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Orienting to the Private: The Spatial Dreamworlds of Black Becoming

In overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that Americans have a constitutional right to privacy, opening the door to states’ policing of the bodies of women and others who can become pregnant.[1] While it has been widely noted that the rolling back of reproductive rights will affect Black and Brown women disproportionately, less attention has been paid to what this means for their experience of privacy. As some scholars have suggested, privacy feels definitionally impossible for women of color, insofar as racial visibility in public spaces leads often to surveillance and harm.[2] (Where was Breonna Taylor’s privacy, when police officers raided her bedroom and murdered her in the spring of 2020?) Yet seen from another angle, it is precisely this lack of physical safety that makes privacy’s other, less palpable dimensions so necessary to imagine and cultivate. As Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman asserts, reflecting on the armoring her hijab offers her, privacy can be both a “liberative framework and a dire (inter)personal need,” a powerful sanctuary from ever-prying eyes.[3] For Kevin Quashie, moreover, privacy is not an impossibility, but a basic, ineffable reality of being alive: “All Black being is private as much as it is anything else, though this truth gets confounded by the ever-social reality of Blackness in an anti-Black world.”[4] In what follows, then, I would like to consider the affordances of privacy as a kind of dreamworld—a psychic refuge when its physical reality gets foreclosed—and a necessary precursor for precisely the kinds of communal action that the present moment demands.

This is a meditation on privacy as a mental orientation, as something which might be uncoupled from the notion of property, given the latter’s historical production of hierarchies of value, of owners and owned. These dreamworlds are cultivated in and through the liminal, semi-public spaces of the shifting modernist city, including stairwells, sidewalks, and other sites of partial, often inadvertent collectivity. I am interested here in privacy’s potential for understanding what Hortense Spillers calls “black personality’s total predicament,” which must include, in addition to suffering, a Black subject’s inalienable right to retreat, opacity, and withholding.[5] Consider, as an example, the following moment from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which Janie (Crawford Killicks) Starks dons a veil for her late husband’s funeral:

Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done… She did not reach out for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside her to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.[6]

Retreat, opacity, withholding: the partially hidden “face,” as a presumed site of intimacy and disclosure, here becomes an object to be merrily dispatched like a visiting card, a decoy to distract viewers from the finer work of “rollicking.”[7] Insofar as Janie is knowable, it is only by proxy; hers is a carefully constructed “wall” that deceives more than it reveals, finally reiterating that there are times when congregation—in the broader sense of a communing with others—is neither desirable nor effective. Thus, a consideration of this Spillerian “totality” would need, after Janie, to acknowledge points of relational tension, contradiction, and anger, even when directed at those who may share similar goals. (Remember, finally, that the townsfolk of Eatonville have arguably suffered, like Janie, under Joe’s domineering mayorship; nevertheless, upon his death, she “sends her face” to them.) For as modernist writers of color have long suggested, it can be precisely the hostility of an unexamined collective—one that makes tacit assumptions of a coherent, legible experience of Blackness—that necessitates, and reiterates, my dream of privacy to begin with.

Privacy and Collective Action

Such an orientation is hardly in vogue. Ontologies of precarity and co-constitution have recently come to replace literature’s solipsistic interiorities—that now shameful lyric “I”—with many modernist scholars drawing on poststructuralism and affect theory to emphasize that the self is always already bound up with others, existing in a framework of de facto relationality.[8] For women, moreover, it has been advantageous to recognize our (personal) anger as a binding (political) mechanism. With the patriarchal hoarding of power as a shared enemy, women can, and historically have, come together in solidarity to effect change. As the journalist Rebecca Traister writes from the vantage point of Donald Trump’s election: “Perhaps the reason that women’s anger is so broadly denigrated—treated as so ugly, so alienating, and so irrational—is because we have known all along that with it came the explosive power to upturn the very systems that have sought to contain it.”[9]

