The Divine City: On J. T. Roane’s “Dark Agoras”

Charles McKinney reviews J. T. Roane’s “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place.”

The Divine City: On J. T. Roane’s “Dark Agoras”

Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place by J. T. Roane. NYU Press. 312 pages.

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.”

Under the perpetual and violent surveillance of white owners and citizens, Black folks created spaces both hidden and in plain sight, always in the service of crafting a social world where the full expression of humanity could be exercised—at least for a short while. This “underground social life” took many shapes. Funerals were both a place of mourning and a subversive articulation of life beyond slavery. Black folks inscribed religious services with double meaning; dirges sung in the midst of despair could convey “emotion, information, and critique—often in plain sight of whites.” Individual and collective efforts to reclaim (or “steal”) time and food reveal a temporary refusal to submit to the forced deprivation of both under slavery. Other books have chronicled such efforts and orientations. But Roane’s work is important here because he identifies these attempts to create what he terms a Black commons as one of the central cultural building blocks that generations of migrants and their children would bring with them to their new places of residence outside of the former Confederacy.

Roane meticulously illustrates how Black migrants brought with them powerful placemaking practices, ones that shaped the physical and political terrain of Black Philadelphia. These practices were not housed exclusively in traditional spaces like mainline churches, civic clubs, and civil rights organizations. Rather, they took root in the marginal places occupied by recent arrivals and their families. In these working-class enclaves, Roane charts the fluid nature of life with regard to proximity to both places of worship and houses where gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging served as sources of both pleasure and economic vitality. This fluidity also resulted from the economic precarity faced by generations of migrants forced to navigate the coerced poverty wrought by segregation. Thus, the creation and cultivation of set apart and underground spaces functioned to allay the day-to-day realities of racial marginalization and cultivate the development of radical possibility.

The book’s exploration of alternative religious spaces in Philadelphia may be its strongest feature. Roane’s chronicle of the Black migrant odyssey led him to two religious sects: the Peace Mission Movement, headed by Father Divine, and MOVE, the nationalist group that gained national notoriety after the city bombed their headquarters and killed 11 members and their children in May 1985. It was Father Divine’s Peace Mission that inspired Manager to move from the streets of the underground to the halls of the set apart. Because of that conversion, Manager and his wife joined a space “set apart by their commitment to peace and abundance.”

Members of the Peace Mission Movement practiced collective labor and viewed property as a collective asset. They actively disregarded racial segregation and renounced sexual union, even between married couples. Roane characterizes this countercultural orientation as Black queer urbanism, a framework that explicitly counters the imperatives of capitalist acquisition, traditional urban planning, and heteronormative family structures. Like the Peace Mission before it, MOVE also countered the racist, acquisitive imperatives engendered by the “world reform system.” Members viewed “policing, war, pollution, and sickness as the products of an interconnected set of institutions, ideologies, and practices.” Both groups disrupted the imperatives of urban planning by buying and collectively occupying large swaths of housing, all in the interest of crafting autonomous radical Black spaces.

Dark Agoras is a powerful and compelling work that shines a great deal of light on the deeply intertwined nature of Black migration, placemaking, and resistance. Roane’s book is a serious and lyrical contribution to an ongoing discourse.


Charles W. McKinney is the director of Africana studies and an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

LARB Contributor

Charles W. McKinney Jr. is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College. His latest book, co-edited with Aram Goudsouzian, is An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (2018). His forthcoming book, co-edited with Françoise Hamlin, From Rights to Lives: The Evolution of the Black Freedom Struggle, will be published next year.


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