By Deborah H. Anderson
For The Beachcomber
Juneteenth, 2020: the first time it is celebrated, acknowledged as if it was a national holiday.
Out in the world: demonstrations and teach-ins and rallies. On the internet: white people exchanging book lists so they can “understand racism,” learn about Black history post-February. Words and words and words.
Tonight on television, there will be 60-second soundbites and summations. A few key Black leaders, some Black citizens deemed “average,” a white person or two with their children experiencing the day as tourists, will be interviewed. NPR will have something in-depth. King FM is featuring Black musicians and composers. PBS will showcase some particularly germane feature-ette.
But what of Black voices not managed or spun or filtered by the very institutional genres that have helped keep them silent?
“Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures” is not a book to be read. It is a book to hear, to listen to. A white person engaging with its pages needs to find one of those uncomfortable mid-century ottomans with buttons in all the wrong places, and struggle uncomfortably with their balance, sitting in the shadows, while they listen to the voices, the 32 free-to-speak-in-a-safe-place Black voices. You are a guest and need to be quiet and just listen. Turn the pages slowly. Absorb each set of sentences before you move on to the next.
In 2016 Natasha Marin created an online event called “Reparations,” where people of color could list their needs, and theoretically, white-identified people could respond. The national media loved it, promoted it and before Marin knew it, she was inundated in managing the project, and along with the media attention came dozens of death threats.
As an antidote to the threats, to repair herself, she gathered a team of colleagues, Amber Flame, Rachel Ferguson, and Imani Sims. With field recorders, they spent months collecting answers to three prompts from “black folks of all kinds … seeking out black children, black youth, LGBTQ+ black folks, unsheltered black folks, incarcerated black folks, neurodivergent black folks, as well as differently-abled black folks.”
The three prompts were: What is your origin story? How do you heal yourself? Describe/Imagine a world where you are loved, safe, and valued.
The next step was creating a space — “an exhibition that would de-center Whiteness and provide space for healing and validation.”
Funding secured, at the CORE Gallery in Seattle, guests were blindfolded and entered into a “pitch-black space …. where docent Ayanna Hobson — a nationally recorded vocalist — led them through a sonic web of the collected voices combined with her own exquisitely beautiful one.”
This book is the literary archive of that exhibition.
It is not a leap to feel oneself present in that space. The very placement of the words on the pages seems to recreate the sacred moment of freedom, Black folk speaking their truths to other Black folks. It is not a stretch to accept that if you are white, you need to sit way on the edges of those pages and sssshhhhhhh. Listen.
The event is book-ended with words created by Marin’s daughter, Roman, and her own “answers” and thoughts. The legacy of artistic DNA leaves one even more still at the edges, in awe of the bond of mother and daughter.
Dividing the sections are twelve interludes/rituals sweeping the landscape from “BlackJoy” to “Blessing Your Own Heart,” “Remothering,” “Remembering” and “Uncertainty.” They are sacred acts leading guests even deeper into their own experiences.
There is advice for white-identified readers at the front of the experience. Heed it.
Yes, book clubs should experience these words. But when the time comes to gather around cheese slices and scones and wine and fruit of some sort, ask only “What did you hear?”
It is time to listen.
Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures, curated by Natasha Marin, 2020 McSweeney’s, 225 pages. To purchase from a Black-owned bookstore, see tinyurl.com/y6w9vr5z. To order from Vashon Bookshop call 206-463-2616 or email email@example.com.
Deborah H. Anderson has a long-time affiliation as an islander, since 1984, having spent ten years as a summer person and 25 years as a full-time resident. She is currently a full-time writer and civic activist.