Brandi T. Summers, Ph.D.


Professor∙Researcher∙Writer
race, urban cultural landscapes, aesthetics

⎯⎯Book⎯⎯


Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City (University of North Carolina Press)


While Washington, D.C. is still often referred to as “Chocolate City,” it has undergone significant demographic, political, and economic change in the last decade. In D.C., no place represents this shift better than H Street. Black in Place documents D.C.’s shift to a “post-chocolate” cosmopolitan metropolis by charting H Street’s economic and racial developments. The book focuses on the continuing significance of blackness in a place like D.C., how blackness contributes to our understanding of contemporary urbanization, and how it laid an important foundation for how Black people have been thought to exist in cities. Black in Place also analyzes how blackness—as a representation of diversity—is marketed to sell a progressive, “cool,” and authentic experience of being in and moving through an urban center.


Black in Place offers a theoretical framework for understanding how blackness is aestheticized and deployed to organize landscapes and raise capital. Using a mix of participant observation, visual and media analysis, interviews, and archival research, it shows how blackness has become a prized and lucrative aesthetic that often leaves out D.C.’s Black residents.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Black in Place is a beautiful, critical, and searing narrative of displacement on H Street, the most heartbreaking and telling of all of the gentrification processes in the Chocolate City. Brandi Thompson Summers has written the book you need to read to understand how racism, capitalism, and power, material and symbolic, collide in the modern American city with constraining and calamitous outcomes for working class Black residents.”—Zandria F. Robinson, author of This Ain’t Chicago

“Sitting at the intersection of human geography, cultural studies, and Black studies, Black in Place brings new cutting edge perspectives to each of these fields. A both timely and important book.”—Rashad Shabazz, author of Spatializing Blackness

⎯⎯Research⎯⎯


Current and ongoing research projects



Routes of Race, Resistance, and the Geographies of Belonging in Oakland, California

This project explores the various ways Black Oaklanders have historically developed a landscape of cultural spaces, both materially and discursively, that catered to the city’s large Black population. In the face of increasing change resulting from gentrification and other economic policies that have instituted the rapid displacement of communities of color, this project seeks to understand the roots of Black political resistance that laid a foundation for the current affective economy organized to reclaim space through socio-spatial public cultures, youth politics, and the aesthetics of Black life in Oakland. An interdisciplinary study that examines the complex ways in which uses of space and placemaking practices inform productions of knowledge and power. 


Race and the Spatial Aesthetics of Gentrification 
This project considers how the dual processes of racialization and aestheticization in a postindustrial, cultural, and economic climate undergird the rapid gentrification in global cities. The relationship between aesthetics and urban processes has become increasingly recognized in geography and urban studies research. However, gentrification is still frequently seen as a primarily economic impact of a growing economy, which avoids questions of how difference plays in the devaluation and disposability of certain populations and the privileging of others.  The project, in advancing the mutual constitution of gentrification and aesthetics, considers not only the ways that aesthetics are tied to rapid urbanization, accelerated through gentrification, but also the complex strategies enacted by marginalized populations to resist the processes of urban displacement and dispossession.

Reclaiming the Chocolate City: #DontMuteDC and the Soundscapes of Gentrification and Resistance
In Washington, D.C., the most intensely gentrified metropolitan city in the U.S., Black residents have experienced unprecedented levels of cultural and physical displacement since 2000. Because of gentrification, the first “chocolate city” long been defined by its blackness, has experienced shifts in the economy and commitments by the local government, that privilege policies that facilitate the displacement of Black families. This project analyzes the anti-gentrification movement, #DontMuteDC, how Black people challenge the processes of gentrification by reclaiming space and resisting capitalist dispossession. While conducting interviews for the Smithsonian’s #DontMuteDC Oral History Project, I explored the movement’s emphasis on go-go music as a placemaking device, which I argue disrupts structures governing and managing normative space. 

