I am Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Scammer’s Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and Violent Utopia: Dispossession and Black Restoration in Tulsa (Duke University Press).
I study Black people's lived experience of racial capitalism and underdevelopment and advances radical and productive reparative frameworks. Through analyses of injury, violence, repair, and community, my work has been centrally concerned with the question of reparations as a means of understanding the historical constitution but also the future of Blackness as a lived and political project. I am currently working on my third book project that examines Black relations beyond injury.
From 2021 to 2023, I was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to the State's Reparations Task Force, the first state-level reparations commission in the country. I was responsible for framing the community of eligibility and overseeing the development of compensation recommendations.
I started the Berkeley Black Geographies Project in 2016 after joining the Geography Department at the University of California, Berkeley. The project has advanced a contemporary understanding of Geography and other disciplinary analyses of spatial relations through the centering of Blackness across the areas of programming, pedagogy, and publishing. Through proactive recruitment of graduate students and faculty, the project has grown to represent the central intellectual and institutional heart of the department, which I now lead as chair. Geography at UC Berkeley has become an institutional leader in the disciplines of Black Geographies and Black ecologies.
Violent Utopia, forthcoming from Duke University press in 2022, is based on archival work and ethnographic fieldwork I began in 2014 in Tulsa, OK. Violent Utopia extends on my ongoing investment in the question of what repair and reparation might be. It examines the condition of Black life in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as oriented around the settlement of Indian Territory, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, and the massacre’s centenary. The book is concerned with how the freedom achieved in historical Greenwood, colloquially known as Black Wall Street, became curtailed by dispossessive violence. Violent Utopia assesses how the equally weighted violent processes that included the 1921 race massacre, urban renewal, and everyday impoverishment resulted in the ultimate dispossession of Greenwood, which today is glossed as North Tulsa. In the wake of this dispossession, blackness in North Tulsa is organized and driven by community formation understood as ethics and acts of restoration. Violent Utopia illustrates how the North Tulsa community reconciles the inheritance of violence and freedom that form the very condition of their geography. As such, Violent Utopia argues that the geography of North Tulsa, as a site of sovereign belonging, is the basis on which Black Tulsans will repair the promise of Greenwood.
Praise for Violent Utopia
In Violent Utopia, Jovan Scott Lewis cautions that Tulsa’s historic Greenwood community is more than its Black Wall Street legacy. Situating the 1921 Tulsa race massacre within knotty and enduring place-specific geographies of anti-Black and anti-Native American violence, he masterfully outlines the complex structures of dispossession and trauma in which Tulsa’s Black population has been entangled from Indian Removal to Jim Crow to urban renewal to gentrification. With an ultimate interrogation of the possibilities for Greenwood’s twenty-first-century freedom and repair, this book stands out for its original and timely insights that only can be revealed through the mix of tools that Lewis leverages from geography, anthropology, and history.
Karla Slocum, author of Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West
Jovan Scott Lewis makes an important, radical, and critical turn away from histories that exceptionalize the white violence of the Tulsa massacre and cast it as a singular event as opposed to a structural occurrence. Deftly and sensitively moving beyond narratives based on an easy nostalgia, cheap sentimentalism, and knee jerk patriotism, he painstakingly demonstrates that 1921 must be seen as a century-long project of deprivation and dispossession. With this important book, Lewis has given us a harrowing narrative of Black disenfranchisement.
Peter James Hudson, author of Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean
Scammer’s Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica explores the possibilities for repair and enters the very timely debate of reparations by turning to vernacular articulation. The reparations debate is one that, in many ways, is guided by collective, institutional, and historically minded discourses. However, in my work with Jamaican lottery scammers, who used the framework of reparations to rationalize their scamming of elderly, white North Americans through internet apparatuses, I challenge the terms and mechanisms of reparation. Instead of the received notions of what stands as the bases of repair, namely the history of slavery, colonialism, and the chronic poverty that resulted, I argue that more considerable attention and recognition needs to be paid to the complicated undulations of blackness that demonstrate how the sense of injury moves between the qualifications of collective and individual, historical and contemporary, legitimate and illegitimate reparative rationalizations. The result is an appreciation for a radical framework for repair and reparation, which could be explained through various acts of recognition. Pushing the examination further, I demonstrate how crime holds a reparative quality, which for the scammers it did through unique racial permutations of debt and blame. Through this analysis, the ultimate question of reparations’ fulfillment must be paired with a willingness to recognize and reconcile the qualifications of blackness. Neglecting to do so will mean that we fail to account for the actual degree of the bases of repair.
