Reading List

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African American Student Union

Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Black in Design

The African American Student Union at the Harvard Graduate School of Design is a student organization dedicated to supporting the advancements of African Americans in the areas of architecture, design, real estate, urban design, urban planning, and landscape architecture. Founded in 2012, the group offers a source of unity and strength at the GSD and beyond. It works closely with Dean Mohsen Mostafavi’s Diversity Initiative to foster relationships between students, alumni, future students and the professional fields, building networks to support its members and their communities.

In 2015, the AASU held the Black in Design conference, the first of its kind, recognizing the contributions of African descendants to the design fields and broadening our definition of what it means to be a designer. By reclaiming the histories of underrepresented groups in design pedagogy and implicating designers in repairing our broken built environment, the conference looked towards addressing social injustices through design. Dedicated to the pursuit of just and equitable spaces across all scales, the program broached these conversations in increasing orders of magnitude: the building, the neighborhood, the city, the region, and the globe.

Since then, the AASU has been focusing on the role of designers of color in the wider community and leveraging our resources at Harvard University to engage with communities of color both near and far. Blackness takes many forms, like our academic disciplines at the GSD and the ways we envision the impacts that we can make as designers in the struggle for social justice and equity. The factors that unify us are our shared experiences (albeit in different contexts) and how they relate to the built environment. This internal diversity is a strong asset of the organization and is reflected in our reading list for Places. Texts were crowd-sourced from our members, and collectively represent what we believe to be essential to understanding race and diversity in design. Our list covers the systemic oppression of black bodies across historical scales, and contextualizes the structures and practices that have produced the inequities and disenfranchisement that are so salient in our built environments today. By understanding historical oppression and the ways that it informs spatial oppression, designers, planners, and policymakers are better equipped to engage with these problems.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

    New Press

    “The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.”

  • Online

    The Souls of Black Folk


    Published in 1903, this text is as relevant today as it was then. Used as a driver for developing mobilization strategies for black protests in the early to mid 20th century, it is a collection of essays regarding race dealing with political enfranchisement, access to education, and spatial/environmental justice and equality.

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

    Random House

    Wilkerson describes, in conjunction with analysis and statistical trends, the lives of three individuals as they move from the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West coasts of the United States. Known as the First and Second Great Migrations taking place between 1910 and 1970, this establishes the dichotomy of the rural vs. the urban and its significance in the African American psyche.

  • Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice

    Russell Sage Foundations

    “Chicago has long struggled with racial residential segregation, high rates of poverty, and deepening class stratification, and it can be a challenging place for adolescents to grow up. Unequal City examines the ways in which Chicago’s most vulnerable residents navigate their neighborhoods, life opportunities, and encounters with the law.”

  • Between the World and Me

    Spiegel and Grau

    Written as a letter to his teenage son Coates adopts the voice of James Baldwin and speaks on the ills of injustices against black communities throughout the United States, including over-policing and the poor quality of the built environment within their contexts.

  • pdf

    The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study

    Minor Compositions

    “…This series of essays [draws] on the theory and practice of the black radical tradition as it supports, inspires, and extends contemporary social and political thought and aesthetic critique. Today the general wealth of social life finds itself confronted by mutations in the mechanisms of control: the proliferation of capitalist logistics, governance by credit, and the management of pedagogy. Working from and within the social poesis of life in THE UNDERCOMMONS, Moten and Harney develop and expand an array of concepts: study, debt, surround, planning, and the shipped.”

  • Black Geographies and the Politics of Place

    Between the Lines

    “In this path-breaking collection, fourteen authors interrogate the intersection between space and race. For the dispossessed, all markers of history and belonging, including cultural property, become paramount. Yet each of these sites has in common acts of racial hatred and state terrorism that have left few of the historical structures standing—making them unlikely candidates for preservation. This begs the question: Is it even possible that advocating for preserving historic locations can act as a vehicle for social justice and spur community redevelopment?”

  • Postcolonial Melancholia

    Columbia University Press

    “This book adapts the concept of melancholia from its Freudian origins and applies it not to individual grief but to the social pathology of neoimperialist politics. The melancholic reactions that have obstructed the process of working through the legacy of colonialism are implicated not only in hostility and violence directed at blacks, immigrants, and aliens but in an inability to value the ordinary, unruly multiculture that has evolved organically and unnoticed in urban centers.”

  • All of Douglas Massey's writings on segregation

    Douglas Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs and has served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on international migration, race and housing, discrimination, education, urban poverty, and Latin America, especially Mexico.

  • Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity

    Space and Polity

    In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that the issue of environmental quality is inextricably linked to that of human equality at all scales. This article examines the differing traditions and approaches of environmental justice and sustainability, and explores some of their theoretical bases.

  • Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux

    “Saidiya Hartman traces the history of the Atlantic slave trade by recounting a journey she took along a slave route in Ghana. Following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast, she reckons with the blank slate of her own genealogy and vividly dramatizes the effects of slavery on three centuries of African and African American history.”

  • The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion: 101 Things that Open and Close the City


    The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion examines the policies, practices, and physical artifacts that have been used by planners, policy makers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, and other urban actors in the United States to restrict or aid access to the spaces of our cities and suburbs.

  • Online

    Detroit Works Long-Term Planning Project: Engagement Strategies for Blending Community and Technical Expertise


    In January 2013, civic leaders, community stakeholders, and residents came together to release Detroit Future City: 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan. This article elaborates on important lessons that other communities might learn from Detroit’s planning initiative in relation to these strategies. It concludes with a brief summary of the results and implications of the civic engagement process.

  • pdf

    Design and Social Impact Report

    Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

    Social impact design—one term that refers to the practice of design for the public good, especially in disadvantaged communities—has attracted powerful interest in recent years. Increasingly, both practicing designers and students are seeking opportunities in this burgeoning discipline. But are the professional and academic structures in place to support them? And how might such structures be improved?

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