We are walking forward into a new decade.
What few steps Americans have taken thus far have brought sobering realities to light: a corrupt system unprepared for a pandemic, the sharpening effects of global climate change, and the ways chattel slavery has evolved purposefully and insidiously over time to silence, trap, and murder. But none of this is new, only newly known to the white elite. To Indigenous peoples and inhabitants of island nations, this is not news. To Black and brown people, this is not news. As much as our worlds are changing and eroding in front of our eyes, the violence of oppression remains the same.
So we ask ourselves: how do we create lasting social change? Why do movements and protests spark and then fade to a mere unit in a history textbook? What happened between the 1960s and the current moment? In other words, we want to see the blueprints of a bridge, an architecture for walking from a seemingly pre-apocalyptic world to a better one.
I believe in a diversity of tactics for any movement seeking to effect social change. We could talk strategy, image, and concrete action. We could talk electoral politics, community organizing, and mutual aid. They all play important parts in laying a foundation for revolutionary movements. In the end, however, no matter which way we hope to pull society or how we plan to do so, our tactics must be driven by the radical edge of imagination.
Imagination is the bridge between our current world and our desired one. Without this bridge, it is impossible to walk forward across the chasm of difference. Imagination uses the fantastical, the unreal, to enrich our experiences of reality. In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde writes, “…it is our dreams that point the way to freedom.”
If we allow ourselves to be limited by the rigidity of proven ideas and knowable truths, then we bind ourselves both to our current situation and to loneliness. In “A Body in Pain,” Elaine Scarry writes that pain is “the most vibrant example of what it is to ‘have certainty,’ while … ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt.’” Our own pain isolates us, but by joining with others through empathy and radical reimagining of communal pain, we can drive meaningful social change. Without perception of or respect for what at first seems unreal or unfathomable, we can’t create shared movement. That is not to discredit lived and material experience. After all, dreaming doesn’t put food on the table. However, we organize in order to empower people to balance their daily lives with the desire to come together and imagine better worlds.
Imagination is collective and cross-generational. We live today because of our ancestors who fought hard not knowing if they would ever see the fruits of their struggles. We fight today for things we may never see. Without imagination, we would live singular lives defined and constrained by day to day struggles. With imagination, we have community.
To be clear, imagination is not the same thing as hope. In fact, imagination thrives in the shadow of hope. In her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown writes, “And so hope for me has died one thousand deaths… so I have learned not to fear the death of hope.”. There are things I am not hopeful we will ever achieve in my lifetime: a world where everyone is happy and kind, a world where community takes precedence over corporations, a world where there is no justified anxiety of daily disaster. Yet living in the shadow of hope, as Channing Brown says, is knowing “we may never see the realization of our dreams and yet still showing up” . When hope deserts us, our ability to dream of utopia sustains us.
There are so many things I want. I want to live in a world without prison, without police, without pain, and without fear. I write these words in a city steeped in smoke and falling ashes. In fifty years, I want to have a world to live in at all. These old pains are the truths of our world as it is: movements are built because people show up and imagine our world as it could be. Marginalized peoples are long used to nurturing creativity, anger, and power in the dark. Imagination is illuminative.