Anger binds us. Rage becomes the catalyst for the implosion of its sources. Of course. It is difficult to imagine women winning the right to vote, say, without the pétroleuses of the nineteenth-century Paris commune, in what Juno Richards describes as an early social experiment in working class radicalism, linked in their account to female insurgents in Martinique’s Insurrection of the South.[10] Nor should we conceive of the American labor movement without remembering that it was a group of young women, working in the Lowell, Massachusetts mills as early as the 1830s, who together staged a series of walkouts, culminating in a workers union avant la lettre. In the aftermath of the overturning of Roe, it is empowering—life-affirming, even—to see folks taking to the streets by the thousands to protest the dismantling of reproductive rights. And yet, as Black feminists have long pointed out, solidarity—like autonomy—falls prey to a dangerous idealism when left unchecked, or when theorized only at the level of abstraction.[11] Put differently, there can be a reticence to consider the myriad ways in which sociality might fail us, when relations reproduce the very barriers they consciously aim to set ablaze. bell hooks said as much in 1984, broaching these difficult questions from a different angle:

A central tenet of modern feminist thought has been the assertion that “all women are oppressed.” This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of women.[12]

Beyond a foundational call for intersectionality in feminist praxis, hooks reminds us that adopting a common goal should never paper over our differences in positionality, nor, indeed, the microaggressions that those ostensibly bound-by-anger may enact more and less intentionally on one another. (Microaggressions, remember, come in many forms; I feel them as much when receiving eyebrow raises, sharing that I, as a woman of color, am enamored of high modernisms—the cruelty of April, its ineluctable modality of the visible—as when a stranger on a train spends the better part of an hour guessing my ethnicity.) As Audre Lorde argues, in an often cited, yet rarely contextualized lecture, there needs to be space for examining “the contradictions of self, woman as oppressor.”[13] For Lorde, speaking to an audience of predominantly white feminists, overly sanguine accounts of collectivity could be addressed by rooting ourselves in the information that anger affords, by “listen[ing] to its rhythms . . . tap[ping] that anger as an important source of empowerment” (“The Uses of Anger,” 130). Yet in order to hear this anger, one needs privacy as an interior refuge—the space to receive its messages—when the promise of physical safety is no longer on the table.[14] Far from a deterrent to collectivity, I am suggesting that privacy is the prerequisite for precisely the kinds of solidarity that we so desperately need, a dream historically denied to women of color above all. Imagine: What if we considered (Black) privacy not as a physical space afforded by capitalist modernity—one which necessitates the refusal of another’s home—but as a dreamworld that responds to the very absence of such a place, a psychological wellspring from which effective, collective action might finally be borne? Could we, like Janie, chisel from the wreckage a wall of stone and steel?

Stairwell Modernism

Woman walking into back door of building
Fig. 1.  “Kitchenette apartment homes, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois, 1941.” Library of Congress. Used with permission. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017729661/

For Black women in modernist literature, this conjuring of privacy occurred frequently in the context of semi-public city spaces, spaces whose physical contours became a springboard to psychic retreat. Consider the tenement stairwell as one example of this liminality. As a presumed private space that connects levels of the compartmentalized home and a trite metaphor for class mobility, the stairwell was also a scene of racial and sexual violence, insofar as it positioned the feminine subject, as well as her children, in the line of vision of male onlookers. Stairwells staged the ritual descent to and ascent from the grueling workday, including the financial independence that such a day theoretically promised. Insofar as it connected women to the street, and the (newly) gender-integrated workplace by extension, the stairwell was simultaneously a site of danger and possibility, introducing new forms of sociality that were equal parts threatening and electrifying. Moreover, the stair’s labyrinthine quality could dilate the parameters of any given day, analogous to the abnormal temporalities of, say, a memory retrieved, or an obsessive thought. In the finale of Nella Larsen’s Passing, for instance, Irene’s belated descent to the scene of Clare’s death is keenly protracted, such that she begins to associate her rumination over the event with the shape of the staircase itself: “Down, down, down, she went. . . . What was she to say to them when at last she had finished going down those endless stairs?”[15]

Photo of stairwell descending in loop
Fig. 2.  The labyrinthine temporality of the stairwell, courtesy Eric Garcia. Used with permission.

