Over time, the subjects of my books, as well as my own political experience, taught me that things are not what they seem, and that the desires, hopes, and intentions of the people who fought for change cannot be easily categorized, contained, or explained. Unfortunately, too often our standards for evaluating social movements pivot around whether or not they “succeeded” in realizing their visions rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves. By such a measure, virtually every radical movement failed because the basic power relations it sought to change remain pretty much intact. And yet it is precisely those alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change.
How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? How do we transcend bitterness and cynicism, and embrace love, hope, and an all-encompassing dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?
Rough times, indeed. I witnessed the World Trade Center go down from my bedroom window. Bombs have rained down on the people of Afghanistan and unknown numbers of innocent people have died, from either weapons of mass destruction or starvation. Violence will only generate more violence; the carnage has just begun. Now more than ever, we need the strength to love and to dream. Instead of knee-jerk flag-waving and submission to any act of repression in the name of “national interests,” the nation ought to consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision and take a cue from the movement that proved to be the source of his most fertile ideas.
The civil-rights movement demanded freedom for all and believed that it had to win through love and moral suasion. Those committed to the philosophy of nonviolence saw their suffering as redemptive. The very heart of the movement, the extraordinary Southern black folks who stood nobly in the face of police dogs and water cannons and white mobs and worked as hard as they could to love their enemy were poised to become the soul of a soulless nation, according to Dr. King.
Imagine if that soul were to win out, if the movement’s vision of freedom were completely to envelop the nation’s political culture. Democracy in the United States has not always embraced everyone, and we have a long history to prove it, from slavery and “Indian wars” to the 2000 presidential election. Indeed, the marginal and excluded have done the most to make democracy work in America. And some of the radical movements have done awful things in the name of liberation, often under the premise that the ends justify the means. Communists, black nationalists, third-world-liberation movements — all left us stimulating and even visionary sketches of what the future could be, but they have also been complicit in acts of violence and oppression, through either their actions or their silence. No one’s hands are completely clean.
And yet to drone on about how oppressed we are or to merely chronicle the crimes of radical movements doesn’t seem very useful. I’d like to begin an effort to recover ideas by looking at the visions fashioned mainly by those marginalized black activists who proposed a different way out of our constrictions. I’m not suggesting that we wholly embrace their ideas or strategies as the foundation for new movements; on the contrary, my main point is that we must tap the well of our own collective imaginations, that we do what earlier generations have done: Dream.
My mother has a tendency to dream out loud. I think it has something to do with her regular morning meditation. In the quiet darkness of her bedroom, her third eye opens onto a new world, a beautiful, light-filled place as peaceful as her state of mind. When I was growing up, she never had to utter a word to describe her inner peace; like morning sunlight, it radiated out to everyone in her presence. Her other two eyes never let her forget where we lived. The cops, drug dealers, social workers, the rusty tap water, the roaches and rodents, the urine-scented hallways, and the piles of garbage were constant reminders that our world began and ended in a battered Harlem/Washington Heights tenement apartment on 157th and Amsterdam.
Yet she would not allow us to live as victims. Instead, we were a family of caretakers who inherited this earth. We were expected to help any living creature in need, even if that meant giving up our last piece of bread. Strange, needy people always passed through our house, occasionally staying for long stretches of time. We were expected to stand apart from the crowd and befriend the misfits, to embrace the kids who stuttered, smelled bad, or had holes in their clothes. My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free — in the patterns of a stray bird feather, in a Hudson River sunset, in the view from our fire escape, in the stories she told us, in the way she sang Gershwin’s “Summertime,” in a curbside rainbow created by the alchemy of motor oil and water from an open hydrant.
She simply wanted us to live through our third eyes, to see life as possibility. She wanted us to imagine a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstructed. She wanted us to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives. She wanted us to visualize a more expansive, fluid, “cosmospolitan” definition of blackness, to teach us that we are not merely inheritors of a culture but its makers.
So with her eyes wide open, my mother dreamed and dreamed some more, describing what life could be for us. She wasn’t talking about a postmortem world, some kind of heaven or afterlife; and she was not speaking of reincarnation (which she believes in, by the way). She dreamed of land, a spacious house, fresh air, organic food, and endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism … just free.
She never talked about how we might create such a world, nor had she connected her vision to any political ideology. But she convinced my siblings and me that change is possible. The idea that we could possibly go somewhere that exists only in our imaginations — that is, nowhere — is the classic definition of utopia. Call me utopian, but I inherited my mother’s belief that the map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than in the desolation that surrounds us.
Now that I look back with hindsight, my writing and the kind of politics to which I’ve been drawn have had more to do with imagining a different future than with being pissed off about the present. Not that I haven’t been angry, frustrated, and critical of the misery created by race, gender, and class oppression — past and present. That goes without saying. But the dream of a new world, my mother’s dream, was the catalyst for my own political engagement.
