We Wouldn’t Be Here If They Just Told Us the Truth About Great Zimbabwe

An unambiguous exploration of how intellectual towers promote racism within the design umbrella and throughout popular culture

Felema Yemaneberhan
Jul 20 · 26 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Black educators at work to teach their youth in Los Angeles, 1995. Image Courtesy of Author

Cute picture, right?

This is me (in the white dress) as a young girl at Knox Presbyterian Nursery School in Los Angeles. At the tender age of three, I learned my ABCs and 123s. I moved my body to emulate the wonders of Debbie Allen and Lula Washington. I learned how to plant food here. It was here, too, that I first mouthed out the word “abolition.” Glossy pictures of W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Fannie Lou Hamer were mounted on the classroom walls. My favorite teacher was this beautiful African-American woman named Yolanda. She always dedicated extra time after-school to help me with my English since I spoke Tigrinya at home. We wore bright red and yellow uniforms. The parents always joked around and said we look like a ketchup and mustard assembly line. Every so often, we would also wear traditional African attire. We gathered around to dissect the patterns, colors, and textures of each student’s outfit. Reflecting on that time, it was truly a special place where a gradient of brown children would come together to learn about their roots.

On a field trip in Long Beach with Uncle Berhe and Teacher Yolanda, 1994. Image Courtesy of Author
Classmates gathering to discuss African attires and traditions, 1995. Image Courtesy of Author

I spoke with Reverend Reginald Ragland, who has been the Pastor and Head of Staff at Knox since 2013. Knox uses ten principles in their early education model derived from the Creative Curriculum®, a concept Diane Trister Dodge developed in 1978. Somehow, this nursery took the curriculum and put its own spin on it. Ragland notes, “the teachers lead by self-direction at the pace of the children, building learning stages and development. Teachers want to add to what the child knows and brings into the classroom setting to add to the child’s family context. The end goal through all this is to discover each child’s personhood.” ¹

The concentrated exposure of Blackness in the early years of my education helped develop the way I perceived myself in the world. Though Knox has never outwardly called themselves an Afrocentric institution, what I experienced there was unlike anything I have yet to observe in my adulthood. To me, it wouldn’t be a hyperbolic statement to say it was Black school. The most important lesson I learned while at Knox was that all human beings must be respected and represented. This sounds like a simple concept, but our country has been struggling with achieving it since her very inception.

Image for post
Image for post
Vinyl of Gill Scott Heron- “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”(1971) Courtesy of Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi

Given the televised upheaval that has occurred in America, how does design move towards (true) equity for those who are disenfranchised? The answer to solving systemic racism is clear. Let’s cut to the chase — we needed to e̶s̶t̶a̶b̶l̶i̶s̶h̶ implant Black curricula into these ivory towers- like yesterday. The beloved academy is grossly overdue for a radical facelift.

Image for post
Image for post
Courtesy of Author

Here is my matrix from Cornell University.

A certain amount of credits under the history department need to be fulfilled to obtain your architecture degree. 15 credits — that’s it. At this time, we studied many civilizations. Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia- just to name a few. And then there was Africa — a continent that roughly covered eight pages in the entire textbook (excluding Egypt, but we will talk about that later). That semester, Africa was discussed in less than one class session. The big Africa lecture” was one of the few times when we even got to leave thirty minutes early. Three points were discussed that day: Great Zimbabwe, the Great Mosque of Djenné, and the adobe used in Senegal.

Great Zimbabwe Still Standing Strong (2017) Courtesy of Simon Chihanga

Great Zimbabwe, constructed in the eleventh century, was home to nearly 18,000 people. Known as the “Acropolis of Africa”, there had been slander going around that perhaps the Greeks or the Arabs erected this defensive fort. How could Black Africans ever create something as monumental and distinctive as this?² On the opposite end of the debate, there was a British archaeologist, Gertrude Caton Thompson. She acknowledged Blacks built this place, yet continued to reduce their construction style as “a product of infantile minds.” ³ Remember, these are the brilliant thinkers who talk to museums that enlighten the (less formally educated) public.

