Keller Easterling

Imagine a United States organized around markings and lines different from those of state or national jurisdictions. Cobble together instead a tangle of lines—scars, trails, watersheds, infrastructural corridors, and highways that deliberately revisit the violence of modern programs and the wounds of white supremacy. This linear formation would not smooth over its ugliness, but instead become more robust through its patchiness, lumpiness, and difference as it makes its way across the country. Acknowledging previous conquest, dispossession, and theft of land, it might only begin to coalesce as it aggregates along its surface land designated as a new resource for reparations. While it may secure that land from federal, state, municipal and private, sources, it exercises other sovereignties—some retrieved from the past and some addressing the current state of the planet.

This projected formation, the ATTTNT, reconceives and expands a 1993 proposal called ATTVA that was partially inspired by the polymath Benton MacKaye. In the 1920s, MacKaye envisioned a line across the United States that would organize land around the Appalachian mountains. The Appalachian Trail (AT), while often regarded only as scenic hiking route, was initially meant to reorient the transportation and industry of the entire eastern seaboard toward land as a psychic resource for a nation and its labor in the postwar period. Remarkably, this 2,200 mile linear formation was completed in about 14 years with a boost from the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corp. The ATTVA project made counterfeit USGS maps and aerial photographs superimposing all the public land in the US with the waysides of the interstate highway—featureless strips of land in country’s largest public works project. It began by extending the Appalachian Trail into the nearly 300,000 acres of public lands assigned to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). And it claimed this network of spaces as a diverse resource for many purposes.

Looking for different stretches of continuity, ATTTNT extends the formation to make a planetary line that is gradually thickened by a series of reparation land trusts. From the terminus of the AT, the spine of public land passes close to New Echota, the former capital of the Cherokee Nation. It follows the water route of the Trail of Tears—one strand in a network of paths used to forcibly relocate Indigenous people west after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The route also happens to be coincident with public TVA land along the Tennessee River. The line then continues to the Mississippi River as it links to a thin stretch of public land along Natchez Trace Parkway—another New Deal project.

But in the ATTTNT, the TVA and the NT—sometimes themed with supremacist narratives of westward expansion or modernization—receive another reckoning with the under-told histories of the last 500 years of Black and Indigenous resistance and survival. Since 1776, the US has stolen 1.5 billion acres from Indigenous people. And since the late 19th century, Black farmers lost 90 percent of the 16 million acres they owned because of discriminatory lending practices and white aggression. Alabama and Mississippi were the site of 150 years of persistent, elegant activist experiments with land including mutual aid societies, cooperatives, agricultural wheels, labor unions, and land trusts—successful traditions that Jim Crow was designed to defeat.

Carrying on into the 60s and 70s, these activist surges increasingly assumed Pan-African and global dimensions. Near Jackson, Mississippi, the ATTTNT passes through the southern counties of the Kush—Madison, Warren, Claiborne, Jefferson, Adams. The Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) called the Kush an area of “disputed sovereignty.” These would be the first lands liberated for a new separatist nation, the New Republic of Afrika. Inaugurated in 1968, it would be made from the five states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina and organized around Tanzania’s socialist principles of Ujamaa. Just a few miles from the ATTTNT formation, near Bolton, RAM attempted to establish the nation’s capital, El Malik in 1971.

The ATTTNT gathers selected contiguous areas and magnetizes nearby satellite sites related to these histories. Contiguous areas include Indigenous reserves, state and federal parks, and wetlands. The satellites include New Echota, El Malik, the counties of the Kush, freedmen towns, historic and contemporary Black cooperatives, Nation of Islam farms, abandoned rail easements, and a long list of sites marking civil rights episodes. Among the freedmen towns is Davis Bend, one of the first places of refuge for freed slaves created during the Civil War. Rail easements recall the post-Civil War “emancipation circuit” about which Thulani Davis writes. Among the civil rights sites are other trails and linear formations like James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson. And among the contemporary cooperatives is Cooperation Jackson, a multi-pronged mutual aid organization that promotes and implements the Jackson-Kush plan with many references to the original plans for the Republic of New Afrika.