I came to black nationalism filled with idealistic dreams of a communal society free of all oppressions, a world where we owned the land and shared the wealth, and white folks were out of sight and out of mind. It was what I imagined precolonial Africa to be. Sure, I was naive, still in my teens, but my imaginary portrait, derived from the writings of Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture, and others, gave me a sense of hope and possibility about what a postcolonial Africa could look like.
Very quickly, I learned that the old past wasn’t as glorious, peaceful, or communal as I had thought — though I still believe that it was many times better than what we found when we got to the Americas. The stories from the former colonies — whether Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, Idi Amin’s Uganda, or Forbes Burnham’s Guyana — dashed most of my expectations about what it would take to achieve real freedom.
In college, like all the other neophyte revolutionaries influenced by events in southern Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Cuba and Grenada, I studied third-world liberation movements and post-emancipation societies in the hope of discovering different visions of freedom born out of the circumstances of struggle. I looked in vain for glimmers of a new society, in the “liberated zones” of Portugal’s African colonies during the wars of independence, in Maurice Bishop’s “New Jewel” movement in Grenada, in Guyana’s tragically short-lived 19th-century communal villages, in the brief moment when striking workers of Congo-Brazzaville momentarily seized state power and were poised to establish Africa’s first workers’ state. Granted, all those movements crashed against the rocks, wrecked by various internal and external forces, but they left behind at least some kind of vision, however fragmented or incomplete, of what they wanted the world to look like.
Like most of my comrades active in the early days of the Reagan era, I turned to Marxism for the same reasons I looked to the third world. The misery of the proletariat (lumpen and otherwise) proved less interesting and less urgent than the promise of revolution. I was attracted to “small-c” communism because, in theory, it sought to harness technology to solve human needs, give us less work and more leisure, and free us all to create, invent, explore, love, relax, and enjoy life without want of the basic necessities of life.
I fell in love with the young Marx of The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, the visionary Marx who predicted the abolition of all exploitative institutions. I followed young Marx, via the late English historian Edward P. Thompson, to those romantic renegade socialists, like William Morris, who wanted to break with all vestiges of capitalist production and rationalization. Morris was less concerned with socialist efficiency than with transforming social relations and constructing new, free, democratic communities built on, as Thompson put it, “the ethic of cooperation, the energies of love.”
There are very few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.
The socialists, utopian and scientific, had little to say about that, so my search for an even more elaborate, complete dream of freedom forced me to take a more imaginative turn. Thanks to many wonderful chance encounters, I discovered Surrealism, not so much in the writings and doings of André Breton or Louis Aragon or other leaders of the Surrealist movement that emerged in Paris after World War I, but under my nose, so to speak, buried in the rich, black soil of Afro-diasporic culture.
In it I found a most miraculous weapon with no birth date, no expiration date, no trademark. I traced the Marvelous from the ancient practices of maroon societies and shamanism back to the future, to the metropoles of Europe, to the blues people of North America, to the colonized and semicolonized world that produced the likes of Aimé and Suzanne Césaire and Wifredo Lam. The Surrealists not only taught me that any serious motion toward freedom must begin in the mind, but they also have given us some of the most imaginative, expansive, and playful dreams of a new world I have ever known. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine but an international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought. Members of the Surrealist Group in Madrid, for example, see their work as an intervention in life rather than as literature, a protracted battle against all forms of oppression that aims to replace “suspicion, fear, and anger with curiosity, adventure, and desire.” The Surrealists are talking about total transformation of society, not just granting aggrieved populations greater political and economic power. They are speaking of new social relationships, new ways of living and interacting, new attitudes toward work and leisure and community.
In that respect, they share much with radical feminists, whose revolutionary vision has extended into every aspect of social life. Radical feminists have taught us that there is nothing natural or inevitable about gender roles, male dominance, the overrepresentation of men in positions of power, or the tendency of men to use violence as a means to resolve conflict. Radical feminists of color, in particular, have revealed how race, gender, and class work together to subordinate most of society and complicate easy notions of universal sisterhood or biological arguments that establish men as the universal enemy.
Like all the other movements that caught my attention, radical feminism, as well as the ideas emerging out of the lesbian and gay movements, proved attractive not simply for their critiques but also for their freedom dreams.
Black intellectuals associated with each of those movements not only imagined a different future, but, in many instances, their emancipatory vision proved more radical and inclusive than what their compatriots proposed. Those renegade black intellectuals/activists/artists challenged and reshaped communism, Surrealism, and radical feminism, and in so doing produced brilliant theoretical insights that might have pushed the movements in new directions. In most cases, however, the critical visions of black radicals were held at bay, if not completely marginalized.