Excerpt from Atlantis Rising Magazine, 2012
Excerpt from Atlantis Rising Magazine, 2012
Excerpt from Atlantis Rising Magazine (2012)

The textual documentation of Black failure is a scale that ranges from the open rejection of greatness to sardonic compliments that one wishes were not even mentioned.⁴ This chain effect of undisguised hatred always trickles down to a lose-lose situation- it’s almost comical. I forgot something. There were a few additional times I learned about communities of color malfunctioning beyond their control within the classroom setting. There was the collapse of Pruitt–Igoe. Then, of course, we flew over the dangers of Overtown.⁵ Disappointed and underwhelmed, I went to the professor and teacher’s assistant during their office hours to ask why this specific curriculum was so diluted and truncated. Do you know what I was told? “Africa’s history of empire and architecture is non-existent.” I had a few words to say to them following this. They probably didn’t like me much after that meeting — that’s okay.

Image for post
Image for post
“Sorry I hoarded all the Black books from the library. They needed to live on my studio desk to protect me from the oppressors’ spirit” (2013). Image Courtesy of Author

From that day forward, I made it a point to visit the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC) almost daily during my time in Ithaca. I took classes, attended conferences, and established wonderful relationships with professors I speak with until this day. It was the first time as a young adult I felt safe to expand upon my subconscious curiosities — just like at Knox. From my paper topics in my elective course work to my thesis, I presented around the subjects that fed my proclivities. I was yearning for a different curriculum that simply did not exist in the College of Architecture, Art, & Planning. Independent studies requests were always so unnecessarily complicated to file; I was often told there was not enough data around to conduct a “legitimate” investigation. Committing myself to this ontology and exploring my personhood felt like I was at war. Here I was, siloed.

When Black students refuse to go through the whitewashing process by the Academy, the duration of their time there will be a dismal one.

Outside of the ASRC and a few visiting faculty, this fancy school had nothing to offer me. Coming to this difficult realization caused me to mentally withdraw from my department’s educators. I counted down the days until graduation so I would never have to come back. Of course, I couldn’t express these sentiments to my African parents, who sacrificed indescribable amounts of time and money to make sure I was equipped enough to tackle a place like this. I think it is safe to say most children of immigrants can agree to have heard some variation of the “education is the way to freedom” speech — right?

A clip of African parents displaying their academic expectations for their children, “African Booty Scratcher” (2016), Video Courtesy of Damilare Sonoiki/Youtube

Why must whiteness be lifted on a pedestal at the cost of putting down Blackness? Consider where the Africana Center is located on campus- 310 Triphammer Road. Though a beautiful destination point, the ASRC lies on the perimeter of the campus. Spatially speaking, what does that say about what the larger university believes about the program? Those who seek it out individually have only witnessed the level of rigor in the scholarship of African people.

Longitudinal Section of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
Longitudinal Section of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
Longitudinal Section of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Drawing Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
Image for post
Image for post
Floor Plan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana/Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois, Drawing Courtesy of James G. Hollis, and George J. Krassas/Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and Dana-Thomas House both display his mastery of compression and release; it’s something regularly admired when studying his work. This design principle dates back to the Pyramids of Giza in 2560 BCE, but where is that acknowledged in the footnotes every time either project is discussed? In terms of representation in the Western world today, where does Africa stand in the celebrated architectural canon? Egypt is there but deemed to be celebrated as a singular entity; it is never fully associated with the continent it lies on. Why? This is because the West does not like to associate triumph with Africa, and that is the inarguable truth.

Animated Stereograph of a Black Man atop the Gizeh Pyramid, circa 1920. Courtesy of Paul Ewbank/Flickr
Image for post
Image for post
Section of the compressed egress paths throughout the Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, Egypt.

Napoleon took copious notes from Christopher Columbus. His invasion of Egypt in 1798 would be celebrated as the West’s primary exposure to the former breadbasket to the Mediterranean. He traveled with artists, scientists, and other professionals to document whatever they may have observed along their tour, which eventually resulted in the Description de l’Égypte. This collection of more than 3,000 images of everything they saw helped create a foundation for the worldwide phenomenon of Egyptomania. Spoglie were sent off to major cosmopolitan cities including New York City, Paris, and Rome.⁶

Karnak was another focal point for the suspicious interests of explorers, as the ruling pharaohs added to their legacy through statues and wall paintings. British archaeologist, Howard Carter, “discovered” King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. In 1928, a series of archaeological investigations necessitated the excavation of this prehistoric site.⁷ Between 1976–1979, the U.S. opening of King Tut’s tomb traveling exhibition welcomed more than eight million people to behold the discoveries within a (curated) archaic experience.

