Author: Marii Herlinger, WPJC Intern
Imagine a world where Trayvon Martin was offered a ride home instead.
This sentence stopped me in my tracks last week. I found it in the last line of a poem (the author of which I was unable to find despite careful internet combing) and it took me several days to realize that these twelve short words hold the key to an abolitionist future.
The longer I have the privilege of learning about and working toward peace and justice, the more convinced I am of the power of imagination and joy in creating a future of liberation. James Baldwin writes: “in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.” Angela Davis echoes this by saying “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Assata Shakur writes: “part of being a revolutionary is creating a vision that is more humane. That is more fun, too. That is more loving. It’s really working to create something beautiful.” And Audre Lord describes the “joy in living” as “one of our most potent weapons.” At the intersection of all of these quotes, from four essential American voices, is the notion that joy and imagination play an integral role in the movement for peace and justice.
Imagining a world where Trayvon Martin could have been offered a ride home instead — and, in turn, imagining a world without police — requires us to envision a world we’ve never lived in. And this act, of striving for a future which we have never tasted, can only be sustained if its source is positive — if its source is joy. My sister and I often distinguish between the songs we like and the songs we love by asking each other whether the song “fills us up” when we listen to it. In these moments, we are recognizing music as a source from which joy springs and sustains us.
I am learning that it’s not only a healthy personal practice to “follow your delight,” as adrienne maree brown would say (here is a link to a Black-owned book supplier selling brown’s book “Emergent Strategy,” about how joy intersects with social activism), but it is in fact a critical element of effective resistance. In the same way that anger and individualism are drains to the soul, joy and collectivism are powerful nourishment.
Applying this to the current canvas of political and social activity, at the same time that the struggle for Black lives is receiving a record level of national and international attention, it also seems to be exhibiting many signs of a social media trend. And in the middle of a pandemic, our streets and physical workplaces — historically common sites of social change — have undergone rapid obsolescence. So how do we create a movement which grows in strength despite this time of social distancing? One which survives our waning attention spans and the grab-and-go design of internet culture? How do we open up a third space, necessitated by a pandemic and the inability to gather, where imagination and joy are the pillars of our interaction?
When I say that our source of resistance must be positive, I’m not talking about positivity as a personality trait. I’m not saying you have to be or act happy all the time. Grief, rage, and discouragement have important places in this work, too. I’m saying that in order to engage in the work of worldmaking, we must allow ourselves to be continually revitalized by that which fills us up. (Within the movement, Black folks are expected to achieve this while simultaneously fighting for their basic rights — white people must remember this when we think we're experiencing burnout from the work.) Adrienne maree brown names some of these sources of joy: good sex, delicious food, a fulfilling community, life’s small coincidences, and love. At the center of revolutionary power is radical love. And in a capitalist system where we are taught to look out for ourselves first and foremost, love in essentially any form is already radical.
I wanted to write about joy, imagination and love during this critical time when the movement for Black lives has gained more momentum than I have ever seen in my lifetime. It seems that much of the activism currently trending only emphasizes concrete action steps, such as donating, attending protests, reading books, watching documentaries, etcetera. While these are no doubt crucial, it feels important to me to also reflect on the more abstract needs of a revolution. White supremacy culture values objectivity, overworking, and neglecting self-care — joy interrupts that. White supremacy culture encourages power-hoarding, defensiveness, and the idea that there is only one right way — imagination interrupts that. White supremacy culture teaches us to be individualistic, self-serving, and distrustful of each other — love interrupts that. Therefore, joy, imagination and love are revolutionary tools which actively defy capitalism and white supremacy. They are not merely helpful but essential ingredients for a new and better world — ingredients which Black theorists, activists, women and trans women have been using for centuries.
When James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis and Audre Lord wrote the words I quoted above, they were living in times that required them to imagine a world that then seemed unattainable. We have since heroized them for believing in the “impossible,” but they were never doing that alone. Their work was grounded in a collective vision, along with many people who may never have risen to fame but who were crucial in bringing us to the world we live in today. And, right now, we are being called into a movement that requires the same collective and constant (re)imagining that characterized the transformative epochs in which these people lived.
Many of us, if we are white, are new to the concept of prison and police abolition. We must remember that Black organizers and activists have been envisioning it for a long time out of necessity. None of us have lived in a world without police (yet), so it is difficult to imagine what that world might look like. But, as Baldwin suggested, belief in the impossible must be a daily exercise. And, after all, how do we get good at anything? By practicing it constantly. We must rise each morning convinced by the viability of a future where our brothers and sisters and siblings aren’t being murdered in the streets. We must practice joy, practice imagination, practice love. In doing so, we free ourselves, and each other.
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