My purpose is to reopen a very old conversation about what kind of world we want to struggle for. I am not addressing those traditional leftists who have traded in their dreams for orthodoxy and sectarianism. Most of those folks are hopeless, I’m sad to say. And they will be the first to dismiss me as utopian, idealistic, and romantic. Instead, I’m speaking to anyone bold enough still to dream, especially young people who are growing up in what the critic Henry Giroux perceptively calls “the culture of cynicism” — young people whose dreams have been utterly co-opted by the marketplace.
In a world where so many youth believe that “getting paid” and living ostentatiously was the goal of the black-freedom movement, there is little space to even discuss building a radical democratic public culture. Too many young people really believe that is the best we can do. Young faces, however, have been popping up en masse at the antiglobalization demonstrations beginning in Seattle in 1999, and the success of the college antisweatshop campaign No Sweat owes much of its success to a growing number of radicalized students. The Black Radical Congress, launched in 1997, has attracted hundreds of activists under age 25, as did the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. So there is hope.
The question remains: What are today’s young activists dreaming about? We know what they are fighting against, but what are they fighting for? Those are crucial questions, for the most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism, where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do. Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge.
While that may seem obvious, I am increasingly surrounded by well-meaning students who want to be activists but exhibit anxiety about doing intellectual work. They often differentiate between the two, positioning activism and intellectual work as inherently incompatible. They speak of the “real” world as some concrete wilderness overrun with violence and despair, and the university as if it were some sanitized sanctuary distant from actual people’s lives and struggles.
At the other extreme, I have had students argue that the problems facing “real people” today can be solved by merely bridging the gap between our superior knowledge and people outside the ivy walls who simply do not have access to that knowledge. Unwitting advocates of a kind of “talented tenth” ideology of racial uplift, their stated goal is to “reach the people” with more “accessible” knowledge, to carry back to the ‘hood the information that folks need to liberate themselves. While it is heartening to see young people excited about learning and cognizant of the political implications of knowledge, it worries me when they believe that simply “droppin’ science” on the people will generate new, liberatory social movements.
I am convinced that the opposite is true: Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression. The great works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Franz Boas, Oliver Cox, and many others were invariably shaped by social movements as well as social crises such as the proliferation of lynching and the rise of fascism. Similarly, gender analysis was brought to us by the feminist movement, not simply by the individual genius of the Grimké sisters or Anna Julia Cooper, Simone de Beauvoir, or Audre Lorde.
Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors, and, more important, enable us to imagine a new society. We must remember that the conditions and the very existence of social movements enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way. It is that imagination, that effort to see the future in the present, that I call “poetry” or “poetic knowledge.”
Recovering the poetry of social movements, however, particularly the poetry that dreams of a new world, is not such an easy task. For obvious reasons, what we are against tends to take precedence over what we are for, which is always a more complicated and ambiguous matter. It is a testament to the legacies of oppression that opposition is so frequently contained, or that efforts to find “free spaces” for articulating or even realizing our dreams are so rare and marginalized.
Another problem, of course, is that such dreaming is often suppressed and policed not only by our enemies but also by leaders of social movements themselves. The utopian visions of male nationalists or so-called socialists often depend on the suppression of women, of youth, of gays and lesbians, of people of color. Desire can be crushed by so-called revolutionary ideology. I don’t know how many times self-proclaimed leftists talk of universalizing “working-class culture,” focusing only on what they think is uplifting and politically correct but never paying attention to, say, the ecstatic.
I remember attending a conference in Vermont about the future of socialism, where a bunch of us got into a fight with an older generation of white leftists who proposed replacing retrograde “pop” music with the revolutionary “working class” music of Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, pre-electric Bob Dylan, and songs from the Spanish Civil War. And there I was, comically screaming at the top of my lungs, “No way! After the revolution, we STILL want Bootsy! That’s right, we want Bootsy! We need the funk!”
Sometimes I think the conditions of daily life, of everyday oppressions, of survival, not to mention the temporary pleasures accessible to most of us, render much of our imagination inert. We are constantly putting out fires, responding to emergencies, finding temporary refuge, all of which make it difficult to see anything other than the present.
Despite having spent a decade and a half writing about radical social movements, I am only just beginning to see what has animated, motivated, and knitted together those gatherings of aggrieved folks. I have come to realize that once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom and love lie at the very heart of the matter. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that freedom and love constitute the foundation for spirituality, another elusive and intangible force with which few scholars of social movements have come to terms. That insight was always there in the movements I’ve studied, but I was unable to see it, acknowledge it, or bring it to the surface. I hope to offer here a beginning.