The Fire This Time: Race and Racism in American Cities

Send in a writing sample, 800-1000 words.

The story of racism in the United States is a story of possibilities—dreamt, blocked, fought for, grasped, created. The fight against racism in American cities is a fight for greater possibilities for its more disadvantaged occupants

In late Spring 2020, the streets of dozens of American cities overflowed with an uprising prompted by the killing of a Black man by a police officer. The protests were a response to the immediate killing of George Floyd and the proximate killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, whose names were joined with scores more as people marched to affirm dignity and demand justice. The protests were also an outcry against an accumulation—a history and legacy of racial injustice. Protestors marched in solidarity with those who mourned, and also demonstrated against interrelated injustices: a legacy of police abuse in Black communities; a criminal justice system marked by racial disparities; public institutions and public spaces treated like the private domain of a few and designed to exclude people of color; unequal public health outcomes that reflect persistent racial inequalities; residential segregation encouraged by government policies; narratives and policies and practices that make cities unwelcome or inhabitable for far too many non-white people; current harms and obstacles that are the result of years, often generations, of decisions shaped by racial prejudice. As the number of bodies on the streets increased—and well beyond the U.S.: the protests quickly became global—so did the number of issues demanding our attention and reckoning.

How do we make sense of this moment and the many sequence of actions that led to it? How to delineate and combat the far-reaching influence of racism in American cities? And what does a more just future in cities look like, and how do we get there?

We will will tackle these questions—and more—through writing, employing criticism, fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and reportage to examine the effects and influence of racism. Not only multiple genres, but multiple disciplines—history, philosophy, sociology, architecture, public policy, law, and, of course, urban planning—will be recruited to help us better understand the promise and limitations of cities as we trace the counters of racism within them. We will read and write extensively and engage with multiple forms of storytelling—film, photography, music, visual art, sculpture—to help us get a measure of possibilities seized and denied. We will be in conversation with the works of—among others—Alexander Chee, Rabih Alameddine, Elizabeth Alexander, Khalik Allah, Hilton Als, Vivek Bald, James Baldwin, Mehrsa Baradaran, Ned Blackhawk, Sarah M. Broom, Lucille Clifton, Teju Cole, Karilyn Crockett, Vinson Cunningham, Edwidge Danticat, W.E.B. DuBois, Nicole R. Fleetwood, James Forman Jr., Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Annette Gordon-Reed, Joy Harjo, Elizabeth Hinton, Cathy Park Hong, Hua Hsu, Vijay Iyer, Lawrence Jackson, Mira Jacob, Arthur Jafa, Margo Jefferson, Walter Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Kahlil Joseph, Beth Lew-Williams, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, Monica Muñoz Martinez, Toni Morrison, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Peter L’Official, Nell Irvin Painter, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Tommie Shelby, Zadie Smith, Sarah Seo, Héctor Tobar, Jesmyn Ward, Mabel O. Wilson, Kevin Young, some of whom will visit the class to discuss their work. They'll illuminate our understanding of the pernicious effects of racism within cities, and help us meet the challenge of writing compellingly about urban affairs.

This is a class about dreams interrupted, dreams deferred, dreams chased, and the power of staying alert. That is, it’s a class about the urban planner as attentive observer and social critic. Research, reporting, writing, fact-checking, and revising will make us more awake to the moment and our surrounding world, and this class will strengthen our skills in all of these areas.

To that end, the primary texts for this class—syllabus available upon request—are:

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House
James Forman Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America
Mira Jacob, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Racism: A Reader (Harvard University Press anthology, forthcoming)