Image for post
Image for post
MGM’s Luxor Hotel was built in 1993. Design education has warped the legacies of Black civilizations. Image Courtesy Guide Travel/Flickr

We covered Egyptomania in my architectural history class; the professor stretched the topic out across a few sessions. Veldon Simpson’s Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas was featured; I remember visiting this place with my family as a child and asking my father why the statues looked like cartoon characters. As the lecture slideshow played on the screen, I couldn’t help but think about the types of conversations this architect must have had with his client. Who was this guy, anyway? Mr. Simpson is an alumna of Arizona State University’s five-year architecture program. Call me nosy, but I needed to know the names of the professors who taught Simpson. Design schools breed disciples to further extend their theories into the built environment. Mapping out the faculty of each institution is something I like to research to understand any famed designer’s career trajectory. Searching for these seeds took me into a wicked rabbit hole. Simpson’s confusing jumble of stylized relics baited millions of unassuming families to spend their hard-earned paychecks at MGM’s gambling tables. I’m not sure exactly at which point the capitalist greed masterclass on how to successfully appropriate distant cultures happened, but Bonaparte’s spirit lives in every investor and developer who was shamelessly involved in Sin City’s expansion. I’m curious if Simpson ever questioned his client’s vision or if he interjected in the meetings when the client said something wild. (Yes, this is a thing.) Did Simpson recognize his contribution to society would aid America’s warped perceptions of (othered) societies? I tried to hunt him down to ask him my questions, but no luck. I don’t know — sometimes I wish I could exist without a care in the world.

Like with Lady Gertrude’s comments, the intellectual towers’ public acknowledgments of Blackness (almost) always come with derision.

Image for post
Image for post
Moving Image from Steve Martin’s Special Edition Saturday Night Live, 1978

In the last part of the Egypt series, the professor featured some Youtube clips to visualize how the craze had aged in popular culture. Giggles echoed around the classroom when Steve Martin’s face popped up on the lecture screen. I did not laugh. In fact, I was deeply uncomfortable. Were we going to try and go into some pretentious conversation about this? Growing up, the sounds from the continent reverbed throughout my home. Learning to hear the difference between say a Baladi and a Mangambe rhythm is how I passed my time. No lie — a few hours switching between Mazzika and Channel O several times a week would make anyone want to grab a dundun or koboro and jump around in hopes of reaching their ancestors. This was an informal exercise, but studying tonal complexities and nuances, while my parents thought I was doing math homework, served to become a meaningful opportunity to learn about people whose voices were often suppressed in traditional Western educational settings.

The Godfather of Nubian music, Ali Hassan Kuban, performing “Yah Nasma Yah Halina” (1990),
Released by Piranha Records

What does this have to do with architecture? At the university level, here we (students) were watching another white man further reinforcing the stereotypes as he proudly made a spectacle of Egypt. While I certainly would not expect a super sophisticated analysis of African identities in an introductory architectural history course, it would have been more fruitful to show young students real African people existing as themselves. Why even go through the hoops of paying homage to a society when the translation is objectively disrespectful? Anthropologies must be deeply examined before one can begin to dive into a society’s aesthetics and forms.

The laughter in that classroom was an embarrassing illustration of how dangerously comfortable Americans are to pass judgments on distant lands that are in no position to defend themselves. To this day, Egypt’s branded image has remained relatively untouched, like a snow globe that gathers dust in the attic. Humor me-who keeps up with discourse-worthy development strategies planned in downtown Cairo? Anyone? Unless you go on niche sites like Designindaba, you would never get mainstream coverage of the present-day bustling cities on the continent.

To be frank, you can go on Rap Genius, listen to Nas’s discography, dissect the lyrics, and learn more about Black empires than what is currently offered at these treasured institutions of higher learning.

Image for post
Image for post
Lyrics analysis of Nas’ “I Can” (2002), Courtesy of Rap Genius.com

Gatekeepers of knowledge help mold budding designers to believe it is (still) acceptable to create kitschy and tacky forms. Just recently, I was on one of those endless zoom calls with stakeholders going on about their proforma analysis. There was a discussion about adding champagne vending machines to create “an experience”. Southern Hospitality was the theme they wanted to capture. Guess what they had on their concept boards? Sammy Davis Jr. drinking wine and Antebellum-style houses. It is the year 2020 — to say I am drained would be an understatement.