Praise for Scammer's Yard
Jovan Scott Lewis’s sophisticated and nuanced account of Jamaican lotto scammers’ efforts to escape ‘sufferation’ positions their ethics of seizure within the logic of reparations. If the historical generation of wealth has been criminal—the result of imperialism, slavery, and debt—then its redistribution offers a way to reimagine the postcolonial present and its models of sovereignty. Scammer’s Yard is a must read for those interested in the value of blackness in the wake of the plantation!
Deborah A. Thomas, author of Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair
Scammer’s Yard repositions a network of impoverished, aspirational Jamaicans at the frontier of post-colonial, racial capitalism. Combining sharp-eyed ethnography, rich historical detail, and brilliant analysis, Jovan Scott Lewis takes seriously scammers’ attempts to redress colonial brutality by using scams—in their contradictory glory—as a means of laying claim to reparations. An instant classic, this book is essential reading for anthropologists, political theorists, and scholars of the Black Atlantic or anyone looking for new tools to radically reimagine markets and the forms of radicalized violence and criminality they reproduce.
Noelle Stout, author of Dispossessed: How Predatory Bureaucracy Foreclosed on the American Middle Class
Born out of the Berkeley Black Geographies Project started by Lewis at UC Berkeley in 2016 and the discipline-defining 2017 symposium organized by him and then graduate students Camilla Hawthorne and Kaily Heitz, The Black Geographic explores the theoretical innovations of Black Geographies scholarship and how it approaches Blackness as historically and spatially situated. In studies that span from Oakland to the Alabama Black Belt to Senegal to Brazil, the contributors draw on ethnography, archival records, digital humanities, literary criticism, and art to show how understanding the spatial dimensions of Black life contributes to a broader understanding of race and space. They examine key sites of inquiry: Black spatial imaginaries, resistance to racial violence, the geographies of racial capitalism, and struggles over urban space. Throughout, the contributors demonstrate that Blackness is itself a situating and place-making force, even as it is shaped by spatial processes and diasporic routes. Whether discussing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionist print records or migration and surveillance in Niger, this volume demonstrates that Black Geographies is a mode of analyzing Blackness that fundamentally challenges the very foundations of the field of geography and its historical entwinement with colonialism, enslavement, and imperialism. In short, it marks a new step in the evolution of the field.
Praise for The Black Geographic
This volume takes on the monumental task of pulling together scholarship from different geographic areas, time periods, and disciplines to put forth a view on the current state of Black Geographies while gesturing toward new futures. Pushing the field, The Black Geographic is a defining text.
Ashanté M. Reese, author of Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.
The Black Geographic will continue to extend and push the tradition of Black Geographies in fresh, insightful, and important new ways through the insights of the newest generation of scholars who are defining and redefining the terrain of these discussions and debates. A superb collection.
Nik Heynen, Distinguished Researched Professor of Geography, University of Georgia
In this essay, I return to Scammer’s Yard to further examine the issues of respectability, violence, and refusal. Further analyzing the possibility of repair as advanced by the scammers, the essay identifies and contests the normative terms of politics that complicate those reparative claims, arguing that the scam moves past the politics of social incorporation and resistance in Jamaica and instead represents a form of political suspension that avoids the reconciliation of respectability and refusal typical of Caribbean postcolonial social production.
In this article racial capitalism is argued to be a fundamentally ontologizing process. This point is advanced through the central role of labor in the ontological foundations of post-emancipation Caribbean subjectivity. Thus, the structural definition of Caribbean identity can be understood as one defined by racial capitalism’s instrument of labor.
