In this article, I reflect on southern front porches, black feminist geographies, and sacred space in the wake of Baton Rouge police storming protesters on Lisa Batiste’s front porch.

Front Porch Strategy: Sacred Space and Demonic Grounds

by Laura McTighe
Religion in American History | July 31, 2016

“We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch.”

It was mid-December, but that affirmation hung in the air like humidity in July. Three and a half-years prior, on May 29, 2012, Women With A Vision (WWAV) had been made home-less, after still-unknown arsonists firebombed and destroyed their New Orleans offices. On October 19, 2015, this quarter-century-old black feminist collective walked into their first home since the fire, complete with a sprawling front porch that emptied into Broad Street’s foot traffic. We christened that front porch with a  conversation about the word “resilience,” that dubious slogan of the city’s official Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary celebrations. What exactly did resilience mean when 99,650 black New Orleanians were still displaced, and thousands more were living in prison cells as a result of intensified policing? “Oh, right…”

As the rush hour traffic crawled by, we reflected on the vital work that WWAV was doing to hold the experiences black women–especially those born and raised in New Orleans–as relevant and important. We imagined how bring these stories to the forefront could help to expose the battle for space and history actively underway in the new New Orleans. When we took this picture, WWAV’s Executive Director, Deon Haywood, had just claimed the front porch as a site where this organizing could take place and have a place–where revolutionary things happen. That affirmation prompted the recollection of another in WWAV’s history. Twenty-five years ago, WWAV was just an idea, thought up by eight black women on a front porch in Central City.

WWAV's frontporch
Sitting on WWAV’s new front porch in New Orleans, Louisiana. (L to R: Shaquita Borden, Mwende Katwiwa, Deon Haywood, Nakita Shavers, Laura McTighe, Nia Weeks; Photo by: Desiree Evans)

I have been a partner to the WWAV family for nearly a decade now. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I’ve spent the last four years designing, researching and (now) writing a collaborative ethnography of activist persistence alongside my WWAV colleagues. Together, through an amalgamation of oral history, collective storytelling, and archival tracing, we’ve been working to document the ethics of survival, struggle, and renewal that guided WWAV’s work from their founding in the early years of the AIDS epidemic through to their present in the post-Katrina new New Orleans. What’s mattered most? Space. Specifically, front porch space.

As a scholar of religion in America, space has long been a critical analytical category for understanding how something we might call “religion” is produced through and productive of embodied and emplaced encounters, contests, and practices. Throughout U.S. history, the power to delineate where the sacred could dwell has shaped the mass migration of millions across the expanses of the U.S.’s borders, as well as the steady movement of many more within the streets and passages of their home communities. This is hardly a romantic story. The paths along which the sacred has been made to flow were often lined with the blood and chains and blankets of settler colonialism and chattel slavery.

Space (both physical and epistemological) for those under siege has been prefigured by this history of violence and is also irreducible to it. It matters that black churches could become indisputable sites of autonomous gathering, sustenance, and worship amid the terror of Jim Crow. But it is no less significant that the story of religion in the long Black Freedom Struggle is so often, even if unwittingly, told as a churched story. In Civil Rights-era New Orleans, the persistent pressure of a tight respectability politics may have created a fault line between the churched black middle class and the un-churched “blues people” (c.f. Rogers, Woods), but churches were hardly the only spaces of religion and struggle in town.

My work with WWAV has continually pressed me to ask: What is at stake in privileging the institutional power of churches? What categories of the religious become seen as credible and acceptable? What falls out? Whose leadership is being prioritized Whose is relegated to the realm of “influence” between Sundays? Who isn’t even sitting in the pews?


mural house project straight on
One of the homes in the Mural House Project gallery in Old South Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by: Museum of Public Art)
Front porches are where they sat talking with members of their community who had at best been forgotten and at worst had been left to die. Front porches are where they first came up with the idea to turn neighborhood bars into underground needle exchanges. Front porches are where they brought their community members into care and hope. Front porches are where they pioneered a model of community-driven outreach that continues to guide public health research today. Front porches are where the WWAV foremothers quite literally saved their community.

