by Darnell L. Moore
I could not sleep on August 10th. The previous day, 18-year old Mike Brown, Jr. was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson. I was haunted by the images of Brown’s bloodied black body left face down on the hot asphalt surface of Canfield Drive in Ferguson for four hours as onlookers, including his mother, mourned.
There was no time to rest in the wake of this neo-lynching spectacle that left so many black people across the country gasping for justice. We couldn’t breathe. So many of us were winded, but alive, unlike Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island in July, a month before Brown was killed.
These deaths were in no way disconnected from the other forms of blue on black crime, vigilante murders and hate crime killings that have ended the lives of black people across the country, from the murder of 19-year old Renisha McBride, 22-year old Jonathan Crawford, 7-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 17-year old Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Akai Gurley, Shantel Davis, Eyricka Morgan, Sakia Gunn and so many others across the country.
If the public has been thrust into this movement for black lives as either active participants or voyeuristic observers, it is because these deaths do not signal a new phenomenon of racial terror. These murders are, in fact, spectacularly mundane effects of an enduring confluence of structural forms of violence that deaden the spirits and bodies of black people in the U.S. People are awake again, however, and yet, this contemporary moment of distress and protest—this iteration of a movement for black lives in anti-black times—is inciting what historian Robin D. G. Kelley has beautifully named “freedom dreams” in his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. It is a moment to dream black futures—futures that require emancipated black imaginations if they are to be conceived and actualized. Futures that demand a route through which we can traverse to finally arrive at an equitable, ALL black lives-loving future. It is that individual and collective, conceptual expanse where black people birth visions and conjure otherworldly insights. It is the space that Kelley names “The Marvelous.”
But “The Marvelous,” depending on who is conceptualizing it, can easily render another terrified. It is important to underscore a point Kelley alludes to; namely, a black imagination that is imprisoned by restrictive ideological systems like heterosexism, heteropatriarchy, transmisogyny, ableism and capitalism will conceive black futures that are liberating for some black people only. Unless all black people are free, none of us are, which is why we must take time to reflect on what it will take to emancipate our imaginations, to allow our imaginations to break free and maroon, to allow our minds to be undone and queered. This dream work is as vital as direct action.
But what does that dream work look like in the lives of black people? Kelley writes in Freedom Dreams “any serious motion toward freedom must begin in the mind.” That is, one must imagine freedom before, or while, one is striving for freedom. It is important to think about the ableist construction of this idea in light of neurodivergent capacities and limitations, however. Beyond the mind and mental capacities as we’ve come to conceive of them, how might freedom be conceived? Yet, if black people’s senses of the world, the state, each other and the self are restricted by the carceral force of anti-blackness, then our freedom dreams will be lurid.
To be black in an anti-black society – in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in the U.S – is to be a commodity fit for liquidation: it is to be already evidenced as not befitting of life; it is to live under surveillance and always positioned as a potential threat; it is living under the conditions of carcerality—of various forms of imprisonment (of our senses of self, of our expressions, of our bodies, of our gender articulations, of our sexualities). How then do we free our imaginations from the lure of anti-black self-think? How might we differently imagine a self, contrary to the ways we are otherwise conceived by the state, by the corporate sector, by religious institutions? How do we become abolitionists of both the prison industry capitalizing on black bodies and the cages restricting the expansive imaginative potential necessary to free our sexual and gendered selves? How do we become abolitionists of the mind?
How might we begin to locate police brutality next to capitalist exploitation of black laborers next to poverty next to housing discrimination next to educational inequity, rape culture, queer and trans antagonism, ableism, citizen-centrism and all else that is aimed at harming black folk when some black people rely on imaginations that don’t see some of these structural violences as violent in the first place? How do we think through and express black sexualities that are not artifacts of years of anti-black conditioning when some black people still believe queer and trans folk, and mothers birthing kids out of wedlock, are hell-bound? How can we theorize black subjectivities, blackness, and black liberation if our intellectual outlook is limited by our own unchecked biases? To liberate our selves, our bodies, our desires, our politics, our intellectual and cultural projects, and our communities we must employ a decolonized Black imagination.
This work is more difficult than calling out oppressive practices, engaging in policy change or leading community organizing efforts because it requires self-analysis or, what my students aptly termed, “internal abolition.” It is never easy to locate oneself in the matrix of oppression only to discover one’s feet or wheelchair wheels are squarely placed on the necks of some other.
When Mike Brown was killed I received a text from my friend Darius Clark Monroe. It was 4 am. His text read, “I can’t sleep. I am mad as hell. I wanna do something.” We made a decision to organize a ride to Ferguson after about five minutes of venting over text. This mere idea, a dream conceived in the midst of despondency and righteous indignation, was the seed for what would become the Black Lives Matter Ride to Ferguson co-organized by myself and Patrisse Cullors (who, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometti, created #BlackLivesMatter).
We worked virtually with a team of organizers and planners from across the country. We lacked resources even though people like Monica Dennis, Tamara Lewis, James Roane, and Wendy Palacios worked nearly full-time over the course of two weeks to organize a contemporary Freedom Ride to Ferguson. Our aims were simple: we were committed to showing up to build alongside the people of St. Louis. More than 500 people drove from places across the country and many traveled internationally. Groups arrived on buses and vans from LA, Atlanta, Tennessee, NYC, Boston, North Carolina, Toronto and elsewhere. We wanted to bring our gifts and energies to a local movement without being additional distractions to their work, and we envisioned the gathering as a queer collective of bodies. We were determined to center the most marginalized black folk among us and reiterated constantly that this gathering would not be the place where people would experience invisibility. How could it be when one of the national organizers was a black cisgender queer woman and the other was a black cisgender queer man?
This black freedom gathering would be freeing, we insisted, and yet, we were forced to accept a valid critique at its end: our black trans* sisters told us it took immense courage for them to show up in spaces dominated by black cisgender people and structured by cisnormative ideas. They reminded us about the violent nature of cis-dominated spaces, and that black trans* women were dying at alarming rates, often at the hands of cisgender black men. They questioned our commitment to true inclusion if, in fact, the lead planning group lacked black trans* representation.
And they were right; our imagining of a radical black gathering for liberation was myopic; it was restricted by our inadvertent focus on liberation through the imagination of cisgender people. As a result, our mission was shaded by a lack of attention to the specificities of black trans* experiences and a restricted black collective imaginary that ended up being a freedom gathering which left some of the black people in attendance feeling less free.
This experience is one of many that have pushed me to consider a few questions: Which black lives matter in black collectivities? Which black people figure in our individual and collective imaginations? And whose bodies do we envision being present and liberated, empowered and dispossessed in our black futures? These are not rhetorical questions; they are political. And yet, there are often few spaces where we can think through the complex responses because, as Kelley suggests, “there are very few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.”
The black imagination is powerful because through it we birth new ways of being, new social relations, new worlds and new futures; however, these futures can easily reek of the old. We must envision and build black queer futures. Borrowing from José Muñoz, who theorized queerness as that which is “not yet here”—as a utopia conceived as a consequence of collective strivings against the otherwise impossible and normative ways of being in the world – I insist that the black imagination must also be used to dream that which is not yet. It must be used to deny normativity its power. Black imagination requires nothing less than a transgressive counter-hegemonic force if it is to bring about a future of true liberation.
Darnell L. Moore is a senior editor at Mic and co-managing editor at The Feminist Wire. He writes and talks shit from his stoop in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, NY. And organizes with Black Lives Matter.
This piece is composed of portions of talks given at Columbia and Northwestern Universities in 2015.