The article demonstrates how scammers, through criminal manipulations of development are able to reconcile longer histories and broader circuits of inequality through contemporary gain, producing a novel sense of postcolonial repair
In this article, I consider the formulation for a decolonized curriculum by assessing what constitutes a 'colonial' education, especially one that is deserving of decolonization. I suggest a decolonized curriculum draws on diaspora theory and the framework of the Black Radical Tradition.
This article is concerned with the ways in which discourses of rights serve to destabilize indigenous logics when used for gains in the market. It does so through examining a Rastafarian tour group who uses their participation in the tourism market to challenge what they believe are infringed cultural property rights. As a means of commercially defending these rights, the group employs a discourse of indigeneity.
This article explores how participation in cooperatives seeks to accomplish an ideal form of the market through the constitutive ethics of organization and skill development. Through the employment of a rhetoric, which emphasizes the importance of skill development and organization as a means of accomplishment the article shows to what extent cooperative ideologies, or imaginaries, serve to legitimize, console, or even frustrate the economic function of cooperation.
Jamaica craft vendors interpret the competition of fellow vendors as animosity. Understood through the trope “bad-mind,” this article examines an ethnicized framing of the market as a construct through which inferences of citizenship and racial discourses are produced.
Edward J. Taaffe Lecture. Ohio State University. Dept. of Geography. April.
Reparations Activism Symposium. UC Davis. Dept. of African American Studies. January.
Annual Lecture on Racial and Social Justice. Stanford University. Dept. of Anthropology. November.
Sonoma State University. Social Justice Conference. April.
Plenary Lectures. cultural geographies Journal and Political Geography Journal. American Association of Geographers Meeting. March.
Florida International University. Global and Sociocultural Studies. March.
Australian National University. Crawford School of Public Policy. February.
Loughborough University. Centre for Doctoral Training. February.
Columbia University. Heyman Center. March.
Other Universals Consortium. University of the Western Cape. December.
Johns Hopkins University. Department of Anthropology. October.
University of Chicago. Dept. of Anthropology. October.
Claremont Colleges. Munroe Center for Social Inquiry. September.
Cambridge University. Dept. of Anthropology. July.
Cornell University. Department of Global Development. December.
Stanford University. Stanford Humanities Center. October.
Cambridge University. Department of Anthropology. October.
Columbia University. Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. October.
Columbia University. African American Studies. September.
Cambridge University. Legacies of Enslavement; Vice Chancellor’s Office. September.
The British Academy. September.
Columbia University. School of Social Work. April.
University of Illinois at Chicago. Institute for the Humanities. April
UCLA. Luskin Institute on Inequality & Democracy. April.
University of North Carolina - Chapel-Hill. Department of Geography. March.
University of Sussex. International Development Department. March.
Oxford. School of Geography and the Environment. February.
UCLA. Luskin Institute on Inequality & Democracy. December.
UC Berkeley. Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. December.
York University. Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean. November.
AAA Presidential Roundtable. November.
Washington University, St. Louis. November.
UC Santa Cruz. Department of Sociology. November.
Cambridge University. Department of Geography. October.
Dartmouth College. School House Anti-Racism Experience. September.
University of Chicago. Anthropology Department. May.
Stanford University. African and African American Studies Program. May.
London Group of Historical Geography. May.
UC Davis, Dept. of Anthropology. April.
Syracuse University, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. April.
American University. School of International Service. March.
University of Sheffield. Dept. of Planning. March.
University of North Carolina - Chapel-Hill The Institute of African American Research. March.
UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix. March.
UCLA. Dept. of African American Studies. March.
UC Berkeley Law. February.
University of St. Andrews. Dept. of Anthropology. Scammer’s Yard. December.
UC San Francisco. Medical School. November.
London School of Economics. Dept. of Sociology. October
University of Essex. Dept. of Sociology. October.
Dartmouth College Dept. of Geography. October.