Our inability to analyze Africa as one could eloquently speak about Rome or Greece is the result of the dearth of resources being placed at the forefront of the academy. Ever since the Portuguese initiated the colonization trend, bits and pieces of irreplaceable history have been conveniently eradicated from public memory. This is violence.

Image for post
Image for post
Miriam Makeba or Mama Africa, backstage at the Grand Gala du Disque Populaire, 1969, Anefo Photo Agency/Wikimedia Commons

If you ask the average American to associate one word with Africa, I am positive that most will say poor (or perhaps provide a more friendly synonym of it). Today, Africans are (still) painted as barbaric people that inhabit primitive huts; they need to be pitied and looked down upon. Imperialists who simply could not take the fact something existed before their uninvited arrival knew exactly what they were doing. Miriam Makeba’s 1969 interview in Finland chillingly explains this:

They (white people) could have come to our country and live side by side with us — we didn’t mind that. In fact, when they came, we said to ‘Come in, sit down’, and they said get out… The Conqueror writes history- they came, they conquered, and they wrote. Now you don’t expect the people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will write negative things and they have to do that to justify their invasion in all the countries… Our history has always been handed down to us — orally by our elders… You don’t know anything until the white man gets there… Until the white man comes to any place, it’s like nothing lives. It’s only when he comes and says ‘Poof- I’ve discovered you! Now you exist.’ It’s ridiculous.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo Courtesy of Devon Rodriguez

The progenitors glorified in the textbooks strategically assisted in the creation of the misconstrued biases that our society can’t seem to shake off today. Are you astonished when fashion houses put on Blackface in their campaigns or when we hear about mammy figures being auctioned off as high art? I’m not — let me tell you why. These “cultural hiccups” would be heavily reprimanded if the public was properly educated with an unfiltered account of how things came to be. But we have lazy lectures going on in the tower from someone who may have not cared too much about these subjects when they were going through their general requirements to get their PhDs. How many times will some diversity council write up a highly crafted press release explaining a situation off to mere ignorance? What foundations are being built in young people’s minds that something is racist or not? Who is producing this material? Let’s leave the education tower for a moment.

Hollywood is one of the biggest culprits to be held accountable. I will never forget the day Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” (2015) music video came out; it shows her visiting Africa to use as her exotic mise-en-scène. I don’t blame her though; I blame her team. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, the director Joseph Khan stated, “This is not a video about colonialism, but a love story on the set of a period film crew in Africa,1950.” He then proceeded to break down the ethnic make-up of each person involved perhaps to get a head nod from the culture. Alas, the unoriginal “I’m a person of color” line was not enough to justify Khan’s logic behind the visuals, which millions of people consumed. The historical picture painted to the public is a disturbing result of these creatives not having a global education.

Image for post
Image for post
Still of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, Courtesy of Make it Kenya/Flickr

This is not a new move in Hollywood. Look at The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Congo, Shaft of Africa. It’s all the same. As a creative person, I can fully acknowledge that all these listed films are charmingly shot and easy on the eye. In “Out of Africa” (1985), Meryl Streep plays a Danish author named Karen Blixen, who also goes by Isak Dinesen. Don’t get me wrong — I love Meryl. But she could have done without this role in her filmography.

Blixen moved to British East Africa and settled in a bungalow that was built during British colonial rule in 1912. She ran a coffee plantation after separating from her husband and casually wrote a book about her experiences in Africa. Her problematic character invites “this Western itch” to explore foreign lands without even slightly considering that a group of people is being exploited. In Blixen’s writing, she’d reflect on the complicated relationship she had with the local people.

“I loved the natives. In a way the strongest and the most incalculable emotion I have known in my life. Did they love me? No. But they relied on me in a strange, incomprehensible, mysterious way. A stupendous obligation.” ¹⁰

Did she think she was God-sent? She remained in Kenya for seventeen years before returning to Denmark in 1931. Several owners lived in that house following her departure. When the Kenyans attained independence in 1963, the Danish government felt benevolent enough to purchase the property and donate it back as a gift to the Kenyan government. Was this gesture a quiet apology for Europe’s role in the destruction of Africa? I might be reaching — I don’t know. After the success of the movie, the Kenyan government decided to convert the building and grounds into a museum. Today, the museum sits in a neighborhood called Karen. Please read this paragraph again if you are not unsettled.

