Week 1: Introduction – The (Black) Radical Imagination

Page Illustration: James Baldwin by John Jennings, Celebrate People’s History Series, Just Seeds, 2015


via LEARN: Kelley, Robin D.G. (2002). “When History Sleeps: A Beginning”, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 1-12. Boston: Beacon Press.

Turner, David C (2018). #ResistCapitalism to #FundBlackFutures: Black Youth, Political Economy, and the Twenty-first Century Black Radical Imagination,” Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics (1): 217-227.


Words are not static and multiple meanings and signifiers can be attached to a given term. In this course, we examine the concept of the “radical imagination” as it exists in the interstices of popular culture and social justice movements. But what is the radical imagination? Is it a thing? How do we know this is an important term to use for this particular course?

When I’m confronted with these types of questions, I like to explore both the etymological origins of the word and also research and study how this term has been used in various social contexts.

How do we understand “the radical imagination”?

Let’s break it down and the build it back up together!


Easily the most misunderstood and debated of the two terms. The word radical is often equated to or used as a synonym for “extremist” or “illogical” or “dangerous” or “overly emotional” or “novel”.

But in the words of the famous Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride) meme:

What is the etymological root of the term “radical” and why is it used to convey the concept of the “radical imagination” and specifically the “Black radical imagination”?

Let’s begin by researching the etymology of the word “radical”:

This is a really helpful place to start. Drawing on the latin origins of the word radical we can see that the term derives from “of or having roots” and evolved to also mean “going to the origin, essential” of a given subject or concept. This squares with how many social justice activists have used the word to describe their politics and differentiate their politics from say, “liberal” or “conservative” political beliefs which are often tied to and embedded into the current structures of power in our political systems.

Perhaps most famously, the Black liberation activist and abolitionist scholar Angela Y. Davis, is quoted as saying “Radical simply means, “grasping things at the root.”

This distinction is important as it signifies that grassroots progressive political movements seek to address root causes of oppression and injustice in our society. There is a signalling with the use of the term “radical” that the movements that one is part of has identified how the large power structures of our society (i.e. capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, etc.) impact our day-to-day lives in material ways. Change, for a “radical,” comes from not just ensuring more women or people of colour are in positions of power, for instance, but rather from the collective work of many people to transform the systems themselves.

As the theorists Haiven & Khasnabish (2012) explain it:

In a social movement sense, radical implies looking beyond surface or easy answers and a desire to uncover the deep reasons (root causes) for our present reality.  It also implies fundamental solutions rather than temporary fixes

Haiven & Khasnabish 2012

In this sense, radical is a long-term proposition, but also one that asserts the need for short-term and urgent organizing among collectives of people.


The word imagination, while perhaps less distorted in its mainstream usage, can also be misunderstood.

Today, when we use the terms – imagine, imagination, imaginary – in our common parlance we are referring to things that are make-believe or fantasy (i.e. unicorns or Batman or role-playing). While this is a definition of “imagination” it is incomplete.

Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1993) notes that in European Ancient or Medieval conception, what we commonly called “the imagination” was considered the zone of passage between reality and reason. Essentially this means that the imagination was a zone where the unreal could potentially become real.

This is an important distinction.

In this older conception of the “imagination” we understand it to be the space between what is and what could be. It is a liminal space of possibility.

In this conception of “imagination,” by imagining a new way of being, you bring it into reality (by making it even a possibility to begin with).

One of the most famous quotes that helps to explain this understanding of the imagination was spoken by the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, who suggested “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

The late-American anarchist scholar David Graeber explains how the shift in our common conception of imagination happened. He explains that it’s only after Descartes (1590-1650), really, that the word “imaginary” came to mean, specifically, anything that is not real: imaginary creatures, imaginary places (Middle Earth, Narnia, planets in faraway Galaxies, the Kingdom of Prester John), imaginary friends (Graeber 2009:521).


Graeber helpfully breaks up how we conceptualize the imagination by giving us two sub-terms that differentiate between these understandings:

Transcendent Imagination – stories and fictional texts that create imaginary worlds that, presumably, remain the same no matter how many times one reads them (Graeber 2009).

