I, along with many fellow students and colleagues, had the pleasure of hearing Angela Davis speak at Seattle University last week. Her lecture titled “Power to the People! Power to the Imagination!” drew the most diverse crowd of community members, students (high school, college, graduate), faculty, staff I have ever seen at a university event. I have long revered Angela as a beacon of hope for Black and many other communities, and was honored to see and meet her for the second time.
I am still processing all of what I heard and saw last Thursday evening, and there isn’t enough time in the world. What stands out to me most is her call to the imagination and empowering us to envision and create a better world. Angela and countless other activists knew that vision was not enough. It is not only the imagination that we need to captivate in ourselves, youth, friends, family, students, and colleagues, but also empathy and action. So how do we go about that?
Often the responses I hear from students and colleagues when attempting to engage in the messy work of social justice are along the lines of: “But I didn’t own slaves,” or, “It happened so long ago. If we just stopped talking about it, it would go away.” But what Angela reminds us is that slavery was never abolished, but rather shape-shifted. “It” has not gone away precisely because we do not talk about it enough, or see dialogue as the end point rather than collective action.
It is difficult for our students – particularly those with large amounts of privilege – to imagine circumstances outside of their own. Some of what Angela spoke to we already know in student development – encouraging students to surround themselves with diverse groups of people. If I surround myself only with White, heterosexual, temporarily able-bodied, U.S.-citizen, English speaking people, what other realities would I be able to imagine? Whose perspectives and experiences would I most empathize with?
I believe that the most important work to be done in social justice is intimately understanding our multiple identities and their intersectionality. Where do we individually fit in this imagining of a better world? Perhaps the most difficult part – and this is where I often run into road blocks with students and colleagues – is imagining ourselves as the oppressor. We resist this because we often associate oppression with individual acts of prejudice and hatred rather than our unconscious participation in system injustices. We cannot begin to dismantle systems like the prison industrial complex without understanding our place as both privileged and marginalized people.
Another challenge to dismantling oppressive systems lies in the fact that something – most often privilege and status – has to be lost in the creation of a more equitable society. Opponents of affirmative action practices and so-called “government handouts” feel that they are being forced to give up their rights for the privileging of another. But something has always been given up in the struggle for equitable rights – something difficult for those already born with all the resources and privileges needed for survival. Life and ways of life have been given up in civil rights. Hundreds and thousands of people have literally risked and given their lives to causes. What am we willing to sacrifice in my imagination of a more equitable world?
Many of us born with ancestral memories and traumas have both the personal and collective imagination Angela spoke about. It is in the nightmares of the Klan that frequent my sleep, and the sounds of shackles I hear that sound eerily like prison chains. My imagination has produced images of violence and suffering both in my dreams and wandering, awake mind. But it has also produced things of beauty – music and story, hopes of a better personal and collective future. What visions do we hold for the future?
I move beyond imagination and toward action– simply by showing up in full authenticity of exactly who I am. As Angela shared, we are sitting together not only because ancestors, grandparents, and imaginers of all creeds and colors imagined it, but because they devoted their lives to creating the conditions they imagined. What imagined dream are you committed to actualizing in this life?
– MJ Jones