The Black Imagination, Revisited

We are more capable than we think we are

Joel Leon.
Jun 19, 2020 · 8 min read
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“Madisin” courtesy of Charles Bentley. (Source)

When you are Black, flying can feel like a death sentence. Huey Newton wanted to fly and found a corner instead; Gil Scott found poetry and empty veins; Zora Neale Hurston, with all her imagination, left us penniless, scrubbing floors to live. Capitalism plays a role in this, and so does white supremacy. Baldwin left the states to find Paris and found that the world burns us everywhere we fly to. Octavia Butler put on display the imagination that would give us wings, and even she fell far too soon. Toni showed us the feathered arms of ancestral flight in Sula and would still be asked to atone for her lack of compassion for the white gaze.

We have been hung, dragged, mutilated, beaten, shot and shot at, for wanting more, for imagining more. Every Black death, when tallied, when tagged and buried, should come with an asterisk affixed to all autopsies: Death by murder of the imagination.

It is set in us early that thinking outside of the linear ways textbooks and media have mauled us will only lead to our persecution. Deft is the Black thinker, intellectual, and corner store loiterer who bypasses the marginalized rules set by oppressors that call us to deem our imaginations apropos, inappropriate, and without merit and meaning. To defy the rules is to also dance with the real possibility that doing so will lead to a dramatic death. You being done in by the world that would rather you bleed than be a human who sees more than black and white; who sees a tableau of options to dream of, to aspire to.

We are not allowed to look further than what is in front of us? If COVID, if the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks have been teaching us anything, it is that Black America continues to find ways to reimagine the world, regardless of how much the world wants us to die. With the rates of the Black population dying not just from systemic but symptomatic oppression, it is undeniably clear that what reality has given us is far too limiting for the potential of what we can reimagine for ourselves.

We can look at Fadia Kader’s role at Instagram, and how she’s used the platform to help elevate the voices and the art behind them, to foster a reimagined version of how the community shows up for each other. We can look at Naj Austin, founder of Ethel’s Club and its parent company Something Good, and how she’s taken a physical space and reimagined the digital landscape of healing for the marginalized and disenfranchised.

As far back as LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow, the magic that exists in the layered possibilities of Blackness lives in how we continue to define and redefine the potential, in spite of all the death and dying that surrounds us. We have been told our limits are our bodies, that we will shoot, dribble, rap, sing, and dance our ways out of oblivion; that we can respectably politic our ways into safety. But, our living is beyond what was once deemed unimaginable.

The Black imagination is beyond Kenneth and Mamie Clark white baby doll tests depicting little Black girls always choosing the wrong one, always going for the whitest one: the widest grin possible, the grimmest of choices, the whitest of skin; it is beyond that kind of reproach, that kind of silly sing-along sang on the back of a bus, wheels spinning.

In this way, it reminds me of Lewis, a former classmate: the kind of brown boy in kindergarten who took off his shoes with his toes pressed against the back of the heel before he double-dutched with the girls in our class. Glee spread deep in his dimples, blonde and dark brown curls full while jumping, while the other boys like myself punched, spat, and cursed our way through lunch and recess games of two-hand touch, kickball, and Wiffle ball, freeze tag.

Lewis was the one who sang “Wheels on the Bus” loudly, looking for some form of a Lord in the vocal, fingers snapped in unison with the rest of his body, wrists turned down, head tilted. Lewis had already imagined a world where the loose definitions of masculinity and alpha-afro-patriarchy would be untangled, deconstructed, demystified. A world less restricted, not bound to the confines of stigma of gender and race. In the era of pussy grabbing, race-baiting politics, in which human rights to flesh, and clean water, and property are being questioned and redefined, it begs to ask the question — what is so scary about a Lewis; about the freedom that is the Black body re-imagined?

Black imagination, by and large, is a rebellion. It is the lit fuse of an already-there powder keg; it is the Molotov, reloaded. It is Harriet Tubman hurrying Black bodies en masse to freedom; it is Nat Turner dying; it is Paul Robeson blacklisted. This type of imagination listed is the prototype for choosing law over a basketball hoop or slab of white product made to be distributed far and wide across state lines and project benches.

It is the glory in all of this that would try to quiet Baldwin, that would try to silence Bayard, stifle Langston, and question Audre. The Black imagination has been deemed bankrupt, stifled by a system bent on restricting the force and nature of a Serena, the power of a Beyoncé, the stoicism of a Jay-Z. The fear of what springs forth in the creativity that lies within the banks of the imagined can be held closest to the light when one looks at it too closely.

