When I was 13, I came to the porch to pray. Until recently, I couldn’t understand my porch worship as a spiritual practice because it did not resemble the way I was taught to pray at church with prayer ropes and mantras like “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” When I came to the porch, I simply came to be. I often felt pulled there at dusk when traffic from the big roads hummed louder, and my family inside turned on the nightly news. At this hour, something bigger bestowed itself on my senses, and I could lean back against the cool brick of the porch while the sun gently charged my face. In silence, solitude, and solidarity, I could melt into an awareness of movement. I felt held by life itself and free to diffuse wherever I was called. From the porch I could see the radio tower on a nearby mountain, pulsing with red light. I sensed the energized homes, humming streets, creaking mailboxes, basketballs pounding on cement, work shoes traversing wooden porches, kitchen pans bustling, televisions blaring, and bedroom lamps switching – people moving between me and the radio tower.
I was a passive observer in this way of worship, watching the ocean of life from a beach without actually diving in. That is, until a team road cycling trip in summer 2022. Our group of bicyclists began the 67-day journey across the United States in Seattle and ended in Washington DC, the nation’s capital. We learned about each other and ourselves out on the road, especially on longer and hotter days. In Kentucky and West Virginia, our boredom led us to give special attention to the homes we were cruising by, especially their carefully decorated southern porches. We rated the most elegant or homely porches and even paused to speak with any porch dwellers and complement their hanging ferns, nicely kept chairs, or overall vibe. Somewhere out there I tasted the peacefulness that 13-year-old me experienced out on my own porch. However, this time I wasn’t just watching, I was in. I was watching that glowing red radio tower again and swimming in the ocean of life’s movement from the saddle of a bike.
I encountered this spiritual attunement again by ruminating on porches with friends. What is it about porches that light a fuse in me? I got curious. When school started back in the fall, new housing renovations began, including a replacement of apartment porches with sunrooms. This caught my attention, and I asked fellow students how they felt about the shift and found that I wasn’t alone in considering the porch a mystical and irreplaceable space. I got more curious. I brought the question, ‘What does the porch mean to you?’ to mentors and friends—often on the literal porch of our institution’s library. I discovered, and I’m still learning, that the porch space carries particular meanings due to its nature as a liminal gateway between outside and inside. Facilitated by the separation of and movement between public and private property, the porch becomes its own transitional place imbued with various cultural meanings.
Thanks to these conversations, a research interest has fleshed itself out in front of me. I know porch anthropology carries merit because my curiosity grows more with each conversation. I’ve realized the ways of approaching a porch, physically and metaphysically, are endlessly dependent on the approacher. The simple question, ‘What does the porch mean to you?’ ignites sparks of passion and expertise in thoughtful people, just as the porch serves as the entry point to home.
Participants in porch conversations illuminated their own theories of what the porch means. Philosopher J. Aaron Simmons pointed to the porch as a “physical substantiation of the word maybe,” the liminal space where we call and respond (Simmons, personal communication, 2023). Social justice educator Jocelyn Boulware Bruce pointed to the transitional nature of the porch and asked why we choose to share meaningful conversations in the place where we can feel both the warmth of our homes and the cool possibility of the outside (Boulware Bruce, personal communication, 2023). Anthropologist Kaniqua Robinson pointed to the invitational power of porches for neighborly love and a protective tool for parents to watch their kids closely in the wake of the Atlanta child murders (Robinson, personal communication, 2023).
These examples briefly illustrate the pluriverse of meanings we can extract from talking about how we live on the porch. Anthropological literature demonstrates this multiplicity of porch meanings as well. Consider, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s concept of the “feather-bed of resistance” strategy employed by Black communities: “The white man is always trying to know into somebody else’s business. All right, I’ll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind. I’ll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away. Then I’ll say my say and sing my song” (Hurston, 1935). Throughout Mules and Men, as well as her other works, Hurston’s ethnographic collection of southern folklore is largely produced on the porch, just outside “the door” of Black southern culture. On this porch, dwellers choose to invite or deny the public into their physical and cultural nests. In this space, existing between the private and public that is both and neither private nor public, home dwellers decide who to invite and who to send away. For Black communities in the US south, the porch served as a place where they could set some rules of engagement with outsiders.
The porch seems like a paradoxical space. It reminds us that all life is one in movement (Thurman, 2023) while signifying the pause, or boundary, between ourselves, our choices, and other people. In my life, I imagine the porch as a point of contact rather than a boundary, a place of cultural and personal reckoning. I recognize that for other people, the porch functions differently, as a boundary or a place from which to surveil surroundings. In future conversations about the porch, I am curious to learn how this space might be a locus for intimate relationships. If the porch can be thought of as a point of contact between cultural bodies, I imagine the porch can function as a metaphorical meeting place for people as they engage in their relationships. If I live across the street from my beloved, I require a point of contact to know where I begin and end, and where my beloved begins and ends. Perhaps we can learn to see the porches between our respective inner kingdoms as the meeting place where we negotiate a shared experience with the outside world, a place of authenticity, care, and trust. Here, on this porch, we can choose to rock with each other in love.
Hurston, Zora Neale. (1935). Mules and men. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.
J. Aaron Simmons, personal communication on Trone porch, February 14th, 2023.
Jocelyn Boulware Bruce, personal communication at Trone outlook, January 26th, 2023.
Kaniqua Robinson, personal communication on Library porch, February 13th, 2023.
Sydney Andersen, personal communication on Dining Hall porch, February 1st, 2023.
Thurman, H. (n.d.). Meditations of the heart by Howard Thurman: Book excerpt: Spirituality & Practice. Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman | Book Excerpt. Retrieved March 8, 2023, from www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/28294