Here is a draft of an essay entitled “On the Fecundity of Small Places,” which I’ve written for a volume on Africana theory – the idea, its past, and its future prospects. I make a very simple argument: what remains so potent and compelling about Africana theory is the turn to the vernacular, to the worlds expressive cultures make, and how a shift away from “the world stage” shifts our understanding of epistemology and ontology. The essay makes reference to a whole cluster of thinkers in order to evoke the “small place” as a transformative site, not as simply a counter to the world stage, but as a critique of the very idea. Every place, every rooted sense of ideas, is a small place. Thinking on that paradigm, I conclude, does important decolonial work in critically dismantling the very idea of center. The small place as cluster and constellation rather than margin.
The turn to small places and the fecundity of their conditions – creolism, vernacularity, the blues aesthetic, just to name a few – draws attention to the facts of Black cultural life in the Americas, emphasizing the limitations or even violence of deficiency models of analysis. The deficiency model imagines Black life under conditions of oppression and unimaginable, trans-generational violence as just that: structured entirely from the inside by the abjection projected by white violence. We see this in so much social science, as well as the anecdote-critic inclusion of Black texts and thinkers as part of the diversification of curricula and research programmes. We also see this in the pessimist strain of the black Atlantic tradition, which has turned the literary nihilism of a Richard Wright and speculations of an early Fanon into thumbnail sketches of an ontology and libidinal economy under the rubric of afropessimism. In these cases, though, the deficiency model is strangely colonized by notions of the common, of Being as such, and therefore iterations of what used to be called “the world-stage.” The turn to small places and the fecundity of their conditions upends that mode of analysis in a shift from fundamental ontology (the common, the world, the Umwelt of antiblackness) to regional ontological concerns that generate languages, beliefs, practices, and theorizations that mobilize Black life outside the white gaze – in Baldwin’s phrase, “the relation Negroes bear to one another.” In that bearing are the components of world-making. In a world-made outside the white gaze, small places emerge as not only forms of resistance, disruption, and the unassimilable (they are surely that), but also, and most emphatically, as entire worlds of meaning, significance, and life.