One night in East Baltimore, I stood outside an art event exchanging repartee with a local grassroots organizer. It was a typical city night— sounds of robust chatter were roaring, dark colored cars were zooming past, glass bottles were rolling loudly across the cement and dim streetlights were burning steady. It was a lively event where creators, unconventional conversations and abstract wardrobes gathered in mass.
“This is not my world,” he said.
We subtly looked around us. For him it was very simple to quantify us into two distinct worlds: He is an organizer. I am an artist.
“This is your world,” I replied, opening my arms. “You are creative too.”
He briefly turned away and said, “I am not an artist.”
I stood there, bewildered. I have seen his creations. I have seen him execute community plans that are as beautiful as a soul-wrenching poem. I have heard his piquant, eloquent speeches critiquing the Officers Bill of Rights and witnessed his deliberate delegation at protests. So, what is an artist, if not him?
An artist is a creator and a creator is cultivated by imagination. Imagination is the ability to form new images in the mind that are not perceived through the senses. It is imagination that drives the grassroots organizer as much as the funk-spirited musician, prolific poet or late night graphic designer. The grassroots organizer is imagining a better Baltimore each time he wakes up in the morning, checks emails, returns calls and begins the day. He is guided by his unwavering vision. He is moved by art, by creation, by imagination.
I believe that imagination can serve as a powerful tool for political warfare. It is within our creative minds that we can develop alternative realities to strive for. Researchers at Dartmouth College found that imagination is the product of a widespread network of neurons, called the “mental workspace,” that consciously alters images and ideas, and gives us the intense mental focus that we need to come up with solutions to a complex problems. White supremacy is a complex problem. It is sustained through various institutions and thrives off the social construct of race. Race is a human creation — a sort of sinister, capitalistic art project between educators, politicians, scientists and bankers. Is there not creativity in the forces that oppress us?
Once we have understood our conditions, what then? Does one wallow in despair, awaiting a charismatic patriarch of the black movement to make speeches and organize the masses? If we are waiting and depending on an invisible social figure to rise from the ashes of our assassinated black leaders, we will always hinder the vast brilliance of our imagination and ultimately, our liberation.
We are political daydreamers. We should look to our imagination as a source of strength and not a frivolous childish toy that we lost when we left the playground. Do we create America or allow it to create us? If we foster our imagination we will be increasingly more effective in our liberation movements. However, in order to foster our imagination, we must first accept that we are creative. Creativity is not a mysterious gift bestowed upon the fortunate. We are all born as creatives and are trained to deny it. We must reclaim our imagination just as much as we are reclaiming our bodies.
Once we accept we are creative, we can foster our imagination in many mediums. Listen to a story. Visualize a scenario from a new perspective. Create a sacred space filled with objects that inspire you. Take a different way home and look around. Listen to a new genre of music. Spend time reflecting in solitude. Play, draw or make art and lose constraints of time or rules. We have learned this process of creation from our mothers as their wombs were the first canvas in which our portrait was drawn.
The mental trauma from our oppression may make it difficult to battle it. Studies have indicated how imagination can be suppressed when under stressful circumstances. Therefore, it is no longer acceptable for one to passively incite imagination. It is through our imagination that our innovative plans for freedom and equality are formed. The element of possibility that imagination presents will keep us energized in times of hopelessness. Imagination must be strategic as a means of survival.
Imagine: if we, who strayed far, far away from the land of wondering and wandering, began to remember parts of ourselves that colored outside the lines and did not question ourselves until others told us to. What if we remembered creating those silly playtime stories with our toys and used that ability to create counter narratives? What if the strong, bustling imagination we had came back? What if the child that believed ‘anything is possible’ was still with us? Would we fight harder? Smarter? Would our pursuit of freedom have limitations when freedom itself does not? Imagine if we saw artists everywhere – in Annapolis, studios and even in ourselves – and gave ourselves permission to see the impossible. Perhaps, we would not think dismally in the middle of the night whether we are doing enough or anything at all for the movements our time, if we captured our imagination and believed, with all our hearts and imaginative minds, that we could be stronger creators of victory than the creators of destruction.
To the grassroots organizer I spoke to that night: you are an artist.
Artwork by Patrice Murciano