In the television series Person of Interest, the protagonists navigate the streets of New York City in a dystopic present time through a “shadow map” that allows them to avoid the overwhelming technological surveillance blanketing the city. The shadow map offers an alternative geography, charting the blind spots in the array of cameras that serve as the eyes of Samaritan, a secret cabal’s artificial intelligence system. Most of the city’s residents go about unaware that they are enmeshed in a vast web of surveillance and move through the urban landscape on terms set by the conspiring powerful. Meanwhile, the protagonists traverse the terrain laid out on the shadow map, defying the constraints of the imposed system of surveillance in an effort to defeat the system.
Black people have produced and navigated shadow maps from the moment they were forced onto North American shores and into the expanding system of racial slavery. They forged connections with one another across spaces of captivity by creating pathways to avoid white patrollers, and they used the night sky as a guide to map routes to free themselves from enslavement.
Black cartographers also charted a sacred landscape that connected them to their ancestors and the spirits in a continuation of African spiritual practices of world making. At prayer in hush harbors or while moving their bodies in the ring shout, they projected themselves into the biblical and heavenly space. The very frames of reference in Black spiritual cartographies rejected those pressed on them by their captors. America was not God’s new Israel, their maps affirmed, but the biblical Egypt of captivity, and shadow mappers made visible divine pathways to deliverance. In raising their voices to sing, “Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go,” those whose names are lost to us now became shadow mappers.
In freedom after the end of slavery, some looked to promised lands in Black towns like Nicodemus, Kansas, Langston, Oklahoma, Eatonville, Florida, and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, claiming territory to create their own polities within the United States. Individuals and families fanned out across the West or crossed into Canada, building lives in places outside the landscape of their enslavement.
And there were many visions of a return to Africa to reverse the direction of movement of Black people. As shadow mappers, many colonizationists and Christian missionaries imagined that return would bring the benefits of Christianity, the price of time spent in the wilderness of America. As participants in the dispossession of native peoples in the United States and of Africans, some Black settlers, missionaries, and colonizers set the conditions that required others to produce their own shadow maps to sustain them.
Black shadow mapping traced the intimacies of life as people moved from home to work to place of worship to concert hall to school to nightclub to movie theater, living otherwise to the structures of racial and economic segregation. Stopping at the locations contained in the listings of the Negro Motorist Green Book, early twentieth-century Black travelers found islands of safety and, in their movement, made visible a shadow map of community and welcome in territory of sundown towns and marked by lynchings on courthouse lawns.
Black shadow mapping in intellectual and imaginative realms charted worlds where Black people lived, loved, fought, worshipped, transgressed, and built. Essayists, novelists, poets, visual artists, choreographers, playwrights, filmmakers reflected the complexity of Black life and culture to Black people and affirmed the power and beauty of the worlds the shadow mappers made.
David Walker. Anna Julia Cooper. W. E. B. DuBois. Gertrude Morgan. James Baldwin. Augusta Savage. Jacob Lawrence. Margaret Walker. Alvin Ailey. Paule Marshall. Octavia Butler. Julie Dash. Toni Morrison.
Father Divine, whose followers believed he was the God of the Bible in a “dark-complected” body, was an ambitious shadow mapper whose imagination generated alternative cartographies of the spiritual, the political, and the social in his Peace Mission movement. Requiring his followers to reject all racial classification in favor of common identification as children of God, Divine offered believers a radically new map and enlisted them in the spiritual, political, and social work of transforming the entire world into the kingdom of Father Divine on Earth. The Black women who comprised most Peace Mission members in its Harlem headquarters in the 1930s were his most ardent shadow mappers, making the Kingdom of God manifest in ways mundane and spectacular. They began with a remapping of their own identities, disengaging from the controlling categories of race and disconnecting from what Divine called “mortal” ways, including their former names and members of their birth families, in order to achieve health and ageless eternity in the Kingdom of God. Spiritual names helped members place themselves on Father Divine’s map.
Heavenly Love. Glorious Illumination. Wonderful Joy. Love Joy. Wonderful Peace. Wonderful Truth. True Victory.
The base of the Peace Mission shadow map was formed by the network of sex-segregated residences, sometimes single apartments and sometimes entire buildings, in which hundreds of members lived in the Black city within the city of Harlem, striving through living pure and spotless lives to realize and inhabit utopia. Peace Mission businesses, like restaurants, tailor shops, auto garages, and grocery stores, where some followers worked and promoted the virtues of Divine’s kingdom, formed another layer of the map. On Sundays, they forged connections across space as members sat down at the Holy Communion Banquet that was their main ritual, the sound of songs of praise to Father Divine an annoyance to their neighbors, but necessary to the work of sonic shadow mapping the Kingdom of God. It was through their parading that Peace Mission members most emphatically etched the lines of their maps on the city’s landscape, as when five thousand of Divine’s followers marched through the streets of Harlem for three hours on Easter Sunday 1934, while Divine circled in the air above them as a passenger in a red monoplane that trailed a banner declaring: “Peace to the World – Father Divine’s Mission.” Their route underscored the territory of their Harlem shadow map and declared it a territory in a larger sacred mission to transform the shadow map into the map.
Black people are not singular in producing alternative geographies of religious meaning in American space. In many ways the story of religions in this place is one of overlapping, contested, and often violent mappings of racial and religious identities and claims. Cultural geographer Katherine McKittrick argues, however, that “the displacement of difference, geographic domination, transatlantic slavery, and the black Atlantic Ocean” make Black spatiality matter in unique ways. Scholars of Black cultural geographies have demonstrated how Black people create alternative spatial worlds through practices of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “the political geographies of recognition” that cross, exceed, and evade oppressive landscapes of power. The political, the material, and the imaginative converge in Black practices of charting the uncharted within dominant structures. Black spiritualities, shaped by multiple landscapes of power, helped to shadow map powerful modes of human connection and chart paths to material and spiritual freedom.