When the Public Commons is Black/Land

In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Tiya Miles explores another context for black relationship to public land. In Miles’ description of how “An Emergency Manager Would Put Belle Isle at Risk” the MacArthur Fellow and scholar of African-American studies connects black people’s relationship to public land with the very fundament of democratic self-governance.

The ongoing financial crisis in Detroit may lead to appointment of an Emergency Manager for the city, an administrator whose authority would over-rule all of Detroit’s democratically elected municipal bodies. Linked to this possibility is the sale of land owned by the people of Detroit; the beautiful public park filled with old growth forests in the Detroit River known as Belle Isle.

Detroit is a city where 82% of its residents are black. Miles reminds us that non-democratic governance and seizure of land have particular meaning in the history of black people in America:

If Detroit is a black city, then Belle Isle is black land. It is precious, peaceful, protected land held in trust for the people of the city. Land is the basis for human livelihood and prosperity. And yet, across this nation and for centuries, African Americans have had valuable land stripped out from under us– think of those 40 acres that never materialized after the Civil War, of the many black families who lost farms to illegal deals and swindles after Reconstruction, of the Geechee and Gullah communities on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina who lost their land to resort development, and of the struggling residents of Detroit who are losing their own backyards to foreclosure. The loss of Belle Isle to private purchasers, beholden only to themselves, would be a sad addition to this lamentable list.

Miles’ essay leads to questions that strike at the root of whether black people are full participants in American democracy:

  • Are public green spaces something that, during hard times, black people have to live without?
  • Is race connected with the appointment of Emergency Managers in economically struggling cities?
  • American democracy is based on the idea of a “public commons,” the elements of our physical and cultural environment that all of us share. How does the threat of losing this physical commons affect black people’s civic engagement and participation in democratic institutions? 

What do you think is the relationship between democracy, black people and public land?