Yet it remains key that the tenement, as a malignant outgrowth of economic racism in the North, enacts retreat precisely because its physical dimensions denied Black subjects the possibility of real privacy. These networks of low-rise, cheaply built apartments grouped as many as twelve people into single, poorly lit rooms, often with little to no ventilation or plumbing, and one bathroom to share among them. Walls were stained with all manner of bodily fluids; domestic squabbles echoed mercilessly; rats, cockroaches, and silverfish scuttled across splintered flooring, reproducing as quickly as the hot water turned cold. As the speaker of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “kitchenette building” (1945) has it, dreaming is all but foreclosed in such degrading conditions, where white landlords kept the rent disproportionately high:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”[16]

All but foreclosed. Not only in spite of, but precisely through, the graying walls of this degrading sociality, Brooks’s speaker here expands her capacity for wonder. She orients to the private in the poem’s final stanzas—tentatively, temporarily, “not strong,” and always in the conditional tense—but she still imagines herself otherwise, reclaiming a sense of inwardness where the spirit of the tenement would seem to afford little:

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! 

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it. (Brooks, “kitchenette building,” 1)

Of course, just because mental privacy could be responsible—an exercise in self-fealty, a prerequisite to healthy forms of communality—does not mean that it will be. And yet it would be a mistake to collapse the possibility of privacy’s failure with the potential of its practice, a means of self-preservation as habitual and indeed as human as the act of climbing on. Let me conclude in my final section, then, by considering the case of Lutie Johnson, the heroine of Ann Petry’s 1946 novel The Street. For it is both Lutie’s affirming retreat on the stairwell, as well as her obsessive quest for privacy’s literal trappings, that has something important to tell us about Black humanity’s “total predicament.”

Young girl, with some other children in background, in a vacant lot behind some tenement housing in East Harlem, New York City.”
Fig. 3.  “Young girl, with some other children in background, in a vacant lot behind some tenement housing in East Harlem, New York City.” Courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, the New York Public Library. Used with permission. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b6e6c45e-2db7-a991-e040-e00a18062ee9
People sitting outside of a home in Harlem
Fig. 4.  “Harlem Tenement in Summer.” Courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, the New York Public Library. Used with permission. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/81f397c0-461d-0134-90b2-00505686a51c

Sealing Out, Sealing In

In the opening of The Street, Lutie takes a tour of a tenement on 116th Street in Harlem. As the building’s super, Jones, follows her up the stairwell, Lutie remarks on the squalor surrounding them: the stairs are littered with wastepaper, cigarette butts, and empty liquor bottles, with the walls closing in on either side, “reaching out for her,” as if entombing the residents alive.[17] The place is disgusting, remarkably so, but it still offers the possibility of a homeplace for Lutie and her young son, Bub, whom she aims to protect at all costs.[18]

Danger is introduced when Jones, his “rod”-like flashlight in tow, begins to sexualize Lutie from the stair below, “staring at her back, her legs, her thighs” (Petry, The Street, 10). In response to this impending threat of sexual violence, the novel dilates Lutie’s mental state. She begins, first, to reason with herself—is this really, she asks, the situation that I think it to be? Realizing that it is, and breathing in the stench of garbage, Lutie escapes into memory, (sub)consciously humming a song that her grandmother taught her as a child: “Ain’t no restin’ place for a sinner like me. Like me. Like me” (13). In Blues lyrics that profess that impossibility of rest, Lutie nevertheless insists on her right to privacy, to be “like” no one else, least of all the object that Jones here projects. The text repeats, in jazzy response to a lyric call: “Like me. Like me” (emphasis mine). This is a form of relationality that nevertheless depends, in its syntactic construction, on a unit of selfhood as a priori known. By humming to stave off an inevitable conclusion—putting down money on this apartment, this life—Lutie refuses to capitulate to Jones’s desire, and to the grime of the tenement that cathects it outward. There is anger here, yes, but even prior to anger is the space to retrieve it. She can conjure this space for herself, she learns, if only for a moment in her mind. And it is this that finally emboldens Lutie to act, in (imagined) solidarity with her ancestor. Standing firm and resolute at the top of the stairwell, she tells Jones that she will not descend first, preventing him from ogling her again. She becomes temporarily inscrutable, rollicking elsewhere, claiming the luxury of unknowability. It is a sentiment we see echoed in Nikki Giovanni’s 1976 poem “ego tripping (there may be a reason why),” where the speaker asserts: “I cannot be comprehended / except by my permission / I mean . . . I . . . can fly / like a bird in the sky . . .”[19]