Disney’s Peter Pan is an example of the transcendent imagination

Immanent Imagination –  not static and free floating but are entirely caught up in projects of action that aim to have real effects in the material world (Graeber 2009).

a) A moment in the process of creating or shaping physical objects

b) A moment in the process of creating and maintaining social relations

Black Lives Matter as a movement sits within the definition of imminent imagination.
Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash


Social movements engage in the radical imagination as a collective rather than individual process – what Subcomandante Marcos, the former spokesperson of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) calls “opening a crack in history” to allow for “a world where many world’s are possible.”

The radical scholar Cornelius Castoriadis explains it as such: “the imagination [is] the very substance of reality: social institutions [are] the solidification of the collective imagination” (Castoriadis 1975).

Zapatista slogan, “Un Mondo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” [A World Where Many World’s Are Possible]. Image Link

If we are to combine the concepts into the singular “radical imagination” we can understand it as a practice or process by which people organize collectively to bring worlds about that exist outside of the dominant logics of society at the root of power imbalances in our lives.

Social movements develop the radical imagination through practice – and this is what informs their theories. What is unique about the radical imagination is that it is constantly in a state of flux – it is developing and growing through the work of movements – it is not a stable or fixed theory or ideology.

Haiven & Khasnabish describe this process as follows:

The sort of radical imagination these [movement] theorists dream of is one that is constantly being held open and one that ‘comes back’ to us in the present to shake up our own thinking and help us remember things aren’t as they must be and that they could be different.

Haiven & Khasnabish 2012

In other words, we can consider the radical imagination as a cyclical process of dreaming + organizing + testing + failing + reflecting + revising + dreaming anew!


This course draws on the theories and knowledges of multiple artists, public figures, social movement actors, and scholars within the Black radical tradition in the United States and Canada.

This term’s emphasis on the Black Radical Imagination is meant to respond to the current political moment and work towards developing a more in-depth understanding of the theory and history between the interplay of Black popular culture and Black freedom struggles in North America.

As a white (non-Black) scholar, I come to this work with both a sort of urgency (recognizing that for too long Black movement scholarship has either been ignored or appropriated by non-Black activists or theorists) and a humility (recognizing that despite my best attempts at creating this course, my lived experience limits my analysis and ability to fully grasp the depths and complexities of the Black radical imagination).

I intend for this course as an entry point and as a recognition that there are far too few Black scholars in the university. However, this course also suggest the limits of the university as a space of study. The university can and often is a place of credentialism rather than education and study can and does happen outside of the university. As Harney & Moten (2013) explain, “it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can (26). ” For Harney & Moten this space of study within and outside of the university can be described as the undercommons.

This course, as much as possible, seeks to focus on the teachings that emerge from study in the undercommons (i.e. the social movement, cultural, and social spaces that exist within and outside of the academy, but are creating knowledge and theory that we can understand as part of the Black radical imagination).

This course is also guided by concepts of the Black radical imagination that are theorized by scholars like Robin D.G. Kelley, Saidiya Hartman, Angela Y. Davis, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Adrienne Maree Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and many others.


In Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Robin D.G. Kelley begins the book by telling us, “My mother has a tendency to dream out loud…My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free – in the patterns of a stray bird feather, in a Hudson River sunset, in the view from our fire escape, in the stories she told us, in the way she sang Gershwin’s ‘Summertime,’ in a curbside rainbow created by the alchemy of motor oil and water from an open hydrant.” In this introduction, Kelley couches the Black radical imagination not simply in the everyday lessons his mother gifted him to imagine a world free of the oppressive structures that surround. He grounds these experiences in relationship to academic theory and frontline political struggles, rather than separate from them.

For his mother, the imagination isn’t just a hope or a desire, it is a lived practice, one that is worked out through trial and error, through failure and pain, but also through learning and love. This imagination did not deny the serious and oppressive structures and ideologies that confronted (and still confronts) young Black people, but it believed that another world could be forged through struggle.

It was not an ethic of pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It was a praxis of grieving, reckoning, coalescing, organizing, collectively imagining, and acting.