Karen Blixen’s former home in Nairobi, Kenya is a monument of its dark colonial past. (2004) Image Courtesy of J. Martin/Flickr

Settler colonialism was a type of formation where people would come into a region and in most cases have no intentions of integrating with the native inhabitants. There were zones created for these people so their camp was an extension of the homeland. The aesthetics of the African continent were never welcome unless the white lens supervised them. There is absolutely nothing to romanticize about this horrid point in history.

We need to be honest.

There is a part of the creative industry and academy that simply doesn’t care about what is going on in this heightened time we are living in. The desire to return to business, as usual, has been evident in either their silence or their tone-death “theatrics” of wanting to do better by Black people. But I’m not here to talk to them. The hierarchy of knowledge distribution must be aggressively reviewed — and reviewed again. One of the most problematic practices I encountered at school was this notion of “breaking to build back up.” Whose guise were we being built up for? If Black curricula were genuinely taken seriously by the academy, it would be injected into different branches of the larger ivory tower. The result of this would not only produce ameliorated designers but better citizens and consumers of culture.

Image for post
Image for post
If architecture could host an Honesty Hour, Photo Courtesy of Dank.Lloyd.Wright

This exhaustive conversation can (and should) be extended beyond my space. This is a call to action for everyone who contributes to the creation of culture, be it creative directors, art critics, designers, or self-proclaimed tastemakers. These people are informal professors in our society and the role of producing something to be consumed cannot continue to be taken nonchalantly.

As the symbols of this nation’s monstrous past are getting removed from around the nation and the world, unique carte blanche conditions are being created. Do the creators of our society understand the true weight of this opportunity? We need more thoughtful educators to teach designers not to create developer-driven eyesores. Here are some groups that have already established intersectional frameworks across the sub-disciplines of the creative umbrella.

Artists, Joseph Cuillier III and Shani Peters founded The Black School (TBS) to serve as an experimental art school that teaches radical Black history to the youth. They have already conducted over 100 workshops to establish productive intersections between the academy and design activism. They are currently fundraising to build a 21st-century SchoolHouse to expand their art programming into a community center providing civic engagement activities for New Orleans’ 7th Ward. The building will be a working prototype for a new Rosenwald Schools inspired initiative, which built 5,000 schoolhouses in the Jim Crow South. In our discussion, Cuillier explains that the concept of The Black School emerged from his graduate school experience at Pratt Institute.

During my time there, there were no discussions or criticisms about Black graphic design. I had no leads when it came time for my own design investigations and realized I needed to leave the discipline and go into wider Black liberation movements to learn the things I wanted. TBS is a result of no longer waiting for other people to bring the solution to the table and build what we wanted (and needed) for ourselves. Sure, I’d want my work in the MOMA or the Whitney — not to be accepted by Whiteness. There are resources and connections attached to these institutions. And what I could do with that access would make all the difference in helping elevate my community. How do we build our own institutions that are not reliant on these systems so deeply rooted in racism? It’s pointless if we don’t have our own schools and our own power. Knowledge of self and political consciousness through the arts is what we as Black people need to stay safe. If we don’t redistribute power equitably, we will end up in the same place we are complaining about.¹²

Image for post
Image for post
Mapping Curricula, Courtesy of The Black School

Nmadili Okwumabua, founder of the Community Planning & Design Initiative, Africa (CPDI) has tirelessly advocated for African architecture to be included in the larger discourse. We met at a conference several years ago; her mission resonated so much with me and served to become a symbol of hope that this lingering frustration I had with practicing architecture would one day pass. Africa is full of cultural, agricultural, architectural, ecological diversity. Yet, she has always been the sad victim of the singular story. CPDI engages in participation from the design community in Africa and the Diaspora at large, for hosting global studios and providing internships. This is a collaborative effort between the community members and designated master builders. The annual design competitions bring in designers from all over the world to produce prototypes in an African aesthetic. Speaking with Okwumabua about what drove her to create this platform, she says,

My mind was blown after reading two books as a student — Nnamdi Elleh’s African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation and David Hughes’ Afrocentric Architecture- Design Primer. I never thought about architecture from an African perspective and have been on a quest to understand why our story was not brought to the mainstream academy. The lynch-pin was when the colonizers set up the university. Black people go to school to get lobotomized; we go and learn about everyone but ourselves. We graduate to go help uplift established communities while ours fall apart. I want to change the main conversation of design schools in Africa and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). How do we design communities that are holistic and healthy for our citizens? How do we create architecture that represents our identity, culture, spirituality, and image? How are cities built sustainably and how can we defend our communities, so they aren’t gentrified every twenty years? The academy is not ready to have this hard conversation. My mentors are now in their 80s. If they pass down the baton, what progress can I say has been made? It is disappointing the kids in school are having the same challenges I had as a student. We need our own spaces.¹³