Lutie’s early refusal of Jones is resistant, and satisfyingly so. Still, it is difficult to read the novel overall as a triumph of feminist protest. If the women of The Street have no real privacy, they also contribute to one another’s public scrutiny. Mrs. Hedges, the snake-eyed brothel-keeper of the building, profits eagerly from the denigration of her sex workers. She does save Lutie from the super’s attempted rape midway through the novel, but only because she wants to keep Lutie marketable for a powerful client. Perhaps the most ambivalent figure of all, though, is Lutie herself. The more she retreats psychically from the space of the tenement, imagining herself as Benjamin Franklin on the path to self-improvement, the more Lutie is unable to recognize the vitality of those around her. (Her name, as Keith Clark suggests, conjures both “loot” and “booty” as she grasps so desperately after economic security.)[20] Lutie repeatedly leaves Bub alone in the apartment as she chases the ill-fated goal of becoming a jazz singer. In other words, what began on the stair as self-preservation, the dream of privacy when its reality is foreclosed, becomes a monomaniacal obsession with retreat from anyone, her son included, who might prevent its literalization. Left to his own devices, Bub falls prey to Jones’s machinations, winding up incarcerated at a children’s center, awaiting trial. In an effort to preserve Bub’s safety, that is, Lutie all but ensures its denial. The novel ends with her murdering her former bandleader, Boots Smith, unable to see him as anything other than a symbol of the tenement itself: “She was striking” we are told, “at a handy, anonymous figure—a figure which her angry resentment transformed into everything she hated, everything she had fought against, everything that had served to frustrate her” (300). The Street thus attunes us to the dangers of obsessive self-preservation when a wall of stone and steel might finally seal up its residents inside. This reality affirms legal scholar Jeannie Suk Gersen’s argument that claims to privacy (as essential for the vulnerable), and critiques of privacy (as shielding the privileged), will routinely clash, because “people who are victims in certain contexts can be victimizers in others.”[21] Yet it is, I think, this dualism of oppressor and oppressed that makes the legal discourse so useful: Precisely because Lutie goes too far, we as readers are propelled back to the source of her quest, her dream of privacy when the conditions of the tenement, of the visibility of Blackness in an anti-Black world, all but denies it to her.

She Dreams of Being Otherwise

In a recent special issue of the Black Scholar, Samantha Pinto and Shoniqua Roach consider “the transformative possibilities of Black privacy” in this moment of supreme, racial visibility.[22] Writing just months after the murder of George Floyd, and in the midst of BLM protests that subsequently swept the nation, Pinto and Roach locate Black privacy as both a redemptive form of withholding—a refusal to give away that last remaining scrap of dignity—and an attachment that Black Studies, as a field, ought to treat with skepticism. Naturally, we should be wary of endorsing privacy as such, particularly when, as the case of The Street suggests, clinging too tightly to its physical dimensions, even in response to this very lack, can risk ignoring the vulnerability of others. Yet as much as we must question the literalization of privacy, so too must we query any idealization of collective life, in a moment when modernist studies is keenly invested in relationality. We risk obscuring the possibility of difference, of orienting to the personal when little else remains. Rather than foreclosing sociality, such a move can make it possible to be responsible to others, particularly since, as women of color have always known, external directives can be deceptively loud. It is, finally, my dream of being otherwise—a bird in the sky, like me, like me—which enables me to participate in the totality of our becoming.

Stylized painting of people walking and birds flying above
Fig. 5. Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north. Between 1940 and 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1942.


My heartfelt thanks to Jennifer Fleissner and Janine Utell, who each provided valuable insight on an earlier version of this piece. I am especially grateful to Kevin Quashie for conversations that have enriched my thinking on these points and others—a marvelous partner in studying, and, after Wynter, in the intellectual struggle. Finally, thank you to James Neisen and Matthew Robinson—brilliant readers and companions, both. 

[1] Both reproductive freedom and same-sex marriage have been linked to privacy via the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which Justice Alito dismissed. Specifically, he argues that Roe “held that the abortion right, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, is part of a right to privacy, which is also not mentioned” (9). As Liz Blake reminds us, anti-sodomy laws were ultimately invalidated in the 2003 Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court case, which similarly affirmed the right to privacy in its ruling.

[2] This is Christen A. Smith’s argument, in “Impossible Privacy,” The Black Scholar 51, no. 1 (2021): 20–29.

[3] Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, “Capture, Illegibility, Necessity: A Conversation on Black Privacy,” The Black Scholar 51, no. 1 (2021): 67–72, 67.

