Dunbar Center Social Club, c. 1950. Courtesy Richard Breland

This March marks one year since Breonna Taylor was murdered by police officers who unjustly invaded her home as she slept. An emergency medical technician, a daughter, and a young person with a future ahead of her, Taylor was one of nearly 250 Black women who have been fatally shot by police officers since 2015. But she is also so much more than that.

For many of us, we look at Breonna Taylor and see the Black women in our lives. I think of my grandmother, who tends to the garden in our backyard, bringing broccoli and strawberries to our kitchen table; and my friends, whose poetry nourishes their communities, teaching all of us that there is strength in vulnerability. I think about all the mothers and essential workers, all of the artists and hairdressers and community organizers and nurses—I think about all of the Black women who, despite the tenderness they bring to this world, are never treated with care themselves.

At the heart of many of the works featured in Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America and the related online course Reimagining Blackness and Architecture is a desire to care for Black people and the communities we have formed. Because too often architecture does not. Architect Sekou Cooke makes this very point in an essay for the field guide that functions as a catalogue for the exhibition: “From slave quarters and farm settlements in the American South to post-migration urban ghettos and slums in the Northeast to public housing projects throughout American cities, the predominant spaces of Black inhabitation in this country have been leftover, disposable, and characterless environments.”

Sekou Cooke. We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space. 2020

Sekou Cooke. We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space. 2020

How can we empower people through public space? Architect Sekou Cooke discusses his project We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space and his vision for transforming a public housing site in Syracuse, New York.

And yet, “[f]rom these devalued spaces emerged some of America’s most valuable cultural contributions—the blues, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and hip-hop,” Cooke writes. “The porch, the hallway, the stoop, the corner—each became a site for newly adapted and improvised social activity.”

Considering new ways to support social activity and mobilize public space, Cooke looks to history. His project We Outchea: Hip Hop Fabrications and Public Space examines the history of two sites in Syracuse, New York: Pioneer Homes, one of the country’s first public housing projects created from a “slum-clearance initiative”; and the adjacent 15th Ward, a vibrant Black neighborhood that was demolished to make space for a highway. These stories of displacement continue to affect the city today as the Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA) makes plans for Blueprint 15, a development project that would once again uproot the city’s Black inhabitants.

Cooke describes his project as a “preemptive critique” of the SHA’s proposed plan for Pioneer Homes, as well as a celebration of Black culture. Inspired by the intersections of hip-hop and architecture (a theme centered in his forthcoming book Hip-Hop Architecture), Cooke uses “sampling” as a foundation for his work, borrowing from its rich musical context, which weaves past melodies into new songs. Cooke “takes [historical] layers, samples them, remixes them, and lays them back on top of an imagined projection for the area’s future.” As a result, We Outchea blends historical images with architectural renderings that reclaim public space for Black communities and refuse gentrification by boldly proclaiming, “This time we shall not be moved!”

What do we find when we revisit the past? Designer J. Yolande Daniels discusses her project “Black City: The Los Angeles Edition” and the stories she uncovered while researching Black inhabitants throughout the history of Los Angeles.

The idea for Black City: The Los Angeles Edition came from a glossary that designer J. Yolande Daniels began to compile while conducting research on the relationship between “systems of power and the concepts, objects, spaces, buildings, and cities in which they are embodied.”

Consisting of maps, dictionary plates, and timelines that together form a 3D atlas, Black City: The Los Angeles Edition recounts the multiple, overlapping histories of the city’s multihued residents and the communities they built, exploring everything from the biographies of locations and individuals, to the origins and uses of terms like “race.”

Some stories speak to the ways communities formed around the care and contributions of Black residents like Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a woman who won her freedom in an 1856 court case and resettled in Los Angeles, where she “devoted herself to community and philanthropic work, attended to the poor and imprisoned, and founded a church, a refuge for settlers, and an orphanage.”

Still other accounts reveal patterns of disinvestment and violence that continue to play out in our contemporary surroundings, such as the history of Calle de los Negros. Now known as Los Angeles Street, the name Calle de los Negros (translated to “Alley of the Black People”) dates back to Spanish settlement and the street’s primarily Black inhabitants. Migration patterns shifted over the years, and by 1870 the area had become home to the emerging Chinese community. Then, in 1871, “the murder of a white man who inadvertently stepped in between warring Chinese tongs led to the lynching of eighteen Chinese residents,” a violent attack known as the Chinese Massacre.

The city destroyed the street in the 1880s, clearing decades of history alongside the dust and cement. Through her project, Daniels not only preserves and rebuilds these overlooked stories, but also highlights the ways in which they shape our daily lives. During a time when many are confronting the ongoing histories of harm toward Black people and people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, Cooke and Daniels’s projects encourage us to look for ways in which all can and should create communities of care.

J. Yolande Daniels. Race Plate. 2020

J. Yolande Daniels. Race Plate. 2020

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America is on view through May 31. You can now enroll in MoMA’s new online course, Reimagining Blackness and Architecture. Through original films, audio interviews, and short readings, the course will introduce learners to the ways in which Black artists, architects, scholars, and writers have responded to these histories of violence and exclusion to create new ways of being, reimagining the spaces that have refused us.

The exhibition is made possible by Allianz, MoMA’s partner for design and innovation.

Volkswagen of America is proud to be MoMA’s lead partner of education.

MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.