Contemporary African-American Anthropology: Semi-Permanent Outdoor Meeting Places

My wife recently returned from a visit to Chicago where she went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. One of the exhibitions was an installation that recreated an informal outdoor meeting place used by African Americans. These types of places apparently are common on Chicago’s south side and in the deep South, and they certainly are common here in Detroit. They are typically on an empty lot (and so are communal, as opposed to someone’s front porch)with a row of cast-off chairs, make shift benches and the like where people will hang out. There may also be, say, an old grill or horseshoe pit.

The exhibition at the MCA was entitled “Under the Baobob Tree” which implies a connection with African tradition. My question is, where did this practice originate? Does it indeed have African roots? Is it more from the Southern US? Someplace else? How old a tradition is this? And is there a name for this meeting place (or the practice of utilizing one)?

I used to be the planning director for a small town in Florida.

In what was called the “Old Colored Quarter,” there was just such a gathering spot, underneath a Live Oak that was close to the right-of-way on a vacant lot. Old kitchen chairs, a homemade barbecue pit, card and domino games, and the like. Most people that gathered there were older black men.

The property owner said that he had no problem with the property’s reputation as a gathering spot, since those that gathered there “respected” it. Why? IMHO, it was the coolest spot in a very humid environment. The oldest residents of the Colored Quarter were also the poorest, and were the least likely to have air conditioning. The oldest residents also remembered a time when the town’s main park was off-limits to blacks. That certainly isn’t the case now, but the park is still seen as the “white park.”

Younger residents of the Quarter can live anywhere in the town now – most residents outside the Quarter are transplants that otherwise have no problems with black neighbors – but most stay there out of tradition. Young residents live in newer, nicer, larger houses with AC, and thus there is no reason to gather outside.

“The African Baobab is one of the world’s hardiest trees, thriving in even the most arid environment. It is also the tree under which some Africans traditionally meet to decide issues of common concern.”

Djibril Diallo, Africa Recovery, Vol. 10 No. 4 January - April 1997

The “Baobab” tree plays a dominant role in the mythology and tradition of the coastal people. This magnificent tree is hundreds of years old and has many traditional uses for the well-being of the people.

*soft wood (useless as timber or firewood, for this reason Baobab, trees were often left standing after all other trees had been cut down).
*fiber of inner bark can been used for weaving baskets. etc
*Baobabs generally produce leaves during the rains, shed the leaves during the dry season.
*young leaves can be eaten like spinach
*flowering during the rains, flowers are fertilized by bats and bush babies.
*fruits hard, longish, bread-like, with a velvety skin; contain a white, edible fruit pulp, rich in vitamin C, which can be made into a refreshing drink; seeds bean-like, very hard.
*Baobab trees are reported to live for more than 1000 years
*Baobab are said to be inhabited by spirits, and whoever cuts down a Baobab, will be haunted by its spirits.

Baobab Farms, Mombasa, Kenya from the website

I know some Kenyans, but mostly Nigerians. I’ll ask about the name, but i’d bet they’ll just say “the center of our village”.

Also this…

The Baobab is also the archetype for ‘tree of life’ trees, as it has provided shelter, sustenance and stability to the African people for centuries.

My best guess: it’s a transplantation of certain cultural experiences surrounding the communal use of the areas surrounding baobab trees among coastal peoples in West Africa among slaves and descendants of slaves in the Southern U.S., althogh there are probably approximations in many other countries and regions where blacks settled. Basically-- since blacks were outlawed from using public facilities – any handy open area could be used for various outdoor celebrations, speechmaking, religious revivals, etc.

I don’t think this phenomemon has a ethnic name… unless it’s “meeting.” Negroes love us some meetings, boy.

Outdoor gatherings are obviously not exclusively an African or African-American phenomenon, but the way they were historically conducted in the U.S. among blacks can almost certainly be attributed to the opressiveness of enforcedJim Crow laws for nearly 90 years following the Civil War. Blacks could, and were, harassed, beaten and/or arrested by whites for gathering outdoors in large numbers, even if the purpose was generally benign.

More often than not these were not the major or “nice” public parks. During slavery, you had furtive meetings in the Quarters or places in the woods adjacent to the plantation; in the cities, on “common” areas in the vacant lots; on a larger scale, full fledged block parties (but not until the 70s); the fields around rural black churches were used for revival meetings and staging grounds for civil rights marches (and in New Orleans, the jazz funeral); fraternity and sorority plots at historically black colleges; outdoor flea markets; some Southern beaches.

It’s also a passing tradition. With the end of forced segregated of public parks since the 1960s, blacks have had more options where they can gather. The 15th Midwest Regional Black Family Reunion was held in about a half-dozen hotel venues in Cincinnatti. Rising urban crime rates in the 70s has made the use of vacant lots less likely, as has ever-encroaching urban gentrification since the late 80s. Crackdowns on public-spectacle gatherings of young college age blacks in the mid-90s (The original Freaknik began with at a small, out-of-the-way park) put paid to the trend. Informally used outdoor places are simply becoming rarer and rarer.

In the small town where I grew up, it was called “The Back Lot,” which was a mostly vacant area behind the businesses on “Main Street.”

This reminds me of the meeting place under a tree seen in the movie Beloved, where the old granny delivered uplifting sermons to the assembled people.

The topic also seems to be the background inspiration of the anarchist writer Hakim Bey’s proposal for the “Temporary Autonomous Zone.”