⎯⎯Publications⎯⎯


Peer-reviewed publications and book chapters


“Fear and Loathing (of Others): Race, Class, and Contestation of Space in Washington, D.C.”
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 43:6 (November 2019)


This article, written with Kathryn Howell, explores the cultural politics of public space and the placemaking politics of urban redevelopment in the Atlas District of Washington, DC, a popular commercial district undergoing rapid gentrification. The article focuses on uses of public space and describes how various forms of power are linked to the control of space in the context of gentrification. Our analysis focuses on designated public space in the Atlas District––the Starburst Plaza. By analyzing everyday practices around community control at the Starburst Plaza, this case study focuses on the discrete methods by which the symbolic and material inequities promulgated by the neoliberal state are reconfigured through struggles to define and manage contested public spaces.

“Post-Apocalyptic Shine in the Afro-Future.”
ASAP/Journal 4:2 (May 2019)

This solicited essay appears in a special issue dedicated to automation. It draws on conceptions of blackness, visuality, and resistance aesthetics in relation to a post-apocalyptic editorial spread of Rihanna in W magazine. I theorize excess shine as an adaptation for the Afro-future.

“Haute (Ghetto) Mess”: Post-Racial Aesthetics and the Seduction of Blackness in High Fashion.” In Racism Post-Race: Culture, Critique, and the Color Line, edited by Herman Gray, Sarah Banet-Weiser, and Roopali Mukherjee (Duke University Press, 2019)

This essay analyzes the “Haute Mess” editorial in the March 2012 issue of Vogue Italia to demonstrate that “hyperblackness” does not only require the presentation of blackness in bodily form, but it can also reference symbolic renderings of blackness – without being named as such. Through my textual/image analysis, the piece foregrounds the value of diversity in the fashion industry and the structuring logic of race-neutrality in its presentation of blackness as style. I argue that race is both made and un-made in fashion on the one hand through the production/performance of difference, and on the other hand through the flattening of difference where difference generates cultural and economic value via consumption and celebration. Finally, I consider blackness as an aesthetic that can be attached to black bodies, but is also present in objects, performances, language, etc. I investigate the deployment of blackness as the result of a historically situated aesthetic formation.


“Race as Aesthetic: The Politics of Vision, Visibility, and Visuality in Vogue Italia’s ‘A Black Issue.’” QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking 4:3 (Fall 2017)

This essay highlights the construction of black bodies as valuable in the fashion system as a mark of difference and evidence of diversity. Here, I also render the high fashion industry as a site of conflicting elements concerning the deployment and meaning of the black female body. To do so, I use a combined analysis of activism in the fashion industry, which calls for the representation of black models through the visible inclusion of more black bodies on the runway and in magazines, and a textual/image analysis of the July 2008 issue of Vogue Italia, “A Black Issue.” I argue that representations of the black models in the Vogue Italia Black Issue present the “glamorous” black model’s body as unthreatening, alluring, and integrated into dominant discourses of feminine attractiveness. I draw from the presentation of images in the high fashion industry to highlight instances when blackness is asked to prove a post-race and post-racist reality. I argue that the presentation of black bodies becomes less about their blackness, and more about their ability to sell a marketable black aesthetic.

“H Street, Main Street and the Neoliberal Aesthetics of Cool.” In Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington, DC, edited by Derek Hyra and Sabiyha Prince (Routledge, 2015)

This essay argues that the category of diversity has performed subtle, yet significant discursive work in the development of a popular, gentrifying commercial district in Washington, D.C. I highlight the relationship between race, diversity, belonging and urban development in the historical devaluation of the H Street commercial corridor, as a Black space, and its revaluation as an emerging multicultural neighborhood. I also explore how discourses of diversity and neoliberalism shape what hand who are deemed un/desirable and I identify how these discourses legitimate practices of racial inequality without naming race. By using diversity to map the space, I argue that the development of H Street places emphasis on a specific ideology of difference as multiculturalism and diversity in the spread of neoliberalism.

⎯⎯Public Writing⎯⎯


Written pieces for a general audience

“We Need Action to Accompany Art” The Boston Globe (June 11, 2020)

This solicited op-ed offers a critical lens to view state-sanctioned public art as “black aesthetic emplacement.”

“Race and the Quarantined City/What Black America Knows About Quarantine” The New York Times (May 15, 2020)

This solicited op-ed discusses the long history of Black spatial containment and marginalization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Crafting Selves: Elia Alba’s Supper Club and the Politics of Home(place)” In The Supper Club: by Elia Alba, edited by Sara Reisman, George Bolster, and Anjuli Nanda (Hirmer Publishers, 2019)

This chapter explore the role of blackness, aesthetics, and black representation in Elia Alba’s art practice. The essay draws on bell hooks’ essay “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance,” to imagine Alba’s Supper Club as a radically subversive environment.

