May: Residing in The Unreal

“How do we imagine and struggle for democracy that does not spawn forms of terror, that does not spawn war, that does not need enemies for its sustenance? Because people who are in prison are pointed to as the enemies of society, and that is one of the ways in which we can define our own sense of ourselves as free, by looking at those who are our opposites.”

(Angela Davis, “The Meaning of Freedom,” 149)

This passage from Angela Davis’s “The Meaning of Freedom” comes at the end of her speech as she revisits the theme of the conference, the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. After examining the harms of the prison-industrial complex, Davis turns her attention to what we ought to do in the present to create a democracy that does not cause terror, war, or “need enemies for its sustenance” through incarceration and exploitation. In the form of a question, Davis invites her audience to “imagine” and “struggle” for this democracy.

To understand why she proposes imagination, it is important first to grasp what she means with this concept. One way to interpret her words is as a call for a thought experiment. Under this reading, the passage is a stark turning point from her detailed exposition of the real violence and social problems that threaten marginalized populations. It is easy to dismiss the act of imagining as restricted to the sphere of philosophy, or even mere fantasy. After all, how can mere imagination translate to changed realities for imprisoned populations?

However, Davis uses imagination as a verb—a call to action. The very act of asking, “how do we imagine…?”, challenges the very mindsets and paradigms of people pushing for social reform. To imagine is not to escape reality, but to change it—to come up with creative models of democracy outside systems of racism, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation (149) that have become accepted as the norm. 

Nonetheless, the process of imagining is certainly not easy. In placing “imagine” and “struggle” in the same sentence, she presents them as complementary, and perhaps even synonymous. Social change for black Americans has traditionally come as amendments to the Constitution, voting rights legislation, and the Emancipation Proclamation. However, Davis warns against fetishizing the liberatory potential of the law, as it silences minority perspectives. Reliance on the law has enabled slavery to become “reincarnated through new institutions,” practices, and ideologies like the prison (140). Earlier in the speech, Davis notes the inextricable link between the struggle for democracy and “the prison and the fate of former slaves” (140). In calling for collective struggle, she acknowledges that centering the voices of the ordinary and oppressed—the unfree—is necessary in the quest for true freedom. For instance, the works of black women writers have forced Americans to confront the institution of slavery in concrete terms. Hence, Davis’s advocacy is also radical in its inclusivity.    

In the second half of this passage, Davis interrogates the very definition of freedom. Freedom is widely understood in binary terms as lack of constraints and rights to certain actions or protections. She observes that “our own sense of ourselves as free” exists only in contrast to people who are unfree. For black people, this contradiction exists internally as the “negative affirmation” of their legal personalities (145), in which their freedom to exercise due process exists only to sentence them to prison. On the macropolitical level, freedom is “shrouded in unfreedom” (139), sustaining itself through institutions of oppression like the prison industrial complex. The first step in the struggle for democracy, then, is to redefine freedom so that its enjoyment does not simultaneously necessitate exclusion from it.

Since Davis’s speech largely focuses on the embeddedness of slavery in global institutions, one might believe that she is pessimistic about social progress. If war, terror, and prisons cannot be dismantled in the near future, then is reform pointless? But it is precisely this narrow mindset—the belief that change must come within the current political system—that Davis criticizes. She refuses to accept this “constrained emancipation” (138) given to black people. Instead, she argues that these power structures can be abolished, and it begins by imagining and believing in a society where they already have been.

Overall, Davis’s question in this passage serves to introduce the possibility that the struggle for democracy can occur outside the confines of dominant power structures. Later, she “suggest[s]” imagination as an endeavor her audience should try to pursue, and concludes that this endeavor is a legitimate “need” (149). There is a need to redefine freedom in non-binary, non-relative terms. There is a need for change to come from ordinary, marginalized voices instead of only piecemeal legislative reforms. Ultimately, imagination embodies the radical optimism necessary in the struggle for democracy. 

Written for my Elements of Political Theory course, Spring 2022.

I devoured fantasy books as a child. It still is one of my favorite genres, but now I like to say that I enjoy the umbrella category “speculative fiction.” Some may see the pleasure I get from reading speculative fiction as simply a form of escape. And this may be true—at least when I am actually submerged in the book pages. But when I reflect on what I’ve read, I’m always present to how speculative fiction makes me more grounded in reality; it provokes the most interesting thought spirals about the lengths of human greed, the institutions that cement oppression, and the wonder of the human spirit.

Reading is obviously valuable, but so is writing. Actually, not just writing itself but the process of creation. Of imagination. For instance, fantasy author N.K. Jemisin’s World-Building workshop invites participants to consider the “relationship between character development and culture” such as species and ecology creation, power, race, social stratification, and assimilation.

Likewise, the products of our imagination reflect our assumptions about the world. Comparing Chinese and Western science fiction, I find the latter to be much more fatalistic and Eurocentric, while the latter displays techno-optimism and envisions a multinational future. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, like Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life and Others (adapted to the movie Arrival).

Whether it’s a Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk city from Blade Runner or Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical Studio Ghibli worlds, the characters will always be human. They’re selfish, foolish, and misguided, but also tenacious, hopeful, and sometimes even compassionate.

✨ Monthly Favorites

  • Book: These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett — “Any story that starts will also end.” As a writer, Ann Patchett knows what the outcome of her fiction will be. Life, however, often takes turns we do not see coming. Patchett ponders this truth in these wise essays that afford a fresh and intimate look into her mind and heart. 
  • Drama: Unbelievable — A teenager is charged with lying about having been raped, but two detectives follow the path to the truth.
  • Sweetgreen order (yes, you read that right): harvest bowl but rice for spinach, remove almonds, add spicy broccoli, with hot sauce and a lime. Top with homemade Greek yogurt dressing.

Not going to lie, this past month was extremely stressful with finals so I didn’t get to do as much as I would have liked. I’m flying home today, will be home for two weeks, and then will be in Cambridge, MA for the summer!!

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