When I think of the term “Black Radical Imagination,” I think of that force that has kept Black folks not only alive physically, but able to dream of new and better worlds while their bodies dwelled in hell. It is the Black Radical Imagination that also gave our ancestors the fortitude to pull those better worlds out of the ether and painstakingly build them into our lived realities.
I also think about the responsibility, right, and privilege those who came before us claimed for us to do the same, to envision new just futures, and then do the hard work of bringing them into existence. We can’t build what we cannot first imagine, and so our survival is our Black Radical Imagination time traveling, bringing us the resistance of the past, bringing us the brilliance of the future. As was said in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, we are the dreamer and the dream.
I just went over to swim laps in the city pool, restored and rebuilt with donations from people in the community because the city has no money for such endeavors. It’s a kind of privilege. It’s not a private club but it does cost $4 to get in if you don’t pay for a whole summer pass. And how many people have time to go to the pool in the middle of a weekday? I did it. Aside from what I generally refer to as the disaster that is my professional life, I do have more time off in the summer than some. But that’s not what I want to say. What I want to say is that at the pool, in this small but racially and economically diverse city, white and black adults swam laps and did water aerobics. Mixed race families and white and black friends brought their white and black kids to swim in the pool together. While swimming laps, random thoughts running through my head, I remembered some moments during or after Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter hit the national media when I realized how insidious and aggressive racism still was in this country. Before that, I was not naïve. I knew that racism was still pervasive, insidious, discriminatory, personal, and woven into social structures in ways it seems all but impossible to tackle. But when Obama and Hilary were fighting it out in the primaries all those years ago, racism was quiet (violent and destructive but quiet, compared to now at least); it seemed people knew what they couldn’t really say out loud even if they believed hateful things. I remember thinking (and maybe reading) about how it was still so acceptable to be aggressively sexist and misogynist (Hilary haters have always been loud and awful) but that the racism was less overt. Obama’s presidency and so many events that have happened since have uncovered the reality of the racism that has always continued to exist. One might argue that if one doesn’t say terrible things out loud, maybe it’s because to some degree they know it’s wrong (wrong to think it as well as to say it out loud). But instead it has become acceptable to say and think violently hateful things against many groups of people of color. Maybe it’s good to realize this reality so that we can no longer ignore it. But one also has to ask if the violence is being perpetuated and the seeming cultural acceptability encourages more people who wouldn’t have participated otherwise? (consider people following Trump and attending rallies, for example, that they may not have otherwise). Recognizing the reality is important, and then fighting against the perpetuation is even more important.
Before I went to the pool, I had been reading up on the news. Articles about the Democratic and Republican conventions. Articles about Black Radical Art and Imagination. Commentary and thinking about Michelle Obama, her speeches, her role over the past years. In her speech at the convention she stated how notable it is that she and her kids wake up in the White House, a place built by slaves, every day. That, at one time, was a radical kind of future only dared to be envisioned by some. It’s now a reality. We have made progress. And there’s further to go. As Naomi Klein writes toward the end of This Changes Everything, we have not finished what the end of slavery and Civil Rights started, because change has not happened beyond the social and legal realms. Our economic system, capitalism, perpetuates exploitation of the poor and people of color. It legitimizes exploitation of natural resources, social and labor resources, and devalues and destroys educational resources in order to keep people from gaining intellectual and political power. It seems clear that the global system of neoliberalism that we are now in functions via exploitation. Some wonder why we don’t make changes that we know would work to level inequalities among classes and colors of people. We have plenty of information and resources to fix public schools, educate people so they can have better jobs, make college more accessible, etc. etc. etc. It’s not a matter of knowing what would work. It’s a matter of certain structures and entities deliberately standing in the way of change that would lessen injustice and level equality.
This morning I was thinking, as I often do during political seasons, that the two conventions symbolize this divide so clearly. The sets of values that each represent seem so clear. The democrats are interested and invested in people: jobs, education, healthcare, equal access to resources, cooperation, community, racial/economic/social/gender/ability equality issues, etc. the Republicans seem more interested in perpetuating myths about individual achievement, creating a divisive atmosphere by telling people it’s OK to discriminate, to be prejudiced against others who don’t look like you, to get mad that people of color are taking all of the resources (which is not true) or using that kind of excuse to point outward and hate/fear others. That convention and it’s philosophies says that only certain people are allowed in the clubhouse, and that if you are rich and successful you deserve it and don’t have to think at all about others, and if you’re not rich it’s OK to blame others for all of the problems in society. The Individual vs. Social divide seems more apparent than ever and is so visually and rhetorically aggressive in the two conventions: the predominantly white circus act of fear and hate that was the Republican Convention, the visual diversity that better represents the actual makeup of the country at the Democratic convention, tied with stories of fighting for justice and equality for all people not just some… schmaltzy maybe, but we’re also talking about real people who need jobs, who need access to education, who need to feel safe from violent hate pointed at them just for existing in the world.
I am white and relatively privileged, relatively safe from fearing for my life when I drive a car or walk into a party store, but I have a responsibility not to ignore the discriminations and inequalities that are structured into many of the institutional fabrics of this country, and I am responsible to actively work toward changing those systems to the extent of my ability. MLK said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and at least some #BLM organizers believe that “when black people get free everyone gets free.” We are all victims of an oppressive system teaching some to hate and maim and others to fear and struggle. We are in an especially strange moment with Trump at the front of media attention and running for President. Is Trump a racist? It sure looks and sounds that way, especially when you see it in print in the words of Nicholas Kristof but importantly also is to recognize the relation between the personal/individual and larger structural forces perpetuating, sustaining, allowing these kinds of racist attitudes even in our contemporary world. And then I read Black Art Matters: A Roundtable On the Black Radical Imagination and remember to think more about the relationship or potential for art and political/social change… the need for art… the ability to recognize that the struggle happens across a variety of fronts and platforms… there’s no one leader, voice, no one way or solution. It’s about diversity in form as well as content. Or as Robin D.G. Kelley explains:
Embracing, acting on, and furthering radical thought is never cooptation. No one should have a copyright on a radical critique of the world and visions of how to enact that critique. What we think of as the Black Radical Imagination or the tradition has not only informed other struggles –Palestinians, Egyptians, indigenous movements, movements across Latin America and Asia, as well as “radical white folks,” but one must also acknowledge that those movements elsewhere have informed what we think of as Black radical movements and thought. I can’t go into it now, but it is hard to imagine T. Thomas Fortune, Lucy Parsons, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Barbara Smith, etc., without Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, Trotsky, or Che Guevara, or Rimbaud, or M. N. Roy and Sen Katayama. Consider George Jackson’s identification with Palestinian poet Sameeh Al-Qaseem’s “Enemy of the Sun,” one of several poems he wrote out from a book he read in prison? A book, incidentally, published by the Black run radical Drum and Spear Press out of D.C.? None of this is cooptation. This is called solidarity.
There’s not enough time in the day or a life to read and do and work toward change as a single individual. But one has a responsibility to do what one can do. And change will come through the accumulation of voices, practices, art, politics, pushing ideas and expectations to the limits of what seems possible and then getting real people in numbers to join in the effort. Imagination is about possibility. And it’s radical if it seeks to change oppressive histories and practices into futures that perpetuate actual social justice and the reality of cooperative diversity in communities everywhere.