We get to reframe our struggle. We get to take the loss of burnt buildings, the exceptional use of firehose and dogs and rope and church bombs and church shootings. We get to set everything on fire and imagine things anew. And with that, we can also recognize it is time to reframe not only the prowess of how we think and activate against unjust systems, but also take a look at how we reframe and recenter our own experiences as a Black people.

Blackness, in and of itself, is believed to be imaginary. It is this kind of idea that lives in something as simple as Baldwin dissecting Robert Kennedy’s appeal that “in the next thirty or forty years a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States,” as if the wait for the centuries-long opportunity would be worth the whip and ship trek; the same wait that has allowed the privileged to own the Oval Office since its inception.

However, neither Blackness nor the imagination of those who inherit Blackness is a binary type, despite the folklore the news media outlets would have us believe and soak ourselves in. We do not exist in the framework, in the planning of the Americas, in its foundation. We are mere tools, only slaves, very much the scapegoats, mainly wax museum statuettes for fodder, for fake, faux amusement park thrills, for elaborate dinner table seating arrangements, and token Black references. We are not real, no realer than the Mexican who bikes in the snow to deliver your meals, no more tangible than the Korean woman who buffs your calluses, no more physically available than the Arab you buy Malta and breakfast sandwiches from. We blend in easy — into the walls, into the sky, the backgrounds of your lives.

With this we take the bitter with the sweet because it is disingenuous to live in the false reality of make-believe, that we are astronauts and can be, and that you can do it, too, with bootstraps pulled to the heights of kneed. Mae Carol Jemison was not a fictional account; Hidden Figures was not a story told by a screenwriter from a lucid dream run. The stories — the women, the science in them — all is real. This imagination, the imagination looks for more in the face of “you are less than.”

The Black kind, takes up uninvited space without care or agreement from the ones claiming the space; the justification being, the space was never owned by those who stake claim to it. It has always been stolen, always taken from under the feet of the Indians, the Spanish, the Africans. The soil under their toes, the toes of the Anglo-Saxon, Eurocentric imperialists holding court, has never been rigid enough to hold back the broadness that is the benevolence of the Black thought. This land has never been owned by its oppressors, it has always been borrowed, with interest.

Our freedom is inextricably tied to our willingness to reimagine. The imagination is hindered by oppressive structures. How do we imagine when imagination is shackled by the powers that would rather we languish in spaces that do not allow us to be bigger and broader than our current circumstances would allow us to be? Our imaginations can run to places that grant us a freedom the physical world has not yet created for us.

So we escape to books, to social media, to community, to help us redefine the physical world for ourselves. You are told very early on that your imagination has a cost, that your imagination has limits, that a Black president cannot be who he says he is, that he must be Muslim, he must not be American. There is a ceiling to the imagination of Blackness, you are told very early on.

Sometimes I like to imagine that the next Obama is in someone’s class, scribbling rhymes besides bitten pencil top, trying to skip the thesaurus and find ways to rhyme thyme with any word besides the obvious. This next one, whomever he/she is, will be imagining a world different from the one we inhabit now, in the same vein as the Lewis I grew up knowing, as the Carmen Perezes and Johnetta Elzies, the DeRay McKessons, and Cherrell Browns of the world. One may ask, could Baldwin have foreseen an Obama? Could Shirley Chisolm have predicted Obama? Could Fannie Lou Hamer have imagined a Stacey Abrams? Could any of them have predicted a LeBron, expected a Serena, believed a Beyoncé, dreamt a Jay-Z?

Surely, as one could have conceived of a Malcolm, a Martin, and a Medgar, we can hypothesize our ancestors would have no less envisioned a Belafonte as they could have conjured up an Oprah. That Baldwin himself proclaimed, “I cannot be a pessimist, because I am alive,” is breeding ground for the heights of the Black imagination, no matter noose or lynching. The Black American will continue to imagine, much like Baldwin did, and the world will steal it from them, or die trying.

But the imagination will forever live on.

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Joel Leon.

Written by

he/him. i tell stories for black people. work: @taylorstrategy @nike @twitter @gatesfoundation @ted @hbo @ethelsclub @medium @newsweek @twloha #BXFOREVER

Our Human Family

​Our Human Family celebrates the inherent value of all human beings by fostering conversation on achieving equality.

Joel Leon.

Written by

he/him. i tell stories for black people. work: @taylorstrategy @nike @twitter @gatesfoundation @ted @hbo @ethelsclub @medium @newsweek @twloha #BXFOREVER

Our Human Family

​Our Human Family celebrates the inherent value of all human beings by fostering conversation on achieving equality.

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