This morning, as I sat down to write this post, the microwave stopped working. When I say I know just enough about household wiring to be dangerous, that’s not an idiom. It’s a blunt statement of fact. But I still tried to track down the problem. I checked the breakers, and they were fine. It might have been the microwave door switch, according to Google. But then the lights went out in the bathroom. And then they went out at the microwave’s outlet. And then they went out in the whole house. Weird.
I’m still not entirely sure what was going on. But my imagination went from Ardelle’s lukewarm coffee to the innards of the microwave, into the wiring of our house, through the breaker box, and eventually to the power lines that feed our lights and gadgets silently all the time. Well, almost all the time. I mostly forget about it until it stops.
Imagination isn’t only a form of flight from what’s real into fantasy. Imagination is also the ordinary faculty to move beyond the situation in front of us and into the realm of why it might be so. We all have it and use it, even if you have the sense to call appliance repair or an electrician when your microwave won’t work.
If you were coming here for a blog post on appliance repair, I’m afraid I’ve now played that part of it pretty much out. I’m writing because I am still reeling from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the turmoil that has followed it across the country and here in our beloved Memphis. I’m not entirely sure why, but these recent deaths have settled further down into my soul than so many others before it. I hope it’s a softening of my hardened heart. And I’m casting about to make sense of what God might be calling us to do and to be in this moment.
Sunday afternoon our Gleanings class discussed “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” an article by the African-American poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of creative writing who loves gardening and keeping bees. The essay was an attempt to make sense of what was going on in his mind and his body when his back seized up a day after being stopped for a burned-out license plate light. A stop that unfurled into questions about drugs and guns and drinking and whether there was anything else illegal in the car.
I first read the article seven years ago in The Sun Magazine, and I’ve been in its grip ever since. Ross Gay is embarrassed that such a relatively minor event took up residence in his body. But he then tells about the experiences in his life, large and small, that accumulated into, not only fear and worry and weariness, but even a suspicion that he might actually be the sort of person so many people suspect him of being, simply because he is black. Accumulated into a “corruption of imagination.” A phrase that makes abundant sense to me right now.
Here’s how he puts it: “Time and again, we think the worst of anyone perceiving us: walking through the antique shop; standing in front of the lecture hall; entering the bank; considering whether or not to go camping someplace or another; driving to the hardware store; being pulled over by the police. Or, for the black and brown kids in New York City, simply walking down the street every day of their lives. The imagination, rather than being cultivated for connection or friendship or love, is employed simply for some crude version of survival. This corruption of the imagination afflicts all of us: we’re all violated by it. I certainly know white people who worry, Does he think I think what he thinks I think? And in this way, moments of potential connection are fraught with suspicion and all that comes with it: fear, anger, paralysis, disappointment, despair. We all think the worst of each other and ourselves, and become our worst selves.”
This is the truth we haven’t figured out to tell one another yet. This marvelous imagination that God has given us for love and connection is precisely what is being taken captive by the suspicion and fear racism breeds in all of us.
But the sacred imagination remains alive in us. I truly believe it does. If a simple mind like mine can imagine its way beyond the dead appliance in my kitchen on through the walls of the house to ultimate the sources of its power, so can we. We don’t have to condone violence and destruction to employ the moral imagination that was made to ask, “But why might this be so?” We don’t have to lash back with fresh anger of our own to imagine what the source of a brother’s or a sister’s rage might be.
To say that racism is systemic is to say that it is human. Which is simply to say that it, like everything real, lives within a larger story. Imagining our way into that story is what our minds were made for. Imagining our way to their source is the only hope some wounds have of healing. But imagining our way into something larger or lovelier or more whole is also how everything beautiful that humans have ever made came to be.