During a car ride retracing old outreach routes, WWAV’s co-founder Catherine Haywood explained to me, “WWAV can’t do outreach the way we used to anymore.” After the storm, with tens of thousands of people still displaced, the housing projects WWAV worked in were demolished. The people who were able to return to the mixed-income units erected in their place were rarely, if ever, surrounded by the familiar faces of their previous residences. People were shaken up and scattered across redevelopment projects, in a sort of intentional chaos reminiscent of forced removal under the Group Areas Act in Apartheid South Africa and through Urban Renewal in U.S. cities before that. Furthermore, an array of restrictions, including caps on how many people could congregate on a front porch at once, directly thwarted efforts to build community anew.Front porches are where the WWAV foremothers gathered to make harm reduction and wellness packs for late-night outreach.

As Ms. Catherine attested and Brentin Mock recently penned, the policing of front porches in the new New Orleans is about controlling and regulating the sounds and sights and movements and rituals of blackness–indeed, the possibility for black life–in the city. I contend that this policing is also specifically an attack on the sanctuaries of black feminist leadership. Front porches are interstitial spaces, between home and street, between public and private. Black women have been building community and sharing truths there for generations.

On Sunday, July 10, 2016, the threat of front porches as black feminist organizing space was shown to the world. Six days prior, Baton Rouge police murdered Alton Sterling outside of a convenience store. Protests since had been unrelenting. Sunday was a huge day of mobilization. Hundreds of people statewide joined the local organizers in a march that first converged on the state capitol building and then headed towards the site of Alton Sterling’s murder. While en route, protesters were blocked and forced to retreat by a heavily armed police line. In the midst of the standoff, Lisa Batiste invited protesters to find safety on her front porch. The police then stormed Ms. Batiste’s front porch to arrest protesters. The cries audible on cell phone recordings offered the defense that protesters were on “private property.” And they were. They were also on hallowed grounds. The police were not simply stopping a protest; they were exacting violence against the past and present of black women’s geographies of struggle.

Baton Rouge police barge into Lisa Batiste’s yard and front porch to arrest protesters Sunday, July 10, 2016. (Photo via: RawStory)

In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, geographer Katherine McKittrick emphasizes:

…that geography and Black women have always functioned together and that this interrelated process is a new way to ‘enter’ into space (conceptually and materially), one that uncovers a geographic story predicated on an ongoing struggle (to assert humanness and more humanely workable geographies).

She offers this method in contrast to a sort of multiculturalism-informed impulse to “find” or “discover” black women’s geographies. The challenge, rather, is to locate black women’s geographies in space without incorporating them into official stories or histories.

To explore the power and potentialities of black women’s geographies, McKittrick draws on Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter’s conceptualization of the demonic. The demonic, etymologically speaking, describes a spirit capable of possessing a human. While the demonic has been imbued with myriad layers of religious significance and (de)valuing, it is also a term employed by physicists and computer programmers to signify a working system with no determined or knowable outcome. Taken together, these definitions of the demonic invite us to contemplate a system (geographic, social, or otherwise) that can only unfold when uncertainty and/or the supernatural is present.

To speak of black women’s geographies as demonic grounds, for McKittrick, is to attune ourselves to the persistent “absented presence of black womanhood” in our current world, a presence that is at once “too alien to understand” (Lorde) and nonetheless integral to the entire system. It also enables us to explore the ways in which black women’s unofficial or oppositional geographies–even while they are dismembered by politicians, restricted by property managers, and stormed by police–nonetheless hold a potentiality beyond the artificial poles of resist/submit: that of futures that are impossible to predict.


“We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch.”

In mid-December 2015, WWAV affirmed a generations-old, distinctly southern black feminist practice of respatialization. They claimed the historic importance of southern front porches as ritual sites, much in the way we are accustomed to thinking about (the making of) sacred space. However, while the “absented presence” of front porches in discussions of black southern sacred space may press us to locate front porches geographically, we should be cautious before subsuming front porches under the master category. When we pay attention to how WWAV systematizes front porches as black feminist geographies of struggle, we hear their emphasis on chance, on the potential for revolutionary things to happen, on the uncertainty of what that change will breed. In this way, WWAV’s theorization of front porches resonates far more profoundly with McKittrick’s (and Wynter’s) concept of demonic grounds.

