Imagine in Black

What we call ourselves they have
no names for. – Melvin Dixon, “Keeping Time”

I want to begin with a repetition within African American and, more broadly, Afro-diasporic letters.

In the last decade something beyond the watch and guard of statistics has happened in the life of the American Negro and the three norns who have traditionally presided over the Negro problem have a changeling in their laps. The Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race-Leader are not unaware of the New Negro, but they are at a loss to account for him. He simply cannot be swathed in their fomulæ. (Alain Locke, “The New Negro,” 1925)

All these things which sociologists think they can find out and haven’t managed to do, which no chart can tell us. People are not, though in our age we seem to think so, endlessly manipulable. We seem to think that once one has discovered that thirty thousand, let us say, Negroes, Chinese or Puerto Ricans or whatever have syphilis or don’t, or are unemployed or not, that we’ve discovered something about the Negroes, Chinese or Puerto Ricans. But in fact, this is not so. In fact, we’ve discovered nothing very useful because people cannot be handled in that way. (James Baldwin, “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” 1960)

The rhetoric of singular discovery, of revelation, of definition is one of the conceptual tools by which dominant discourses repeatedly suggest that there is no broad ranging field of events informing the marginal. This is true of science fiction versus the pervasive field of literature; art as compared to social labor; blacks as a marginal social group to a central field of whites; and gay sexuality as marginal to a heterosexual norm. That rhetoric becomes part of the way the marginal is trivialized, distorted, and finally oppressed. For what is wrong with all these seemingly innocent questions—which include, alas, “When did you come out?”—is that each tends to assume that the individual’s subjective field is one with the field of social statistics. (Samuel Delany, “Coming/Out,” 1999)

Why do each of these black gay men—categories that I want to do some work—insist on the limitations of “statistics”? How are we to read this insistence, given that we live in an era of what Kathleen Woodward has brilliantly described as that of “statistical panic”?:

Statistical panic: fatally we feel that a certain statistic, which is in fact based on an aggregate and is only a measure of probability, represents our very future—or the future of someone we love. We may deny such a number. But it is clear that a specific body statistic can drastically color our very lives. (Statistical Panic)

Woodward is interested in how we act and react to a “measure of probability,” how “aggregate” numbers inhabit our emotional lives and shape our practices. At this point, it might be that I’m orangeing apples and appleing oranges, and this might be so. I’m interested, though, in why the three figures I cite above and others—Blyden, Du Bois, Hemphill—insist on noting the limitations of “statistics” in what are related, but also quite distinct, historical periods. And, more precisely, I’m interested in how they foreground the labor of imaginative work: how they imagine in black.

Here is Baldwin: “Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world” (“The Discovery of what it means to be an American,” 1961). It seems elementary to say that futures must be imagined, that dreams sustain our labor. But this, I suspect, is not quite so elementary. In dystopic fiction, oppressive forces attempt to control dreams, acknowledging the danger of an imagination that can contemplate a different kind of world: dream management is a major function of all oppressive systems, which use their bureaucratic apparatus to render dreaming impossible. Thus, one is offered a narrow range of ways to imagine one’s future: I’m thinking here of the forms I received in high school that offered a range of about 20 careers and encouraged me to choose my life’s path, as though I knew what I was doing at 17!

I’m also thinking about the problem-solution model that structures so much NGO work: striving to remain practical, it forecloses imaginative labor. One is encouraged to imagine oneself “not sick” and “not poor” and “not uneducated” and “not oppressed.” Cessation becomes the goal. Rarely, if ever, is one urged to imagine a life beyond the cessation of injury. Rarely is one encouraged to fantasize about the seemingly unrealizable. Indeed, much NGO rhetoric repeats the all-too frequent injunction I heard as a primary school student: “be realistic.” To be realistic was to refuse the flights of fantasy that imagined a different kind of world. Our task was to “manage” in the world we had or to survive in the world made for us. To be realistic was to accept that the world was given and we were to live in it, never to transform it.

We could not think besides what existed, unless it was to aspire to be like other spaces. This continues today: we want to have call centers like those in India; we want our tourism to be like Singapore’s; we want our oil to be like Nigeria’s. And so on. We want “development” to be “like” somewhere else, somewhere “developed.” And while some of these goals, perhaps all, are incredibly ambitious, I am struck by how short-sighted they seem. Where is the wild thinking? The innovation? The worlds we fear to imagine? Why, instead, do we have “scenarios” of what “might happen” couched in the most “realistic” of ways: we will have violence or we will not have violence. What happens when our thinking stagnates, making it impossible to think beyond need, pain, hurt, injury, and cessation?

If my geographies have shifted, and they have, it is because I want to think about what imagining in black might be: the particular and peculiar way that black imagining is so often managed, so often maligned, so often truncated. And the way that black subjects too often take up these truncated possibilities as their only possibilities. Yes, one wants hurt to stop. But that can’t be the only thing.

What I’ve taken to calling the problem-solution model—central to NGO work across Africa and to certain political imaginings in the U.S.—is, I think, a model of dream-management. It arrests any sense that the world might be otherwise by insisting on “fixing” what’s broken, refusing to contemplate that truncated imaginations and frustrated fantasies are also problems. And because I’m frustrated by what I think of as “report realism,” that mode of writing that understands the literary as being in service to the NGO-defined reality, I’ve been turning to SF more recently. Delany captures what interest me: “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”

How might something called “afro-futurism,” in all its various manifestations—in sound, in vision, in narrative, in film, in poetry—provide the grounds for a different kind of imagining in black, beyond, besides, and around the reach and pull of the statistical imagination? And, given the very biased sample with which I started, three black gay men, how might something called afro-futurism be a peculiarly and particularly queer project, a way that queerness can re-frame the black imagination?

I have no answers: but I’m excited by work being done by Kara Keeling, Tavia Nyong’o, Jayna Brown and others that will extend the labor of the black imagination, framing it in new ways, opening up new possibilities, teaching us to imagine more, imagine better, imagine in black.

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