[4] Kevin Quashie, “Black Lyric Privacy,” The Black Scholar 51, no. 1 (2021): 51–61, 51.

[5] Emphasis in original. Spillers refers to this psychic force as “the mental theater of Black lifeworlds” (30), “Time and Crisis: Questions for Psychoanalysis and Race,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy XXVI, no. 2 (2018): 25-31, 30. I am building, here, on Edouard Glissant’s notion of the right to opacity as an ethical and political stance: see The Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), as well as Saidiya Hartman’s deployment of this in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).

[6] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, New York: Harper Perennial, 1999 [1937], 88. Emphasis added.

[7] I am reminded, here, of Namwali Serpell’s interrogation of the face as a basis for human authenticity, as well as her exploration of those “unruly and recalcitrant faces” (dead, animal, digital) which inevitably complicate this narrative. See Serpell, Stranger Faces (Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2020).

[8] See, for example, Paul Saint-Amour’s summative reference to “particle interactions” as analogous to our social networks: see “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 447. As Marta Fieglerowicz has it, affect theory is grounded in “movements or flashes of mental or somatic activity rather than causal narratives of their origins and end points . . . founding its more robust notions of knowledge and subjecthood”: “Affect Theory Dossier: An Introduction,” Qui Parle 20, no. 2 (2012): 3–18, 4. Gillian White argues that the shame we as critics attach to the lyric subject can overemphasize the solidity of the “I”: Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[9] Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), xxiv.

[10] Jill Richards. The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

[11] For more on this argument, see Jennifer L. Fleissner, Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2022, forthcoming).

[12] bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1984), 5. Moreover, for hooks, oppression means the absence of choices, though in the mid-1980s, certainly white affluent women had some choices, whereas working class Black women did not.

[13] Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” in Sister Outsider (New York: Crown Publishing, 2007 [1984]), 130. In her “Orientations” post, Erica Delsandro argues that Lorde’s relationship with her white female colleague, Mary Daly, has much to teach us about “honing our intersectional senses”; she suggests that their vexed correspondence could be a model for our professional praxis, specifically when, “and most painfully, we are the impetus of [another’s] bristling.” I agree—and yet I also think that it can be important to withdraw from such conversations altogether. In other words, it is still my prerogative to remain silent, to stealthily resist what Roger Reeves calls the “compulsion to talk,” to harness instead a dissident blankness. See Reeves, “Minor Characters, Major Silences, or Against the Compulsion to Talk,” The Black Scholar 51, no. 1 (2021): 43–50.

[14] I think, too, of Sara Ahmed’s notion of the “feminist ear.” As she explains, “To hear with a feminist ear is to hear who is not heard, how we are not heard. . . . We become attuned to those who are tuned out, and we can be those, which means becoming attuned to ourselves can also be an achievement.” I am imagining that the creation of privacy in public spaces could be a mode of attuning to the interior, when the spectacular visibility of Blackness seems too often to require interiority’s evacuation. See Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 4, emphasis added.

[15] Nella Larsen, Passing (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007 [1929]), 80.

[16] Gwendolyn Brooks, “kitchenette building,” in The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. Elizabeth Alexander (New York: Library of America, 2005), 1.

[17] Ann Petry, The Street and The Narrows (New York: Library of America, 2019 [1946]), 11. See also Evie Shockley, “Buried Alive: Gothic Homelessness, Black Women’s Sexuality, and (Living) Death in Ann Petry’s The Street,” African-American Review 40, no. 3 (2006): 439–60.

[18]As hooks argues, homeplace is, “however tenuous, that small private reality where black men and women can renew their spirits and recover themselves”: bell hooks, “Homeplace (A Site of Resistance),” in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990), 388.

[19] Nikki Giovanni, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968–1983 (New York: William Morrow, 2003), 125–26. See Quashie’s reading of this poem, arguing that “[s]elf-regard is an essential component of Black female relationality,” in Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 37.

[20] Keith Clark, The Radical Fictions of Ann Petry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 103, 105.

[21] Jeannie Suk Gersen, “Why the ‘Privacy’ Wars Rage On,” The New Yorker, June 20, 2022.

[22] Samantha Pinto and Shoniqua Roach, “Black Privacy: Against Possession,” The Black Scholar 51, no. 1 (2021): 1–2.