Image for post
Image for post
Courtesy of The Community Planning & Design Initiative, Africa

And then there is Cincinnati native, Jerald “Coop” Cooper of Hood Century. He is the purest definition of organic intellectualism. One day, I randomly stumbled upon his quirky Instagram and was automatically hooked by his storytelling style. His masterful curatorial ability is unlike anything I have ever seen. His posts remind me of home. He has smoothly entered the discipline with an untainted eye. Right now, there is no publication dedicated to visualizing Black life in built spaces without the pornification of the ghetto. We chatted about life — about music, photography, preservation societies, and laughed most of the time.

I saw this space that hadn’t been documented. These mid-century homes were in interesting conditions with people who lived in them that didn’t really know about their history. I started to examine why they didn’t know. It felt compelling, so I started doing a case study by taking pictures of them. Examining the conditions of housing in America and these early case studies on hood mid-centuries, I put them on my personal page as a sort of project. Then two of my trusted homies came back to me and said, “Yo, this is a thing.” I consider myself a freestyler in rap and poetry. I’ll research information and start weaving my voice into it. Many technical conversations are hard to grasp for people who may be laymen, and so I pride myself on being able to connect with the reader in a voice that feels native to me. So yeah, I look to be a solution. Hood Century is a solution to a couple of systemic problems that we face — being able to understand architecture and to identify urban development are two of my biggest things. These two long term goals will come out in various forms. This page is helping identify architecture right now, and the urban development part is going to be played out in a couple of different phases as we get going with Hood Century. I’m actually going to start teaching an Intro to Architecture Identification course this fall at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), a beautiful building by Zaha Hadid. I’m really excited. Through teaching, I imagine working on tools that help us learn things around design, aesthetics, and architecture.¹⁴

Image for post
Image for post
Image Courtesy of Hood Century

Each organization offers a different approach within their respective sub-disciplines under the arts and design umbrella. The common thread between them is that they have all officially detached from the formal academy. This is important to note because the art and design world has conventionally been a tight-knit community. The established social circles are almost impossible to penetrate if one does not fit into a precise mold. The world’s leading publishers need to bring in the scholars who have dedicated their life to investigating these holes in history. If it were up to me, every book published in the future would include a public apology in the foreward, acknowledging the blatant fallacies that were spread. Thereafter, the distinction of what Blackness is on the continent versus what it is the diaspora would be established as common knowledge.

Image for post
Image for post
Notes from a lecture included in the ASWAD Conference that took place in Sevilla, Spain, 2017, Courtesy of Author

It would be a dream for Black people to completely detach themselves from the system that has shackled them in every way possible, but the reality is that the establishment will not completely topple over — not immediately anyway. If pseudo-separatism is the answer to survival, the establishment of that separatism requires capital. The long-term solution to our country’s little race problem is not simply cutting a one-time check out of guilt. Denuding the colonizers’ narratives can be done in two ways, depending on how comfortable people are with their degree of detachment from the status quo. Some people are fully willing to disassociate themselves from historically racist institutions; these are the progeny of afro-pessimists. To live as an afro-pessimist in a capitalistic society is to understand it’s a delicate and (sometimes) confusing dance of applying pressure to the oppressor to conduct one’s agenda.

Atonement is required.

If this can come in the form of “inclusion” into institutions that are already in power — fine. Some might feel more optimistic and have enough mental energy for yet another effort to convince western spaces to unlearn their racist lines of thought. All actualizations toward independence should not be criticized. Supporting separatism from the sidelines, not fully giving up society’s comforts, and showing up every day is still a valid form of resistance. We must identify where we each stand individually on the detachment spectrum and proceed accordingly.

