausting conversations of constantly having to justify my existence and identity to whiteness because of her work existing in the academic. By assimilating to the language of academic writing, which in itself is an epistemology of what correct knowledge out to be; as women of colour at this point in time, the only way to interrogate and reshape this very Western epistemology is to use it to convey information on dismantling it (as Patricia Hill Collins does so well. Similarly to the method Dadaism used to dismantle the misconception of art tied to class around 1916.
Writing as a form of production is valuable. But writing as the only form of valuable information is problematic and exclusive. Beyond writing as a form, it is the language of writing that I am interrogating here. Writing that involves a subjective voice with emotion is often deemed as “non-scientific” and does not fall under the blanket of what the truth is, or ought to be. Alternative writing deviates from the methodology of this epistemology completely, where “The narrative method requires that the story be told, not torn apart in analysis, and trusted as core belief, not “admired science”. (Collins 2000). However, the Decolonial project is feared by Western social institution (we know this because resisting listening to the marginalized masses in have lead to decolonial education protests in South African universities) and so these “Alternative epistemologies challenge all certified knowledge and open up the question of whether what has been taken to be true can stand the test of alternative ways of validating truth” (Collins 2000). The very question I ask myself in class when reading about the formation of African cities, for example.
“Stories can often provide a far richer understanding of the human condition, and thus of the urban condition, than traditional social science, and for that reason alone, deserve more attention. “ (Sandercock 2003) . Plain and simple. If we are to design cities that serve the existence of all identities (inevitably to various degrees but regardless still with inclusivity as a priority) then storytelling need be prioritized and valued as a dense source of research and knowledge, which I believe it is. Architecture touches on this through a light contextual analysis at the beginning of each project, but in a rather superficial manner. A designer should not be designing a space without first knowing the neighbors and behavioral intangible history (habits perhaps?) of that space.
When we level up a scale, we look at the value of story telling in City Planning. As a student, I have found this pretty difficult. When one is briefed with an assignment fosucing on a specific area, the main concern is and will always be centered on the people who inhabit that space. Already in writing that there is a distinct separation between the planner and the user. Part of decolonizing planning is to address this hegemonic divide. But how? When tasked with mapping Wynberg, an area in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, I have questioned how to even begin sensitively obtaining information on the intangible essence of the area. The essence lies in storytelling. I recently took a walk around Wynberg with my sketchbook and pen which probably gave me away as being some sort of designer. I began speaking to a lady at the Train Station and before I could even disclaim my position and intention to her, she asked me fiercely whether I was “another one of those ones doing research on us?” and “You all ask the same questions. I mean, at least ask a different question. This is how we live!” as she pointed around the bustling pavement of spaza shops leading to the train- hers was particularly the sale of Malawian dried fish. She was annoyed me. I was also annoyed me. Even though we are both black womxn, our conditions of privilege divide us and in this case, my identity as an inquisitive planner studying people like specimen.
I’d like to hear what other planners and designers have to say about this. I do think it is necessary to be assertive about what we do in space when speaking to and interviewing people, and so we need to be socially advised and given anthropology learning through those who know the context best- community organizations/members/leaders. Doing an anthropology course may be too dated and Western when dealing with how to speak to children in Khayelitsha for example. As planners, we are people too, and shouldn’t be misleading in our endeavors as a result of being unwilling to learn new languages of being and speaking. Fostering a long and close relationship with those who we are designing for should be prioritized in schools of Planning and Architecture so that in these hypothetical learning projects, we do not hurt the sites we study. “Critical judgment will always be necessary in deciding what weight to give to different stories, as well as what stories are appropriate in what circumstances. The telling of stories is nothing less than a profoundly political act. “ (Sandercock 2003). We need to realize that our decisions may not sit well with everyone, and be able to take responsibility in trying to accommodate as many idenitity groups as possible, strategically with good intention, as “Persuasive storytelling is one form of power at the disposal of planners, but it takes its place in a force field in which there are other powers at work, including the powers of misinformation, deception and lying, which are deployed by fellow planners as well as outside forces opposing planning interventions.” (Sandercock 2003)
“Culture is the creation and expression and sharing of stories that bond us with common language, imagery, metaphors, all of which create shared meaning.” (Sandercock 2003). If we are to create spaces that serve and give opportunity to multiple identity groups, we need to allow for the importance of storytelling to be recognized and used in the research process, because beyond the mapping and built form, the intangible and organic activity of people will form the true space. People and their stories are the true designers, and as planners, by using our creativity to materialize form that gives opportunity to the narrative of these stories, we can essentially aid in creating space where culture, expression and humanness flourish (as they should) and to be able to find ways of mediating conflicting stories so as to prevent suffocating and violent spaces which currently exist today.
In conclusion, I have written you all a story of my experience of navigating the Cape Town pavement, or at least one of them. It is expressed through a photomontage and short description below: A story of being suffocated by white female privilege. This is my story, and perhaps your story too? One last note: A change in physical form may not be able to change my journey on this particular street in Oranjezicht; but understanding the racial oppression of dislocated black bodies in Cape Town on a metropolitan scale through this story may one day change my/our journey on this street in Oranjezicht.
I walk along Alexandra Ave,
After a day of Architecture interning
at a home based office in deep residential Oranjezicht
I take jolly steps, checking emails on my phone.
Walking on the pavement.
It’s dustbin day.
“Hey you, you over there”
I continue on my jolly high
Left, right, left.
“Hey you over there! Are you hungry?”
Now I notice the voice.
Is this lady calling me?
No gran, surely not.
I look up to the balcony.
Pale face. Red unbrushed hair. Eyes glaring down at me.
“There’s a packet of food for you on my bin”
This is for the black woman who is made to be trash,
Made to walk dogs.
Made to wear a uniform,
Of primary colours.
Maid to be primary.
Made to be homogenous.
Made to be obedient,
Expected to be raise a porcelain little soul.
To be maternal.
Under a maternal.
Don’t you dare
Offer me the food on your dustbin,
Don’t you dare
Make me your trash.
Lest we forget,
I walk on your pavement,
That you’ve built
On my land.
Montage by Khensani de Klerk 2017
MORE READING on StoryTelling on the City:
- Asmal, Zahira. Movement Cape Town. Sea Point: THE CITY, 2015.
- Ogut, Hande. Istanbul: In Women’s Short Stories. West Sussex: Milet Publishing, 2012.
- Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Sandercock, Leonie. Out of the Closet: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice . New York: Routledge, 2003.