Dr. Willie J. Wright joins Rutgers Geography this fall as an Assistant Professor, having previously taught at Florida State University. He is jointly appointed in the Department of Africana Studies. Willie completed his PhD from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, before which he earned an MA in Pan-African Studies from the University of Louisville and a BA from the University of Houston. An urban and political geographer whose scholarship lies at the intersection of Geography and Black Studies, Willie has carried out extensive field and archival research in Detroit, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi. He has a broad interest in the study of urban geographies, specifically the historical development of American suburbs and majority Black municipalities through processes of racialized uneven development.
Willie was instrumental in the formation of the Black Geographies Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers, serving as Communications Director from 2017-2019. In 2018, Willie became an editorial director for the political geography section of Geography Compass and a corresponding editor of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR). His publications have appeared in journals including Antipode, City & Society, Environment and Planning D, Geoforum, Southeastern Geographer, as well as a range of popular outlets.
Willie will begin teaching at Rutgers in the Spring 2020 semester. Asher Ghertner caught up with Willie at the beginning of the semester:
What is a class you’re looking forward to teaching at Rutgers?
There are a few classes that I am looking forward to leading. The first, "Chocolate Cities," is a course I initiated in Florida. I found it was a creative medium to inform students about the South Florida cities and neighborhoods (e.g. Miami, Opa-Locka, and Coral Gables) from which they hail. I look forward to contextualizing the course readings and conversations with regard to cities here along the East Coast. The other course, "Black on the Block," is a conceptual piece that I have yet to teach. However, my early idea for the course is to use articles, art, and Euclidean Geometry to discuss the ways Black people and communities have been surveilled, grided, and otherwise spatially contained from enslavement onward. Hence, Black on the Block. Incidentally, the names of each course come from books written by sociologists (Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of America and Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City).
What led you to Geography?
Happenstance... and good friends. Prior to joining a doctoral program I applied to only one geography department. The rest of my applications were to sociology departments. It was my understanding at the time that one could only study social aspects of the world within the discipline of Sociology. Luckily, Dr. Pavithra Vasudevan and Tim Stallman – both graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill – encouraged me to apply there. They ensured me that I could ask the same (and even more) questions in Geography as I would have in Sociology. Clearly, they were correct.
What author or idea has strongly influenced your work?
Good question. Clearly, I am informed by the progenitors of Black Geographies (i.e. Clyde Woods and Katherine McKittrick). My thought is also influenced by theorists concerned with the condition of Black people (i.e. Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, etc.). However, as of late, I have been reading a lot of work about histories of housing in the United States. So, I am being shaped by the works of Ananya Roy, Samuel Stein, Brandi Summers, Lawrence Brown, and others. I am sure this list will grow as my semesters at Rutgers wear on.
Is there a place or field encounter that was particularly formative in shaping your research trajectory and abiding commitments, or something that just sticks with you?
During my dissertation research in Jackson, Mississippi, I found myself patching a hole in a roof on an sweltering summer afternoon. That experience, for which I was generally unqualified, showed me that the research experience may, and at times should, extend beyond the application of traditional research methods (e.g. interviews, observation, and fieldnotes).
What main writing project(s) lie ahead?
It would not be an interview with an academic without reference to writing (projects). Well, I have some collaborative essays – written with Drs. Adam Bledsoe, Tyler McCreary, and Yousuf Al-Buslushi – in the works and in press. However, my main writing project, and foremost writing challenge, is the development of my dissertation into a book manuscript. My dissertation was an exploration of the political and spatial legacies of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), a Black Nationalist provisional government formed in 1968. By dissertation argued that present-day landscapes (e.g. street names in Detroit) and political transformations (e.g. the election of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba) are direct descendants of the political aims of the RNA.
Do anything interesting this summer?
I joined a group of scholars from around the world for the Antipode Institute for the Geographies of Justice, held in Mexico City (CDMX) in June. Being in CDMX shifted how I view cities in the United States and the ways I want to engage and write about cities in the future.