The Just Use of Imagination: A Call to Action
Natasha N. Jones, ATTW Vice President
Miriam F. Williams, ATTW Fellow
“We must reimagine justice.” — Michelle Alexander (June 8, 2020)
Black folk are nothing if not imaginative. We have always employed the use of our imagination as a means of joy, creativity, innovation–and as a way to survive. Despite centuries of oppressions, we have always imagined a better America. From enslavement when we imagined routes to freedom through coded songs and quilts to Juneteenth where we imagined the realization of emancipation; from Black Wall Street where we imagined new ways to do business, build wealth, and support our communities to HBCUs where we nurtured the minds of future generations of imagineers. We’ve imagined it all. We’ve imagined for generations–in gospel, blues, and jazz, and in the poetry and art of the Harlem Renaissance; to civil rights movements where change-makers like Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X shared their visions of a reimagined America forged in the kiln of countless protests and uprisings that were prayerful, peaceful, liberating, violent, terrifying and everything in between. We’ve imagined leaders–from the Black Panthers who developed ways to protect our people, feed our people, and educate our people to Hip Hop and R&B artists that screamed “Fuck the Police” and called for us to get in “Formation.” We’ve imagined and implemented, produced and designed, fought and fled–from Stonewall to Pose, from Ava Duvernay to Assata Shakur. We’ve learned to imagine because we’ve been taught by the brilliance of Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni and championed by the formidable intellects of Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and Michelle Obama, who once said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback” and also affirmed, “I’ve always loved my country.” From the designers, innovators, from the intellectuals to the quilters and cooks, to the farmers and the Fire Next Time that James Baldwin promised. And, as a child, George Floyd imagined being a Supreme Court Justice, while Breonna Taylor imagined becoming a nurse and buying her first home. Black people have envisioned it all. We have willed worlds into existence with our words, our songs, and our images. We have always seen a better America. Imagine that.
Despite this imagining, while America perceives itself to be a nation of imaginative thinkers, often the imagining of Black folks is not productively acknowledged, properly amplified, or respectfully appreciated. And while white America tends to focus on the “progress” of this nation through racialized lenses, Black America has had to grapple with the terrors and tragedies that have come out of the white imagination. White Americans have used their imaginations to create illusions that frame genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow as acceptable in service of the myths of the Land of the Free, American exceptionalism, and a great modern democracy. White supremacy and racism is what Toni Morrison calls “a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is.” She said, “White people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
That “it” is an imaginative American illusion that has led us to this moment. In this moment of a 50-state protest against police brutality, a world-wide pandemic, surging unemployment and food insecurity, attacks on our elections from inside and out, and industry’s unwillingness to produce basic supplies for health and safety, it is time for us, for you, to dismantle the illusion, to employ a just use of imagination.
Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch, feminist scholars and rhetoricians, defined the term “critical imagination” as “an inquiring tool, a mechanism for seeing the noticed and the unnoticed, rethinking what is there and not there, and speculating about what could be there instead” (p. 20). In fact, engaging critical imagination as feminist rhetorical practice, Royster and Kirsch (2012) assert that “such inquiry strategies allow us to engender an ethos of humility, respect, and care (p. 21). In this historic moment, when yet again the collective Black community is called forth to proclaim that our lives matter, that Black Lives Matter, we extend this idea of critical imagination to calls for justice and equality. As such, we call for the just use of imagination.
The just use of imagination does not solely rebuild and reform. Instead, the just use of imagination simultaneously supports the deconstruction and abolishment of oppressive practices, systems, and institutions. A just use of imagination allows for a rejection of legal, economic, social, political structures that are founded on exploitation, colonization, disenfranchisement, and marginalization. A just use of imagination recognizes that redress and remedy must follow behind a refusal to adhere to the confines and constraints of the status quo and this requires an acknowledgement that oppressive systems and institutions are indeed not broken or faulty, rather that they are working purposefully as designed–in support of white supremacist and racist ideas and ideals. In this way, a just use of imagination is not destructive, even as it seeks to dismantle, because using imagination in this way also calls for the replacement of oppressive practices with systems that are founded on equality, access, and opportunity. What can you imagine? And, how does this use of imagination not only shift perspective, but work to ensure the realization of justice and equality?
The just use of imagination is not just conceptual. It must be enacted. Without this enactment, a re-envisioning is relegated to the realm of fiction and future. The just use of imagination is applicable (in that it must be applied) and employed in our current realities in service of justice and equality RIGHT NOW, not later. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is fine, but a just use of imagination is steeped in reality and action. It is not navel gazing and hand wringing. Remember, Dr. King had a dream, policy initiatives, and plans. It is not decision-making trees and moral reasoning and pretending we don’t know right from wrong. In this way, the just use of imagination is a tool, rather than an ideological stance because it requires active engagement. The just use of imagination is praxis, where theory meets practices in service of re-shaping the lived experiences of marginalized and oppressed peoples. The just use of imagination cannot take up static residence in the heads and hearts of allies and accomplices. The just use of imagination must be transformative.
To be clear, Black folks have been imagining justice for centuries: imagining our streets without police and police violence; imagining preventative healthcare that is available and affordable to all of us; imagining that gardens replace food deserts; imagining that sustainable consumption replaces consumerism; imagining that the goal of education is inspiration rather than institutionalization; imagining that art and creativity inform our philosophy of life, and imagining that our lived, collective experiences of oppression will be understood as profoundly human, and as such, deserving of liberation, protection, and dignity.
We are tired.
Dismantling white supremacy requires your work. How might you make a difference? Just use your imagination.
Alexander, M. (2020, June 8). America, this is your chance. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/opinion/george-floyd-protests-race.html
Royster, J. J. & Kirsch, G. E. (2012). Feminist rhetorical practices: New horizons for rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University