“‘Housing is a Natural Right, Not a Privilege’: Anti-Gentrification Activism in a Chocolate” City
The Funambulist, Issue 22 (March 2019)


This solicited essay discusses the Black struggle against gentrification in Washington, D.C., and various organizations, initiatives, policy, and ongoing cultural activities that address the socio-spatial shift in D.C.’s landscape, primarily due to gentrification-induced displacement and dispossession.


Black Aesthetic/Aesthetic Black: Race, Space, and the Possibilities of Becoming
Public Seminar (May 2018)

This solicited piece discusses the productivity of blackness, and the mutual constitution of “black aesthetics” and “blackness as an aesthetic.”


“Black Lives Under Surveillance”
Public Books (December 2016)

A review essay on Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness and Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation that draws connections between race, surveillance, and capitalism.

“Black Erotics: A Conversation”
YoYo (so4 2012)

An interview with Jennifer Christine Nash and Mireille Miller-Young on racialized pornography, pleasure, and the politics of representation.

⎯⎯Projects⎯⎯



BERKELEY BLACK GEOGRAPHIES PROJECT

After joining the faculty at UC Berkeley in 2019, I began collaborating with my colleagues, Jovan Scott Lewis and Sharad Chari, to further develop the Berkeley Black Geographies Project. Since the first symposium in 2017, Black Geographies has grown in intellectual salience, institutional purchase, and trans-disciplinary influence. Rooted in decades of critical and radical Black thought and political engagement, the rate and breadth of growth in Black Geographies has advanced and inspired multiple themes and concepts. These interventions that concern the spatial relations of Blackness, span the range from the poetics to the politics of Blackness.

In addition to celebrating these developments, we organized a symposium that was held March 12-13, 2020, where we sought to deepen and define the conceptual frameworks and scholarly implications of the Black geographic framework that stand at the core of these advancements. In doing so, the symposium engaged scholarship that reflect Black Geographies’ commitments to the material, political-economic, poetic, feminist, queer, and global arrangements of the Black experience.

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THE APOCRYPHAL GOSPEL OF OAKLAND

The Apocryphal Gospel of Oakland (AGO) is a multimedia project developed in collaboration with Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based visual artist, Olalekan Jeyifous. AGO lampoons policy and power in confronting the housing crisis in Oakland. We envision an absurdist and alternate future that derives from the racist, spurious narratives deployed historically, as justification for “Negro removal” and more recently to explicate “housing scarcity” in the age of the Tech sector boom.

"Apocrypha" are written works of unknown authorship and dubious authenticity that are nonetheless widely circulated as being “true” (The Gospel).

On the topic of California’s ongoing homeless and housing crisis, the prevailing “Apocrypha” of Oakland is “housing scarcity,” despite findings by the American Community Survey that show there are four vacant units for every unhoused person. Municipal powers frame, react, and derive policy based on this notion of scarcity to address rampant homelessness, and to promote the idea that developing more "affordable” housing is the only solution to a crisis that derived from ongoing economic, racial, and political inequities. As a result, often untenable, even preposterous interim and emergency “transitional housing” strategies are presented as viable solutions. An emphasis and aggrandizement of these “strategies” as speculative urban interventions form the basis of our project.

“The Apocryphal Gospel of Oakland” is a multimedia installation comprised of hyper-real, Dystopian images, infographics, and animations re-imagined at the intersection of artistic abstraction and the exploratory potential for statistical analysis as a form of accountability and cutting social critique. The primary focus of this project will be photo-montages and experimental video depicting exaggerated “future” encampments from an alternate reality. Archival photographs, abstracted maps, and inventive animations will tell the origin story of these speculative encampments, reflecting on the socio-spatial organizational policies, cultural phenomena, contexts, and events that defined their establishment, tracing back to the racialized history of segregation and dispossession that justified the destruction of Black neighborhoods under the pretense of “urban renewal.”



Brandi T. Summers, Ph.D.
cover images by Bethanie Hines
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