A Case For Black Imagination
“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming after all is a form of planning” Gloria Steinem
I remember June 2020 like it was yesterday. Every top executive at every company in the country, looked at their black employees and asked a different version of the same question:
“What can we do to support you and people like you?”
In many cases this question was asked with sincerity.
In many cases this question was asked with the promise of an action plan ahead.
And yet, many professionals of color (myself included) found ourselves stalling and stuttering in our responses. This happened for two reasons, and a few others I’m sure I’m not thinking of.
One reason was pretty straight forward…
Throughout the duration of our careers no one had ever asked us a question like this before, so we had no clue how to answer it. We were never yielded the power to determine our own destiny.
The second reason is a bit more complex…
And shines a light on a powerful truth that is often not discussed.
People of color have never had the privilege to think about our ideal future.
We’ve never been given the freedom to fantasize about what the world could look like if it truly supported and uplifted people that look like us.
Or more simply put…black people were never given the space to imagine.
Generationally we have been taught to hold on to the good things that life has afforded us, because these are examples of how we have defeated the odds. “Holding on to a good job” was parental advice based on generational anxiety that if your ambitions reach beyond guaranteed accomplishment that you may fall flat on your face.
Furthermore, in many cases black culture was built on the bedrock of taking limited resources in order to create new inventions. Chitlins were the parts of the pig left to slaves, and for a time became one of the featured facets of Southern cuisine. While the South Bronx was experiencing some of its worst levels of poverty and urban decay, we transformed 1520 Sedgwick Ave into the birthplace of the biggest genre of music in the world.
We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished.
But also understand that society would rather see us operate with a survival mentality opposed to a dreamers mindset.
Dreamers reimagine what the world could look like and challenge the status quo. Survivors make the most of what they have.
History has shown us what culture looks like when it’s fueled by black creators.
Now imagine what the world looks like when it’s constructed by black innovators.
The word innovator gets a bad wrap, mainly because it has a narrow definition.
When we think of innovators our mind automatically goes to the people who “think different” or are labeled as the “crazy ones.”
The ones who have the resources to build bulletproof trucks or have the runway to raise billions of dollars building the “future of content.”
Many of these minds are brilliant and talented indeed.
But we need to widen the definition of who we consider an innovator. Because innovators have the broadest canvas to imagine new possibilities.
At its simplest an innovator is a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products.
So in my summation there are a plethora of brilliant black minds that can be seen as some of the world’s greatest innovators.
Miles Davis was one of the greatest innovators of jazz.
Rihanna is one of the greatest innovators in business.
Dave Chappelle is one of the greatest innovators of comedy.
Michaela Coel is one of the greatest innovators of storytelling.
So why is it that when it comes to the ideas that will shape our future we often revert back to the same sources?
Imaginative freedom has been afforded to those with the closest proximity to power, and we need to create the infrastructure for black minds to have the same level of intellectual opportunity.
I’ve never been the type of person to pretend like I have all the answers.
But here’s a few questions we can ask ourselves as we create the space for more black imagination.
Who Do You Consider Crazy?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again… we need to do away with the word “crazy.”
It’s become a cop out for people to dismiss ideas that they don’t understand.
My little cousin often thinks of alternate sci-fi universes and tries to explain them to me. He’s a kid so his imagination often runs wild, but I sit with him and ask him pointed questions about the worlds he’s creating in his head.
This made me think of how many kids have similar ideas, but have very different experiences.
For every kid like my cousin who has found support from his family to apply his gifts (he can now take those alternative universes and turn them into comic books,) there’s another kid who’s ideas are dismissed as “talking crazy” and doesn’t have anyone who will lend an ear to listen.
We can’t let our own limitations get in the way of progress for the next generation.
We need to create the space to cultivate young black minds and inspire them to dream even bigger. Not write them off because they don’t share ideas that match our own levels of understanding.
Who Do You Consider A Genius?
When it comes to our black heroes they are often boxed into the cultural tent poles of music, sports, activism, comedy, fashion, and entertainment, etc.
But imagine a world where our black geniuses are given the freedom to explore wherever their imagination could take them?
Imagine what Donald Glover could’ve done with Quibi money? Or how Kendrick would approach the educational system? Or how Ava DuVernay could rewrite the rules on prison reform?
Black minds are often seen as the purveyors of cool, or the experts on blackness, but rarely the genius type of minds that could completely unlock how we see the world.
Years ago, Kanye told us he was Picasso, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.
And although he may have been a smidge off in his assessment, I understand why he felt it was important for him to be mentioned in the same sentence as them.
What Do You Consider Opportunity?
It’s a tale as old as time…xyz creator works with xyz brand to “collab” on new project.
It feels like just yesterday we saw the trend of the celebrity creative director — a hollow value exchange where all brands were in search of was an artists cultural cachet, opposed to an authentic connection to their brand.
We have to push these relationships further, and think through what true partnership with black creators looks like going forward.
What opportunities are you providing black creators to imagine new possibilities?
Beyond a commercial or making them a face of your company, what true equity or opportunity are you providing them?
And most importantly, how big of a runway are you giving them to innovate and create new things that you never even thought of?
As I near the end of this piece, I want to conclude with a quote from Pharrell Williams’ Drink Champs interview. In its entirety it’s one of the best interviews i’ve seen in my life, but i’d like to highlight one quote in particular that specifically stuck out to me.
(If you want see the quote in its entirety click here, if you want to see me paraphrase it look below.)
‘Elon Musk thinks in the future. If you ask him a question in 2020, he’ll give you an answer for 2050. He’s a problem solver. But he’s a problem solver for the things that he deems the most important. How do we get Elon Musk to use his brain cells to make supremacists understand the plight of the people that they hate? How do we get Elon Musk to think about racism? How do we get Elon Musk to think about federal subsidies? How do we get Elon Musk to think about the plight of women?’
This made me think…
We are in the midst of some of the most transformative years the world will ever see.
Sports, tech, film, music, medicine, politics, policing, and anything else you can think of will look completely different as we approach this next decade.