Image for post
Image for post
Still from Nas’ “I Can” music video, 2003 / Ill Will/Columbia Records/Youtube

The education funnel is deeply broken, and we’ve been needing to get off this ride. Here is my dilemma: I am caught between fully exposing this industry for what it (really) is and not completely isolating myself from a system that still has power. A girl’s gotta eat, you know? As an independent researcher and practitioner of architecture, I’m no longer interested in intellectualizing “the struggle.” We can try and elucidate equity all we want. I w̶a̶n̶t̶ need Black designers, artists, and creatives to focus on our work. We need to call out the complicity in the spaces we occupy and demand for more than the sympathy we have been fed up to now. We all see the “top 25 Black designers” lists that are swiftly circulating in the digital sphere as of late. Sorry, but these crumbs do not equate to progress.

Image for post
Image for post
How much longer will the Black Arts movement continue to use pain and violence as her muse? Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, “Slave Mill”, Republic Records, 2017, Courtesy of RapGenius

The academy could learn salient lessons about pushing anti-racist pedagogy if it entirely humbled itself and listened. For those institutions who claim they want to do better, here are my recommendations as someone who has gone through the painful system. This is your last chance to make things right. Call the (legitimate) experts up. Invite them to speak on panels — not merely during Black History Month or when there is a national public outcry for change. Accept their grant proposals. Set them up for tenure tracks. Pay them — fairly. Stop restructuring research centers behind their backs. Most importantly, please stop quelling someone’s desire to explore the intricacies of Blackness because it does not jibe with the narrow confines of the Western microscope.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all people had the luxury to create (sans) inhibition?

What is the common privilege that every commanding design icon keeps in their pocket? Freedom. I want Black designers to have the same type of leisure as Rem Koolhaas when he was injecting Berlin Wall-like infrastructure in London or the “visionary” Superstudio when they were producing those fantastical drawings that are globally worshiped to this day. Design boundaries cannot be broken if we (Black people) are busy fighting to exist in a sunken place.

Image for post
Image for post
Archives of Leisure: A Fictional Flag for the European Union, designed by Rem Koolhaas, 2002

Anti-racism work (across all disciplines) will be an exhausting journey of betrayals. This starts with the public rejection of western voices serving as the sole authority to speak on behalf of a continent that isn’t theirs. Soon, the internet noise will diminish, and classrooms will open again. I hope those syllabi will be ready. This is when I can believe we are en route towards emancipation.

Personal Notes on Peter Eisenman from a theory class at Cornell University (2012)
Personal Notes on Peter Eisenman from a theory class at Cornell University (2012)
Notes on Peter Eisenman from a theory class at Cornell University, 2012, Courtesy of Author

Seeking answers to fully understand (anybody’s) personhood should not be contingent on scholastic gas-lighting.

Learning the truth about Great Zimbabwe messed me up forever- in the most necessary way. I am here to rock the boat until these negligent curricula (permanently) capsize. Now that we have gone through all this, can you still tell me with a straight face Eisenman’s theories on building infrastructure must be studied to be a renowned designer? Is it more fundamental than the story of a man from Gando and what he could do for his community with minimal resources at his disposal? Can we highlight the work of the great Ashanti people now? The Afar people? The Gurunsi people? The list can continue, but I invite you to do that research. Maybe after all this, I won’t have to show people where Eritrea is located on google maps every time someone unabashedly asks to give me a moniker because they can’t seem to fix their pronunciation gaffe. For anyone who has seen my little country presented somewhere, please do not try to mention all the modern jewels that Mussolini built for us as a means of small talk. I guess it’s one battle at a time. I look forward to continuing this exchange — perhaps over a listening session of Distant Relatives? Let me know — I’m here.

Image for post
Image for post
“Black Subjects, Black Lens“, 2011, Image Courtesy of Author


  1. Interview with Reverend Reginald Ragland of Knox Presbyterian Church
  2. Frederikse, Julie (1990) [1982]. “(1) Before the war”. None But Ourselves. Biddy Partridge (photographer). Harare: Oral Traditions Association of Zimbabwe with Anvil Press. pp. 10–11
  3. Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge. Ukraine, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.153
  4. Atlantis Rising Magazine — 94 July/August 2012. N.p., Atlantis Rising LLC, 2012., 28–31
  5. Urban Policy in Twentieth-century America. United States: Rutgers University Press, 1993.,139
  6. American Egyptomania Historical Sources.
  7. Nicholson, Paul T, and Ian Shaw. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
  8. Rego, A. Da Silva. Portuguese colonization in the sixteenth century: A study of the royal ordinances(regimentos). 1959. pg. 12.
  9. cosmiccrat. “Miriam Makeba Interview 1969.” YouTube, uploaded by cosmiccrat, 3 Mar. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wONkMpbl7N8.
  10. Brantly, Susan. Understanding Isak Dinesen. United States: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. pg.81
  11. Dietz, James L, and Cypher, James M.. The Process of Economic Development. The United States, Taylor & Francis, 2008.,73–106
  12. Interview with Joseph Cuillier III of The Black School
  13. Interview with Nmadili Okwumabua of CPDI
  14. Interview with Jerald Cooper of Hood Century