Over the last seven months, WWAV has unfurled their affirmation of front porches as sites where revolutionary things happen into an active place-based practice of saying, thinking, living and writing black feminist geographies. Through a visual series of porch-talks, porch-sits, and porch-poses, WWAV has been bringing together longstanding New Orleans networks, as well as occasional national and international visitor, to unveil, develop, trace, and transform front porches as contested sites of struggle in the new New Orleans. Their work conjures the pasts of the WWAV foremothers, and of those women who came before them. It also exposes the horizons of a radical otherwise.

In this way, these porch-talks, porch-sits, and porch-poses are systematic strategies–for repairing and resurrecting the city, for imagining and emplotting new futures, for realizing more workable human geographies. In conversation, by taking up space, WWAV is sedimenting the traces and genealogies of pre-Katrina New Orleans–and redefining the terrain (indeed, possibility) of struggle in the process. As a method, it is nonlinear and nondeterministic; it is unpredictable and uncertain. But therein lies its power.




Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1984.

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Mock, Brentin. “Beyonce’s Simple But Radical Porch-Front Politics.” CityLab. April 26, 2016.

Rogers, Kim Lacy. Righteous Lives: Narratives of the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Woods, Clyde. Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. New York and London: Verso: 1998.

Wynter, Sylvia. “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/Silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s Women.” In Carole Boyce Davies and Elain Savory Fido, eds. Out of Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, 355-72. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990.


In the Fall of 2014, I will be teaching Religion on the Move: People, Passages and Possibilities in America. This interactive seminar uses – and teaches – historical, social scientific, and narrative methods to analyze religion on the move in America. Such theoretical complexity is foundational to the study of religion at Columbia University. While our department offers courses in many different geographic regions and religious traditions, we share a cross-cutting commitment to pushing beyond the things of religion (beliefs, relics and institutions) that have traditionally animated scholarly inquiries, and to examining instead the lived processes of religion through attention to time, transmission, place, body and media. Religion on the Move contributes a fresh perspective to current department course offerings, both for North American concentrators and for students University-wide.


Course Overview:

Our work together is divided into three core areas of inquiry: Narratives of Passage; People in Contact; and Possibilities of Movement. A theoretical and methodological introduction frames our semester’s work. We begin by asking how we should study the making of mass migrations (beyond push-pull framings) and the complexities of religion on the move (beyond framings of religion as a salve for coping with the shock of the new). We then turn to two narratives of traveling with Americans and practicing religion to consider how following the people changes our perspective on religion and mobility, as well as the types of questions we can ask.

In Narratives of Passage, we explore the classic types of free/forced migration through the peopling North America by European empires in the colonial period; the Middle Passage of enslaved Africans from 1619 to 1808; and the forced expulsion of Native peoples through the Trail of Tears mandated by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. With each example, we consider how people’s religious formations and spiritual yearnings are re/made through different experiences of mobility.

In People in Contact, we bring these single community narratives into conversation through an exploration of the making of the American Empire at home and abroad in 19th and 20th centuries. We begin with the mass influx of people from Irish, Jewish and Chinese diasporas in the antebellum and post-bellum periods, considering the complex reasons migrants left their home countries, the lives they built in contact, and the rise of anti-immigrant nativism. Next, we turn to “The West” as an imagined space of religious pluralism and possibility, and as a rapidly industrializing site of missionary control and social engineering. Finally, the two World Wars frame our discussion of the simultaneous protection of freedom abroad and curtailment of freedom at home, first through the 1924 immigration reforms and then through Japanese internment. These landmark policies are juxtaposed against coterminous flights from terror and trauma, first through the Black exodus from the Jim Crow South, and second through the post-Holocaust resettlement of Jewish communities.

