BAR Book Forum: Yelena Bailey’s “How the Streets Were Made”

This post was originally featured in Black Agenda Report, and has been reblogged with permission.

By Roberto Sirvent, BAR Book Forum Editor

The streets permeate dominant understandings of Blackness, and the life-and-death consequences of these perceptions are at the heart of this book.

Even Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own home from the way the streets have shaped perceptions of Blackness and Black rights.”

In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Yelena Bailey. Bailey is the Director of Education Policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. Her book is How the Streets Were Made: Housing Segregation and Black Life in America.

Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?

Yelena Bailey: When George Floyd was murdered in my city on May 25, I was going through the final copyedits of the manuscript. While anti-Black violence at the hands of police is not new, this scale of social uprisings in response is. Six months have passed, and the media has moved on to other environmental and political disasters, but the realities and conditions that produced George Floyd’s murder persist. Floyd was racialized as violent, fraudulent, and poor because his Blackness signified to outsiders that he belonged to the streets and all the negative meanings associated with them. Even Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own home from the way the streets have shaped perceptions of Blackness and Black rights. This becomes abundantly clear when one considers the way their right to life is being attacked posthumously through anti-Black narratives that blame their deaths on involvement with drugs. The waythe streets have evolved to permeate dominant understandings of Blackness, and the life-and-death consequences of these perceptions are at the heart of this project. For over 10 years, protestors have been physically occupying the streets of cities like Ferguson and Minneapolis, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” This declaration of power over space is at the heart of my project. Black protestors are not simply proclaiming their physical right to be in certain spaces, but also their right to exist and be understood in specific ways in those spaces. 

Image: Public Domain

What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?

For me, a large part of writing this book was to solidify and articulate truths I had long known experientially. I have always known that the way I am understood as a Black person, regardless of where I physically am, is shaped by the perceived connection between Blackness and the streets. I hope activists and community organizers will, like me, find clarity in the framework I provide for understanding these experiences. I also hope they will take inspiration from the long history of Black authors and artists who have used creative mediums to carve out spaces of discursive autonomy. Black art and politics are inextricably linked, so I hope the works I explore inspire activists to find new ways of resisting anti-Blackness.

We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?

I think this largely depends on who is reading the book, because some may find confirmation and analysis of what they already knew to be true through experience, while others will come face to face with a brand new way of understanding Black urban space. Regardless of which end of the spectrum a reader is on, I hope readers will un-learn the tendency to analyze public policy through purely economic or sociological lenses. While these are important, and I address them in the book, policy and power operate through culture and we must analyze the ways in which these structures intersect and collude. I also hope readers will un-learn the idea that reparations and redress are impractical. I spend a lot of time on this in the conclusion and I walk through the key points in public discourse on reparations and redress over the last 50 years. I devote a portion of my conclusion to discussing the Kerner Commission, not as a prime example of redress, but rather to illustrate that even basic reform efforts in the 1960s acknowledged the need for economic action. Of course, real redress must move beyond reform and address the social, cultural, and economic impact of geographic segregation. I hope readers will un-learn the tendency to see this as a pipe dream and embrace it as a necessary reality.

Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear Toni Morrison is my ultimate intellectual hero. As an author, theorist, and philosopher, no one surpasses her. More directly though, I found inspiration in Katherine McKittrick’s and George Lipsitz’s work on cultural geography. McKittrick in particular encourages readers to think about the radical resistance that takes place in and on Black geographies. I also found inspiration in James Baldwin’s work, as well as Assata Shakur’s reflections on Baldwin and her life in New York. Similarly, my book is in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Ann Petry’s works. Although writing decades apart, both of these authors theorized the streets as something more than a physical landscape. 

In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?

This is a question I really tried to wrestle with in the book. I, like many of my generation, have a tendency to identify a problem or theorize the nature of a reality – like the existence of the streets as a sociocultural entity – without really meditating on how to respond. I tried to push past this tendency by first analyzing the way Black artists themselves have responded to the reality of the streets by imagining them as sites of new, countercultural identities. For instance, in the chapter on hood genre films, I examine Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight  as a reimaging of the genre that recasts the streets as a space of complex self-fulfillment. I think that the film does an excellent job of avoiding “fix it” narratives that situate urban Black life as a problem in need of a solution. Instead, it imagines a world in which tenderness and hustling are not mutually exclusive. In the conclusion of the book, I discuss the topic of redress and reparations more broadly. While my book looks at the streets through an interdisciplinary lens, I try to make it clear that the history of the streets is one of economic disenfranchisement. A new world that offers redress for decades of anti-Black policies is one that involves economic, ideological, and cultural reckoning. 

Yelena Bailey is director of education policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics , where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project .