Selected Bibliography

American Egyptomania Historical Sources. Accessed July 10, 2020. http://chnm.gmu.edu/egyptomania/sources.php. Read several essays from this database to get a further understanding of Egyptomania

Beaudry, Author Pierre. “The Angular Determination Of The Great Pyramid.” LYM Canada. January 03, 2015. Accessed July 03, 2020. http://lymcanada.org/the-angular-determination-of-the-great-pyramid.

Brantly, Susan. Understanding Isak Dinesen. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. Analysis of the life of Karen Blixen, who also went by Isak Dinesen

Cuillier, Joseph, III, and Shani Peters. “The Black School Interview.” Telephone interview by author. June 17, 2020.

Cypher, James M., and James L. Dietz. The Process of Economic Development. Third ed. London: Routledge, 2009.

Denon, Vivant., Aikin, Arthur. Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: In Company with Several Divisions of the French Army, During the Campaigns of General Bonaparte in that Country, and Published Under His Immediate Patronage. United Kingdom: T.N. Longman and O. Rees; and R. Phillips, 1803.

Freund, David M. Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Gomez, Michael. “African Scholarship Interview.” Telephone interview by author. June 20, 2020.

Hirsch, Arnold R., and Raymond A. Mohl. Urban Policy in Twentieth-century America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Kaplan, Victoria. Structural Inequality: Black Architects in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Lasansky, D. Medina., and Brian McLaren. Architecture and Tourism: Perception, Performance, and Place. Oxford: Berg, 2004.

Lewis, Simon. “Culture, Cultivation, and Colonialism in “Out of Africa” and beyond.” Research in African Literatures 31 (2020): 63–79. Accessed July 06, 2020. doi:3820645.

Makeba, Miriam. “Miriam Makeba — We Will Win.” Interview. 1969. the full program is unavailable for non-Finnish residents. Can view eight minutes on Youtube. Google “Miriam Makeba 1969 Interview”

Mitchell, Melvin L.. The Crisis of the African-American Architect: Conflicting Cultures of Architecture and (Black) Power. New York: Writers Advantage, 2003.

Mudimbe, V. Y.., Mudimbé, Vumbi Yoka. The idea of Africa. United Kingdom: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Nicholson, Paul T., and Ian Shaw. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Okwumabua, Nmadili. “CPDI, Africa Interview.” Telephone interview by author. June 20, 2020.

Ragland, Reginald. “Knox Nursery School — Curriculum Interview.” Telephone interview by author. June 17, 2020.

Rego, A. Da Silva. “Portuguese Colonization in the Sixteenth Century — A Study of the Royal Ordinances (Regimentos).” Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), 1961. Accessed July 10, 2020. https://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP636-4-61#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=2&xywh=-1,-195,4928,3653. originally published in 1957 digitized by the American University in Cairo ID: EAP636/4/61

Stocking, George W. Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.

Cooper, Jerald. “Hood Century Interview.” E-mail interview by author. June 23, 2020.

Special Thanks to:

  • Dr. Michael Gomez
  • Atim Oton
  • Ezra Kebrab
  • Cory Henry
  • Mikaela Randolph
  • Habib Konate
  • Leelai Demoz
  • Karen Grigsby Bates
  • Shani Peters
  • Dexter Thomas
  • Reverend Reginald Ragland
  • Joseph Cuillier III
  • Jerald Cooper
  • Nmadili Okwumabua
  • Mama + Daddy
  • Black People in general — I love us ❤

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +721K people. Follow to join our community.

Felema Yemaneberhan

Written by

la native | harlem habitant | architectural+interior designer | african culture hound | well-rounded creative | thoughtful troublemaker | say merhaba @felemaye

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +721K people. Follow to join our community.

Felema Yemaneberhan

Written by

la native | harlem habitant | architectural+interior designer | african culture hound | well-rounded creative | thoughtful troublemaker | say merhaba @felemaye

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +721K people. Follow to join our community.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store