In Possibilities of Movement, we temper the celebratory mood of Civil Rights era immigration reform with a careful consideration of three major examples of forced, restricted and controlled movement: first, the fight for citizenship rights among undocumented workers; second, the struggles of belonging and recognition among the nation’s poor and mass-incarcerated; and third, the global exportation of American ideals of freedom and democracy through which the War on Terror became a War to Save Women. In each, we examine how religion is moved by, with and for people.

We conclude the semester with a discussion of migration, diaspora and religion that flips many of our major course themes on their heads: the story of hundreds of African American men, women, and children from all walks of life who sold everything they owned, bought Sears and Roebuck tents, and left the United States for Liberia in 1967. They called themselves “Hebrew Israelites,” claiming that they were genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites. With careful attention to their out-migration, settlement in the modern state of Israel and growth to a 5-continent diasporic community, we revisit our opening questions and theories about the making of subjects in motion, the possibilities of finding place, and the religious aesthetics of imagining new futures.

Required Texts:

  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1986.
  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Galvez, Alyshia. Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Migrants. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
  • Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
  • Jackson, John. Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • Vargas, João H. Costa. Catching Hell in the City of Angels: Life and the Meaning of Blackness in Central Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  • Wallace, Anthony. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.


In the summer of 2013, with the generous support of a Graduate Research Fellowship from the Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life, I was able to travel to New Orleans to begin work on an oral history project with Women With A Vision, Inc (WWAV).  For those not familiar with the organization, WWAV is a twenty-two year running black women’s health collective, which gained international notoriety in March of 2012 for overturning a 207-year-old crime against nature statute being used to criminalize sex work in Louisiana.  Two months later, their offices were destroyed in an aggravated arson attack.  That night, all tangible memorabilia of their groundbreaking work went up in flames.

With the working title, “Born in Flames,” we envisioned the WWAV oral history project to be a living embodiment of Executive Director, Deon Haywood’s words after the arson attack, “Fire has long been used as a tool of terror in the South, but we also know that it can be a force for rebirth.”  The title is also a nod to Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film with the same name.

laura's researcher/storyteller kitAs the lead interviewer for the project, I am the member of the WWAV team responsible for gathering, transcribing and editing hundreds of hours of life history interviews with the visionaries who have guided WWAV over the last two decades.  We decided on a life history format because it decenters events (like the arson), thereby providing staff, participants and allies the space to reflect on the paths that brought them to WWAV and the lives they lead going forward.  In the first phase of the project this summer, some began with stories of their first social work practicums; others with childhood memories of being on segregated trolleys.  Some found WWAV to be their only lifeline in a time when communities were being torn to shreds by the war on drugs and AIDS; others had to battle their own families simply for working at WWAV.  Some could trace their family lineages back through generations of New Orleanians; others were transplants who would never be able to return after Hurricane Katrina.  This texture only begins to illuminate the contours of the small grassroots organization that catapulted onto the international stage in 2012, and has quite literally kept tens of thousands of people alive since the early 1990s.

Ultimately, these interviews will be foundational for my dissertation. I will all be working the WWAV team to build a readily accessible online archive of the “Born in Flames” project with an anticipated release date of May 24, 2019, the seven-year anniversary of the arson attack.

Below you will find an excerpt from Women With A Vision’s official announcement about the project.  Please click here to read the full post.


from Women With A Vision, November 22, 2013

Rebuilding Our Archive: The “Born In Flames” Oral History Project with WWAV Board Member, Laura McTighe

After the 2012 aggravated arson attack on our offices, we lost more than our home and sense of safety in the city we love; we also lost all the tangible memorabilia of our more than twenty years of work.

In the wake of this attack, WWAV sustained our rebuilding process by making new memories – uniting our members to craft policy campaigns for combatting the policies impacting their lives; microfinance projects for expanding their employment possibilities; and trauma healing circles for sustaining their community with one another. On the one-year anniversary of the arson attack, WWAV was able to take our healing work retrospective, with the help of board member, Laura McTighe… [continue reading at WWAV]