"Imagination is the battlefield," Eddie Glaude said before we'd even reached the car. I had picked up the Princeton professor for a reading earlier this year, not knowing what to expect. He treated me like an old friend from the first handshake, asked how things were in Charleston, and then began talking about the imaginative constraints we place on ourselves, limiting our lives and our vision.
He was talking about Shelley, of course, referencing the great Romantic's "In Defence of Poetry," published posthumously 176 years ago. Shelley believed that it was our imagination more than our reason that made us fully human. "Reason," he wrote, "is the Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance." In other words, reason is only fleeting while imagination grounds and drives us. But it is a battlefield, as Professor Glaude said.
In his book, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, one of my top reads of 2016, Glaude writes of how our imaginations are all too often constrained and inhibited by our patterns and habits. In particular, Glaude calls out our racial habits as things we have gotten used to, even if they represent a failure of the imagination. We learn our habits, he says, "not by way of overt racism but through the details of daily life, like when we experience the differences in the quality of schools we attend, the different nature of our interactions with the police, the different ways we navigate where we work, our different neighborhoods, and the daily barrage of signals and cues about race that all Americans get through television and in news reports." It's a vivid description of life in our country, but also in our city. I have never lived anyplace where the lines are so stark, the boundaries so clear.
On my first day visiting Charleston many years ago, I took a short walk in a straight line. I moved across the peninsula from the Cooper River toward the Ashley. As I walked, the strangest thing happened. For several blocks the homes were beautiful antebellum structures with horse-drawn carriages of mostly white tourists clopping past. Then for a block or two the homes were run down and all the people on the sidewalk were black. Some boys were playing soccer in the street. I greeted them and they picked up their ball and ran away. I continued walking and the scene changed again. Back to restored homes and mostly white people. I remember stopping on the sidewalk and wondering what had just happened. I couldn't imagine it had been real. White. Then black. Then white again. To be fair, I have lived in many cities, all of them with degrees of distance between people, but this was different. My first walk around town was an exercise in racial habits and invisible boundaries.
Glaude tells us our habits are formed by the social world in which we live. We internalize these habits and then fall into rather unimaginative roles. I know he would agree that we then project what we have learned back out into the world again. The invisible lines I crossed on that walk years ago were real enough, but they didn't come from the natural order of things, they came from a colonial mindset, a racist past, and the original sin of our founding on the premise that some people and lives were worth more and others worth less. Black lives weren't valued equally at the beginning of this country. Black lives weren't valued equally when the Constitution was written. Black lives weren't valued equally during the Civil Rights Movement. And in a very real way black lives still aren't valued equally. Just think of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, or any name from the endless litany. Yet this devaluing of people is all a mental invention, the product of a narrow and fearful imagination. Or rather a lack of imagination altogether.
The truth is that it doesn't have to be like this. If imagination is the battlefield, then we already inhabit it. As we live our painful trials, waiting for Michael Slager to be tried again and watching while Dylann Roof sits in court, we, of all people, know the anguish wrought when our imaginations fail. So much remains the same in South Carolina, recent flag lowerings aside. De facto segregation is painfully present in our schools, neighborhoods, social circles, and conversations. And it will be this way until we dare to imagine something different. Until we let this unreasonable arrangement submit to the dream of what still could be, like policies and programs that begin to invest in all parts of our community equally and begin to value all citizens the same. We're a long way from such an arrangement. All of the invisible lines remain.
But if imagination really is the battlefield, maybe in the year to come we should stop settling for the way things are. Can you imagine what would happen if we did?