Essay by Emanuel Admassu
The Amharic word for territory, dinber, connotes an amorphous landmass demarcated by its natural features: trees, rock formations, topography, and shrubbery, outlining a general area of operation that requires constant care, attention, and maintenance. The kingdoms that were dispersed across the region that is now known as Ethiopia, from the Axumite to the Zagwe and Solomonic Dynasties, negotiated a series of overlapping dinbers.
I share the top floor of a three-decker with my partner and infant son in Providence, Rhode Island. As I write this essay, we are living through a global pandemic and shifting from a grotesque to a more palatable version of American hegemony. 2020, more than any year in recent memory, has felt like a year that has been lived digitally. Most of our days are spent indoors, but the physical environments we inhabit have been suspended and superseded by the meteoric rise of screen time: Zoom, WhatsApp, Signal, Instagram, email, and back to Zoom again—disembodied dispersals into grids of faces and scrolls of images. Every scroll leads to a new portal, a new disaster.
The three-decker (or triple-decker as it is more widely known today) is an emblematic working-class residential typology of New England. The one we occupy is a narrow building with one apartment per floor. It has bay windows that bulge out from the front façade of its rectangular volume, and its balloon framing is covered with wood siding and topped with a steep gable. A flimsy wooden fence wraps around the back and two sides of the building, leaving the front open to the sidewalk. Surrounded by a cluster of three-deckers, each window extends our view into our neighbors’ yards, driveways, and gardens. At night we look through their windows into their softly lit interiors. We watch people cooking, dancing, tending to their gardens, walking their dogs, and washing their cars. A welcome set of distractions for a year of containment.
Three-deckers began to appear in New England in the late nineteenth century, shortly after the Civil War. They provided housing for immigrants who were arriving from Italy and Ireland to work in the textile mills and factories. Today, they mostly house immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Colombia working jobs that have suddenly been deemed “essential.” Our daily walks have turned into surveys of neighboring three-deckers that are being swiftly renovated for young professionals moving to Providence from more expensive cities like Boston and New York, displacing the current residents and benefitting from “indefinitely remote” working arrangements.
Life in quarantine heightens one’s awareness of our corporeal inscriptions within the regime of property: its inherent exclusions and borderizations shrink-wrap our bodies.1 This compression is coupled with the arrival of a virus that has intensified existing fears of the outside. A space that is predominantly reserved for people who have been racialized, kept out for hundreds of years—outside of law, citizenship, and the body.2 These are the tenets of a world order built on racial hierarchy and cyclical dispossessions.3
This viciousness is intensified by the volatility of the Black interior. Elizabeth Alexander writes about a generation of young people who are growing up consuming the relentless specter of Black death on their cellphone screens:
They always knew these stories. These stories formed their world view. These stories helped instruct young African Americans about their embodiment and their vulnerability. The stories were primers in fear and futility. The stories were the ground soil of their rage. These stories instructed them that anti-black hatred and violence were never far.4
Looking out the window, while holding my ten-month-old baby in my arms, I wonder if the merger between our digital and physical lives has eradicated spaces that were previously considered to be interiors, zones that could be defended from invasions—colonial or otherwise?
Cellphone screens and laptops perforate our three-decker with images of vigilantes negating Black life. Images that travel and connect multiple sites of death: a suburban street, an urban sidewalk, an apartment building, a parking lot. I scroll past protest signs, black squares, drone shots of streets with bold yellow letters, screen grabs of white text with black backgrounds, promising solidarity and confessing complacency. Big Tech profiting from broadcasting the premature endings of our lives. These are the territories, snippets of space and time, that are weaponized in the preservation of racial capitalism. Transforming the meaning of familiar, everyday environments, and making us feel like we are outside our bodies and the planet at large.
My trans-Atlantic move from Addis Ababa to Marietta, Georgia, as a teenager felt like falling into the rift that exists between Africa and the Americas. I left the comfort of a compound house in a bustling African capital and entered into a quiet subdivision in a northern suburb of Atlanta. My parents took a calculated risk. They sent me to live with my aunt and attend high school in the United States, with hopes that it would increase my chances of earning a college degree (it did). These are the risks often taken by parents who raise children in territories that function as extraction sites for European and American imperialism; places that are still trying to recover from Cold War politics and structural adjustment programs. But my move was also an embodied transition from a distant and relatively abstract understanding of one’s place in the world to a direct confrontation with the hierarchies that shape and maintain it.
The racialization I experienced upon arrival offered jarring insights into the mundane violence of US suburban culture. A landscape of alienation built with strip malls, single-family homes, and cul-de-sacs. The high school cafeteria, the YMCA, the classmate’s house, the soccer field, were all sites of racial trauma. Nonetheless, my aunt’s house, and the houses of other relatives in the suburbs of Atlanta, offered sanctuaries, shields from the anxieties I felt elsewhere. We ate food cooked with spices imported from the motherland and engaged in rituals that reminded us of home. The houses looked just like their neighbors’, built with the same materials: timber framing, insulation, vinyl siding, and stone veneer accents. A sameness that was briefly interrupted by our presence.
