Why “Black Imagination” is so necessary

Artists Natasha Marin and Imani Sims are among the curators of “Black Imagination: The States of Matter” at Core Gallery. (Photo by Erika Schultz.)

Black people are not experiencing the black imagination, says artist Natasha Marin. Our lives have been colonized by white imagination.

“We are like pawns in the white imagination, whereas in the black imagination we are creators, we’re gods, we can invent entire worlds, universes, philosophies, ways of relating to one another. We can explore us,” she said.

That exploration is at the center of “Black Imagination: The States of Matter,” a multimedia arts exploration curated by Marin and fellow artists Imani Sims, Rachael Ferguson and Amber Flame. The exhibit features the work of dozens of black-identified creative people working across disciplines.

The participants were asked three questions that form the seeds from which “Black Imagination” blooms: What is your origin story? How do you heal yourself? Describe or imagine a world where you are safe, valued and loved.

Marin was shocked at how uncomfortable those questions made many of the participants.

“Why did they come back to me and say, ‘Well I had like three back-to-back panic attacks while I faced these three questions,’” she asked. “I can’t even tell you what it feels like to hear that a question like, ‘How do you heal yourself?’ would send a black person into a panic. That is precisely why I am doing this project.”

“I’m definitely not trying to trigger someone or make them upset, but engaging the black imagination does mean sort of departing from what we experience,” Marin said.

“Black Imagination” is a return of focus for Marin.

Almost two years ago, Marin started the Reparations.me project. In a Facebook post she invited white people in her community to assess their privilege and attempt to offer money and other assistance directly to people in their communities.

The Facebook post quickly took on a life of its own and gained international notoriety. Marin has spent the last 600 days attempting to help people get what they need.

“Being inundated with the inequity that exists and the concrete reality of the discrepancy in the lives of people of color, especially black people and the lives of the people who identify as white has take a lot of like an emotional toll on me,” she said. “‘Black Imagination’ for me is about restoring my love of what I already loved which was black people, storytelling, creativity, but really re-characterizing us as not struggling.”

“‘Black Imagination’ is my personal reparation for ‘Reparations,’” Marin said.

Imagination is a tool with many uses. “Black Imagination” now is focused on healing and imagining blackness in safe spaces, it began with a darker and more complicated exploration of “what-if.”

Marin and Sims were scheduled to be guests on Bill Radke’s radio show on KUOW for an interview about choosing to be or not be a parent, and the segment that preceded theirs featured white police officers talking about Charleena Lyles, a woman who was shot and killed last year by a Seattle police officer.

“We were listening to the sound of these white men discuss the murder of this black woman and we kind of turned to each other and started speaking at the same time. And we were wondering, we were just tasting, just dipping the tip of our tongues in the vast abyss of what it might be like to imagine the world in where in which there was an eye for an eye, which is the great white fear, you know, of retaliation,” Marin said to me — naming the thing that is rarely spoken aloud or in mixed company.

I understand where she is coming from. In my mind the opening chords of Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny” begin to play.

The song tells the story of a black woman working in a coastal flop house who is secretly a pirate waiting for her ship to arrive so she can kill all the white people who wronged her. The first time I heard the song, it freaked me out.  For many years of my life I considered myself both a pacifist and a Christian. “Pirate Jenny” is definitely not a turn-the-other cheek type of tune.

But I have spent years watching law enforcement and other “authorities” kill people who look like me and then having to pray my way through getting up to go to work the day after another acquittal. My belly filled with unspent grief and what bell hooks would call a “killing rage.” “Pirate Jenny” no longer sounds so radical. She sounds practically rational.

And that is terrifying, the way in which being inundated with toxic and fatal racism can begin to erode your own sense of humanity.

“And when we started going down this path we got scared,” Marin said. “We were scaring ourselves as black people even imagining what it would look like if black people did to white people what had already happened to us, but like the internalized oppression is so distinctly embedded in us that we couldn’t even bear ourselves privately, in our own minds, to go into what that might look like.”

So they turned away from that view of the world.

“We got kind of disgusted,” said Marin. “And we decided that what is more appealing and what is more generative is to think in terms of a state beyond whiteness. So that was the real launch point for ‘Black Imagination.’”

But what does that even look like?

This seems to be a question that many black folks are asking themselves. It’s the question that has spawned whole new literary genres of Afro-futurism and Sci-Fi for social change.

“The beginning of black imagination was the end of the territory of white imagination, was the call to imagine a world, like a moonlight world where maybe white people exist, but you don’t have to look at them and they are in the periphery where you usually belong,” she said. “Where blackness is at the center, black issues, black love, black joy is at the center and the struggle is not the focus.”

Though everyone is welcome to visit the exhibit, Marin’s hope is to provide an especially joy filled experience of imagination for black people.

The first iteration of this exhibit will run through Jan. 27 at Core Gallery (117 Prefontaine Pl. S., Seattle, WA 98104) by appointment only. Jazz and blues singer, Ayana Hobson has been flown in from Las Vegas to perform the role of docent leading participants through the experience.

To find out more or reserve your appointment, go to https://www.black-imagination.com.