Race and the Paradoxes of the Night

We Have Transmission” (Flickr: Indigo Skies Photography)

In 2001, John Bortle, an experienced, American amateur astronomer, created a scale to measure the darkness of a night’s sky. Bortle’s passion for astronomy was accompanied by a growing recognition and concern about how light pollution has brightened night skies and consequently rendered our galaxy and beyond obscured if not invisible. The scale was designed to evaluate the observability of celestial objects in this hyper-illuminated time. While Bortle’s scale assists in quantifying this growing environmental concern, it also inadvertently gestures to the racial entanglements of our experience and engagement with the natural world.

The first class of Bortle’s nine-level scale is the “Excellent dark-sky site,” easily summed up in the concluding assessment, “the observer’s Nirvana.” At the other end is the “Inner-city sky,” partially described by Bortle in the following way: “The entire sky is brightly lit, even at the zenith. Many stars making up familiar constellation figures are invisible, and dim constellations such as Cancer and Pisces are not seen at all.” Bortle’s scale locates the disheartening brightening of the night sky through the term inner city — a racialized, gendered, classed, and criminalized space. Constructed in racial thinking and proverbial darkness, the inner city evokes the dim history of poverty and racial ghettoization in the US, and its interface with the often celebrated history of illumination in American cities. Bortle’s level nine does not reference the gentle light of candles or campfires, but the electric and incandescent light forms widely used on city streets, parking lots, and garages to make them more visible and thus, in theory, safer.

In his monograph on the social thrusts driving US and European urban illumination, historian of energy David Nye points to the cultivation of artificial light as a symbol of enlightenment innovation, of rationality and reason, and so-called civilization’s conquest of nature. The creation of artificial light expanded the workday and the management of society, as well as beautified and enhanced city design and life. Nye points out that the lighting of cities was concentrated in commercial and prosperous areas whereas blighted, peripheral areas of poor and people of color — conceived of as “criminal classes” — were often the least lit and this history less researched. Such enlightenment thinking also affirmed a vision of a dualistic universe of white and black, good and evil, and savage and civilized. This period of expanding light activated racial regimes and social circuits of segregation that would configure the place called the inner city and its subsequent illumination.

In his new book on urban violence, Thomas Abt writes that Black people have been subjected to “discrimination span[ing] generations, creating long legacies of handicaps, hindrances, obstacles and impediments, all designed to keep Black people locked into the least desirable locations and separate from white society.” This is the inner city racialized as Black and the nighttime inner city awash in artificial light.

Paul Bogard’s book The End of Night tackles the environmental distress of light pollution by addressing a longstanding belief that light deters urban crime, a claim mostly unsubstantiated by research despite mixed findings. A report by the National Institute of Justice, among other studies, has “very little confidence that improved lighting prevents crime.” Research suggests that the artificial night light illuminating streets, often overly bright, may in fact increase violent crime by making possible victims and property easier to see and by augmenting public reporting of crime, thus heightening the numbers. Lightened nights may evoke a feeling of safety, but per this research, comfort the imagination more than reduce violent and non-violent night crime.

One of Bogard’s central motivations to preserve the night’s sky reads as a desire for people to access places where they can still experience the grand phenomena of night’s darkness and its heavenly visions. For many born in this Bortle-scale era with dazzling places like the Las Vegas Strip, they have not witnessed the indigo night as gateway to the universe. Outdoor programs across the country abound, designed to take inner-city youth into the natural world to contact uncultivated land and unlit skies — pulsing skies that I believe, like Bogard, are in need of witnessing. However, there is some tragic irony that the same urban population that lived in the shadows of the affluence and light-filled spectacles of growing American cities during the 19th and early 20th centuries became the hyper-lit, suspect and surveilled places of today’s American urbanity.

Adding to the entanglement of this gaze and thought, I cannot help but think of the conditions of darkness that have persecuted Black people, the ones that have colluded with white supremacy’s destruction of Black comfort, mobility, and breath — urban and rural. Histories of sundown towns and the KKK’s nighttime terrorism highlight Black people’s distinct racial vulnerability by night and day. The night, not as the domain of rest, sleep, or dreamtime, acted as a zone of mortal racial danger. The darkness that used to enshroud Black people in dread has turned into an injurious illumination producing psychic, physical, and emotional distress.

Widespread and easily accessible light at night has been a great innovation of the past two hundred years. We have grown accustomed to public, nighttime light sources and are emotionally far removed from the initial wonder brought by the introduction of public illumination. There are many parts of the world where light remains a novelty and a much desired and needed instrument of survival. However, many practices of illumination framed by notions of social progress are complicit, if not actively participate, in a devitalizing racialization of space. Indeed, in the US, the urban poor, the Black and the Brown, corralled in the inner city by processes of white flight and racial criminalization, have suffered under this trajectory of illumination. Collectively we appear to be creating a humanity that is slowly cut off from its connection to the wild, to the sensory and cyclical, to the cosmic, and, boldly, to each other.

Light Pollution” (Flickr: Timothy Tsui)

In addition to strains on our environmental and social fabric, Bogard points to a small but significant body of research showing the negative health outcomes of those persons over-exposed to some light. In 2016, the American Medical Association laid out guidelines expressing their concern with the effects and possible hazards of energy-efficient LED lights on visual acuity and its disruption of melatonin production and circadian sleep rhythms. A Harvard study links breast cancer to exposure to LED street lamps, and a 2006 study shows a connection between breast cancer and women who work nightshifts due to their night exposure to light, including LEDs. In 2004, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics publication, 23% of Black workers worked alternative shifts, making them more likely than any other racial group to work at times other than the standard daytime schedule. Referencing such findings, Bogard writes, “working the night shift stands to become another public health issue that certain segments of our population will deal with — and suffer from — more directly than others.”

Howard Thurman — theologian, educator, and philosopher — poignantly shares in his autobiography what the nights of his youth in Daytona, Florida meant to him: “The nights in Florida … were not dark, they were black. When there was no moon, the stars hung like lanterns.” He continues, “I could hear the night think, and feel the night feel. This comforted me … . I felt embraced, enveloped, held secure … . The night has been my companion all my life.” Thurman’s observations of what appears to be a class-one night on the Bortle scale add to the chorus of inspirited voices and observing eyes of the Dark-sky movement. They also gesture to a history of Black stargazers, including those founding the great African cosmologies, who are poised as lesser-engaged advocates of the darkness and magic of night.

Racial thinking, as the scholarship and the everyday lives of Black and other people of color affirm, is far from constellated only in human bodies. Thurman’s intimacy with the dark nights of his youth surely informed his envisioning and practice of social justice. His relationship with the night and his work and commitment to racial justice­­ — tellingly evoked in his book The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope — speak to the greater integrative work on the ways racial thinking has shaped our relationships and ties to the natural world.

For those systemically overexposed to untimely and artificial light, there is a need for a social embrace and security Thurman once experienced with the night. There is also a need for most of us to befriend true darkness, an enlightened darkness, that invites us to recognize the impasses to viewing and experiencing a more connected universe.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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