Inhabiting the rift also meant living in a subdivision with a name that recalls bucolic landscapes in England. A settler colonial fantasy linking whiteness to nature and purity. Subtle topographic clues suggest the end of one property and the beginning of another, limits further articulated through lines drawn by the asynchronous mowing of adjacent lawns. Ironically, the lack of physical barriers does not increase residents’ potential to socialize. People have minimal interactions with their neighbors: awkward waves from car windows or nods while checking the mailbox. Mothers with strollers and pets walk around the cul-de-sac, hoping not to see other pedestrians.
Today, these geographies of white flight, where white people fled to as Atlanta became increasingly Black, are experiencing rapid inversions.5 In other words, the suburbs of Atlanta are becoming increasingly Black, as the city, fueled by urban renewal projects (greenwashing neglect), is becoming increasingly white. Segregationist spatial practices are being updated in response to the fugitivity of Black life. The racial delineation between who lives inside and outside the perimeter of Interstate 285 is being blurred by the suburbanization of Blackness.
In describing African American spaces as practices of refusal, Tina M. Campt writes:
A practice is an unfinished or ongoing process. It designates a durational temporality that functions as a process of preparation. Practice is also fundamentally social in nature, as it forms a core role in the formation of subjectivity. More specifically, in this case, it is the social process of preparation required to enact new ways of inhabiting freedom. “Practice” is, in this way, a form of prefiguration; it enacts new forms of Black sociality by allowing us to live the future we want to see, not at a distant point of time to come, but here and now in the present.6
By the time I arrived in the late 1990s, members of my immediate and extended family had already moved to the suburbs. They were/are part of an ongoing wave of Black people who have chosen to leave the city behind. By 2010, 87% of the Black population was already living in the suburbs—housing more suburban Black people than any other metropolitan region in the country.7 This is making the suburban house a prominent site of refusal.
The double-height living room with a large television set, and the backyard with a barbecue grill, were used to solidify the impermeable walls built around the American nuclear family—a franchise fashioned through gendered labor and redlined cities. But ongoing demographic shifts are unsettling these environments of possessive isolation. Spaces that were designed to exclude Black life are being actively transformed into loopholes for Black joy. Spending time with friends and family in the suburbs of Atlanta feels like a reclamation, a refashioning of single-family houses as boundless sites of gathering.
These shifts are also tied to what Achille Mbembe calls the “technological escalation.”8 An atomization of spaces and practices that previously needed to be centralized: recording trap music in the closets of Atlanta’s suburban homes, transforming domestic interiors into film sets, and remaking strip malls into cultural centers. These sites serve as ruptures, carving out temporal zones of digital and physical liberation, within consistent zones of suppression. They offer alternatives within the banal mendacity of the American suburb.
One of the core tenets of the contemporary regime of property is the assumption that we can inextricably separate ourselves from our neighbors. It is based on the anxieties born out of different forms of brutal domination, namely, the fear that those who have been dispossessed will eventually come back and reclaim their land and their bodies. But what if we operate from the basis that autonomy is an unachievable fantasy? What if we choose to dwell deeply within the infinite entanglements of the land, the ocean, the climate, and their unquestionable instabilities?
This sensibility seems to have been a given, something so obvious that it didn’t warrant a discussion, in the compound house in Addis Ababa—the place I called home for the first decade and a half of my life. Built by my grandparents before the Italian occupation (1936–1941), it is a territory that refuses territorialization. A zone that is constantly penetrated by neighbors and friends, as well as relatives and their loved ones, providing intimate, communal environments for its long- and short-term occupants. I try to visit at least once a year, hoping the virtues of this place won’t escape my intuition.
It feels like there are these things called individual subjects, walking around. It feels like I’m one. You know? It seems like everything is organized around that feeling. My language is organized around that feeling, a lot of my hopes and dreams are organized around that feeling, my pleasures, my pains… It seems like that but maybe it’s not really like that. And maybe there’s another kind of materialism that moves by way of another understanding of metaphysics, or a rejection of metaphysics, if what metaphysics always implies is individuation.9
My grandparents modified and expanded the house to accommodate their growing family—a notion that seems to have always had a tenuous definition. A humble single-story villa built with eucalyptus framing, wattle and daub construction sits at the center of the compound. The compound is approximately ten times the plot of our three-decker in Providence. I have heard several stories of my grandparents’ relatives coming to share their harvest from the countryside. I have witnessed weddings, funerals, birthdays, and religious holidays that required large tents next to the garden. It is a place that gains its ambiance from the voices of the people who come in and out, an identity built on invitation rather than exclusion, a space that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to feel alone. At any given time, there are anywhere between five and fifteen people in the compound.
Nonetheless, at its core, the compound house is a defensive typology. It offered spatiotemporal delineations for members of a nomadic society. As the seat of the Ethiopian empire became sedentary, compound walls began to transform into relatively permanent enclosures. Addis Ababa was settled shortly after successfully resisting European colonization in the late nineteenth century. Ironically, this sovereignty was achieved through a more regional form of imperialism, where Empress Taytu Betul and Emperor Menelik II consolidated a series of dinbers into a solidified border, forming a modern nationstate— a defensive response to the European scramble for Africa. Therefore, at its best, the compound house demonstrates the fluidity and openness of its nomadic beginnings, and, at its worst, it is an architectural materialization of all the failures we associate with nationalisms—their borders, omissions, and dispossessions.