Looking for another kind of resource and justice in the failures of capital and governance, the ATTTNT also develops protocols for converting to trust land a number of different sorts of private tracts that touch its 6000 mile surface area. Despite the general reluctance to consider reparations, the government has been generous with private enterprise. In the 19th century, it gave a 170-million-acre land grant to the railroads. In the mid-20th century it devoted 1 million acres to highways. Since the depression, the US has distributed billions of dollars in excessive agricultural subsidies or crop insurance payments to maintain food production that depletes the land and fails to provide edible food.

Failures offer the possibility of mutually beneficial outcomes as the conversion protocols assess parcels that are exhausted, bankrupt, over-subsidized, or stagnant because of retiring farmers, debt, or heirs property conundrums. These protocols—constituting an infrastructure as worthy of funding as those of concrete or conduit—can initiate debt swaps, buyouts, or donations with tax benefits for properties all along the ATTTNT.

This collection of public and private land might then be reaggregated into a set of reparations land trusts. While they may have the visibility or commemorative function of a park, they can be put to other uses or serve as a different kind of resource. Access to these land trusts could be granted to nearby cities, to Black and Indigenous organizations, or to agricultural cooperatives like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. They might also be remotely tied to a city or organization some distance away. Whether or not they are occupied or cultivated, they can always be used as a collateral asset that continues to grow in value because of strategic positioning in a national network. Ongoing iterations of the ATTTNT might grow this special network across the whole of the country, reconnecting a history of Black and Indigenous people in the South with a checkerboard of stolen Indigenous land in the Central Plains and West. Conversion protocols might also involve negotiations regarding renewable energy as well a regenerative agriculture that contribute compounding resources.

For the ATTTNT there is not one registration of value. Multiple economies, create value in registers beyond the financial. Defying the folly that humans can own the crust of the earth, communities that hold land in common are less susceptible to gentrification and more able to build spatial relationships. Rather than precarious financial abstractions, they can shape physical relationships, community economies, and live organizations that redouble resources given to them in the same way that one seed, when planted, produces multiple seeds. It is an abundance that doesn’t make sense to capital. Rather than replacing one system with another singular system, these multiple modes of exchange and incalculable productivity have the capacity to engulf dominant capital. These are the networks of care, maintenance, mutualism, and kinship that abolitionist, anarchists, Indigenous, Black feminist, and environmentalists have long been calling for as alternatives to monocultures of all sorts.

At a time of climate crisis, reviving traditions of mutualism along this planetary line returns to multiple centers of knowledge eclipsed by what Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson call the “world-ending” logics of the last 500 years. The victims of this harm offer the most potent counter-logics to nourish “world-making” forms of activism. Philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò suggests that changes necessary to address climate cataclysm go hand in hand with reparations for that harm. And the changes are not only handed down from scientific expertise but hammered out and multiplied in activist networks. In the tradition of the activism that inspires it, ATTTNT claims another kind of planetary sovereignty as it aggregates resources on which everyone relies for survival. In this way, the network begins to generate some incalculable value to address an incalculable debt.

If the global was about universals, the planetary is about the patchy, the partial, and the lumpy, reflecting multiple problems, complex ecologies, climates and atmospheres. And some of those climates—as consequential and forceful and those of fire and water—are political climates that can undo the most robust interdisciplinary coalitions of activists. Political superbugs run rings around activists with singular solutions and singular evils as they scramble ideologies and ignite violence. To advocate that the many evils in the world—capitalism, racism, whiteness, fascism, caste, xenophobia, femicide, and countless other ways of hoarding and abusing power—will be replaced by a singular, superior system makes it too easy for the superbugs. It is more powerful and stealthy to think of overwhelming dominant systems with multiple organizations on multiple fronts that combine multiple species of information to achieve a dissensus, opacity and fugitivity that keeps power disoriented. The mix is all.

Still, while activism is no one thing, by transferring to themselves tens of trillions of dollars in the last few decades, the wealthiest superbugs in the world have conveniently identified a concentrated source of funding. Maybe unfathomable wealth might be directed towards this incalculable value to address an incalculable debt.

The ATTTNT is a line around which under-told stories and a superabundance of value can begin to crystallize. And it can start right away to make this mark in a cultural imagination.

ATTVA was first exhibited in American Architecture at the Edge at the American Academy in Rome in 1998. The 2023 ATTTNT mapping is a collaboration between Keller Easterling and Nicholas Arvanitis.

Chicago Architecture Biennale