Similarly, Saidiya Hartman finds the Black radical imagination in the “black-city-within-the-city.” For Hartman, the communal luxury of the black metropolis was its ability to transform “the imagination of what you might want and who you might be, encouraging you to dream. Shit, it don’t even matter if you’re black and poor, because you are here and you are alive and all these folks surrounding you encourage you and persuade you to believe that you are beautiful too. This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape. They can see the wall being erected around the dark ghetto, but they still want to be ready for the good life, still want to get ready for freedom(24).

In an interview with ArtForum, Hartman emphasizes the importance of understanding the constancy of Black radical practice in the broader lens of radical politics, anarchism, and anti-fascism/anti-authoritarianism. Her book Wayward Lies, Beautiful Experiments is the central text in this course precisely because it gives us a lens to understand how the current context of Black young women, femmes, gender nonconforming and queer folk have played a consistent and vital part in developing and shaping our contemporary political movements.

As Hartman herself notes, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments makes one thing was absolutely clear: “the practices of refusal—shirking, idleness, and strike—a critique of the state and what it could afford; and an understanding that the state is present primarily as a punishing force, a force for the brutal containment and violation and regulation and eradication of Black life.”

Connecting her book with the contemporary era of Black liberation struggles, Hartman discusses the “jump warrant,” which enabled police to enter apartments at will and how this relates to the murder of Breonna Taylor in the contemporary equivalent of that jump warrant, which is the “no knock” warrant. “The police just enter a place and do as they will.

The Black radical imagination, as a practice, is inextricably linked with popular culture: music, sports, ball culture, fashion, queer aesthetics, language, visual art, theatre, film, and storytelling, among many other spaces.

This course draws on the theoretical frameworks of theorists like Kelley and Hartman to explore this important relationship between theory, culture, and radical politics – something that is integral to the Black radical imagination.


Alright: BLM & the Politics of Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Kenny Sun, Wikipedia Commons, 2017

What is the relationship between an artist and a movement? How does that relationship play out in real life amidst a period of rapid transformation? This case study looks at the evolution of Kendrick Lamar in relationship to the Movement for Black Lives.

By engaging in this case study, you will grapple with the broad questions that animate this course:

  • How does popular culture exist within the radical imagination?
  • How do radical movements transform popular culture?
  • What is the Black radical imagination?
  • How do we get to the places we’ve collective imagined?
NOTE: You will need to finish the readings for this week to fully engage with the case study below
  1. Read the article: The Improbable Story of How Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” Became a Protest Anthem by Jamilah King
    • Pay special attention to the argument King is making about both Kendrick Lamar’s political evolution through his engagement and experience with the Movement for Black Lives and the impact of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on the Movement for Black Lives.
    • Be sure to watch all of the videos included in the article from start to finish.
  1. Read the article: Has Kendrick Lamar Recorded the New Black National Anthem? by Aisha Harris
    • Be sure to clink on the associated links and get a sense of the historical context that was motivating both Lamar and the Movement for Black Lives in this moment.
    • Be sure to also watch the videos embedded in the article.
  1. Watch this YouTube Video: BlackLivesMatter – We Gonna Be Alright DTLA Protest 7-7-2016
    • Take not of the emotional tenor amongst the participants
    • Think about what that collective moment of affirmation is doing emotionally for people after what looks to be a long day of struggle
    • Pay attention to the role the song “Alright” plays in the video – recording nearly a year after the Cleveland video referenced in the articles above
Video by BlackTechz, 2016


  1. Look up the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and possible a breakdown of his song on the podcast DIS/SECT. Think about the imagery and context of the song and its release during the first wave of BLM uprisings in 2015. Why do you think the track resonated so strongly with the Movement for Black Lives despite some of the tensions between Lamar and activists?
  1. In David C. Turner III’s article #RESISTCAPITALISM to #FUNDBLACKFUTURES in our course readings, the author concludes the piece noting: “The unsettling notion of Black Lives Matter highlights a fundamental flaw in racial equity reform logic: that Blackness cannot be reconciled in an anti-Black state with a political economy built on their backs and indigenous land.
  1. How do the lyrics, music and visuals associated with Lamar’s “Alright” and the videos of activists chanting the song relate to what Saidiya Hartman reflects above that, “This collective endeavor to live free unfolds in the confines of the carceral landscape.”

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