These protective spaces built in response to ever-present threats of infiltration—from colonialism to neoliberalism—achieve safety through a slow and deliberate cultivation of “fellowship.”10 People arrive unannounced to congratulate, comfort, or simply check-in on family members—joy is shared, so is grief. There are weekly rituals that extend from the church to the compound, like gatherings for the Edir, a neighborhood-based mutual aid group that collects a small fee each month, or gatherings for the Mehaber, another mutual aid group formed around monthly meals with friends. The money collected from these gatherings is used to pay for funeral services, medical expenses, and other emergencies of neighbors, friends, and their loved ones. It is linked to a larger tapestry of care.
Nevertheless, the communality maintained by the compounds does not fully negate the fragmentation of the nation-state. It simply juxtaposes the fragments—the land, the climate, the people, and their rituals. At times the compounds offer spatial antidotes to the intensifying ethnic divisions and wealth disparities sponsored by the “development paradigm.” It offers moments of amnesia within spaces that are constantly being reshaped by the pressures of global capital:
For they are caught in a collision and a clash that was inherent and in-built, and still is, between the plantation system, a system, owned and dominated by external forces, and what we shall call the plot system, the indigenous, autochthonous system.11
Ethiopia’s origin story facilitates a certain form of blindness to the neocolonial entanglements that are eroding the edges of its inward-looking society. The compound is positioned at the apex of this contradiction: the urge to protect Black interiors while eschewing the violence of territorialization. Throughout Addis Ababa, speculative real estate practices are demolishing compound houses and replacing them with luxury residential towers. The ones that have survived such fates have been balkanized: there are armed guards, electric wires, cameras, and alarm systems.
But what exactly is the logical conclusion of sovereignty? Is it meant to erase the compound wall and replace it with something more ephemeral? Or is it meant to further solidify these partitions? The amorphousness of the dinber, the deterritorialization of land through various practices of commoning, requires us to experiment with other forms of relation. Maybe the most generative definition of vigilantism is not a nostalgic return but a relentless departure from settling. A practice that requires us to investigate how we can avoid reproducing the failures of the previous generation. The need to understand the difference between Indigenous sovereignty and settler colonialism; the difference between collective caretaking and propertied isolation.
* * *
Being a member of the African diaspora means stretching oneself across, and at times, occupying all these realms: the inside and the outside, the rift and the boundary, the plot and the plantation. It is a collective practice built on the impossibility of a return; a commitment to imagining and building a world where Black compounds thrive. A world that is not built on internal or external forms of domination, but instead, on the need to remain uncertain and unbound, in Addis Ababa, Atlanta, Providence, New York, or anywhere else we choose to pass by, either through forms of reclamation or reconstruction, building Afrodiasporic spaces that value the intimacy of our interiors, the mutuality of our gatherings, the collectivity of our refusals, and the permeability of our dinbers.
1. Achille Mbembe, “Bodies as Borders,” in From the European South, issue 4, (2019): 10.↵
2. Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, “Fugitive Justice,” in Representations, Vol. 92, No. 1 (University of California Press, 2005), 1–15.↵
3. Robert Nichols, Theft Is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 24.↵
4. Elizabeth Alexander, “The Trayvon Generation,” The New Yorker, June 15, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/22/the-trayvon-generation.↵
5. Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).2005.↵
6. Tina M. Campt, “Constellations of Freedom: Assembly, Reflection, and Repose,” in In Search of African American Space: Redressing Racism, eds. Jeffrey Hogrefe, Scott Ruff, Carrie Eastman, Ashley Simone (Zürich: Lars Muller Publishers, 2020).↵
7. Karen Pooley, “Segregation’s New Geography: The Atlanta Metro Region, Race, and the Declining Prospects for Upward Mobility,” Southern Spaces, April 15, 2015, https://southernspaces.org/2015/segregations-new-geography-atlanta-metro-region-race-and-declining-prospects-upward-mobility.↵
8. Achille Mbembe, “Bodies as Borders,” in From the European South, issue 4 (2019): 10.↵
11. Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou, no. 5 (June 1971): 94.↵
Emanuel Admassu is an artist, architect, and educator. Along with Jen Wood, he is a founding partner of AD—WO, an art and architecture practice based in New York City and, by extension, between Melbourne and Addis Ababa. He is an Assistant Professor at Columbia GSAPP and a founding board member of the Black Reconstruction Collective. His design, teaching, and research practices operate at the intersection of design theory, spatial justice, and contemporary African art. The work meditates on the international constellation of Afrodiasporic spaces. Most recently, Admassu has been analyzing the socio-spatial identities of two urban marketplaces: Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam and Merkato in Addis Ababa. AD—WO’s work was featured in the exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America at the Museum of Modern Art. Their installation focused on the immeasurability of Black spatial practices in Atlanta and the Atlantic.
www.ad-wo.com | @eadmassu