By Malkia Cyril
[Thanks to Malkia for her thought-provoking and inspiring words. We loved this piece. It spoke to us because of her shout out to risk-takers, and her insistence on the importance of the stories we tell. Inspired and humbled by her words, we are honored to share them here. --The Editors]
I'm thinking about the power of stories to steer the course of that strategy. The ones we tell ourselves about what the world is like, about who Justice Movements are made of, about the might of the conservative Right.
Earlier this evening I commented to a friend that the trajectory of our lives feels somewhat like a pinball machine—one ball hits another, or something else, and we find ourselves spinning out in a new direction we could hardly have imagined before. As I sit with my own fears and hopes for my future, I realize how true this is. Yet, unlike things that bump into each other at random, there are institutions and systems of oppression that shape and force our direction. Within the meta-physics of structural oppression, there is choice—but those choices only go so far as our imaginations allow. Our stories set the limits of our imagination.
Those of you who love science fiction and fantasy know what I mean.
One of my favorite books, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, imagines a future in which the earth is at war with an alien species it knows nothing about. It imagines the structures of government, the shape of economies, culture, school, the role of religion. And in the midst of this imagination, the author still manages to reveal the constant and perpetual truths that are human nature. My other favorite novel Parable of the Sower, and its sequel Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler imagines a black female empath caught in the midst of a national conflict surprisingly reminiscent of the rise of America's conservative Right. In these books, Octavia takes the historic narrative of escape threaded throughout African-American tradition and adds the means—a spaceship. These are not just books to me, they are the pining of the heart for a future unseen. They are the hunger of a people for change they do not yet understand how to create.
But they can imagine it. And that is where true revolutions begin.
In the inner world of my mind, the revolutions of my heart do not replace the bad guys with new bad guys. They do not operate on the same principles of power as the system they seek to overthrow. They do not result in nirvana, nor do they lead to heaven. They, in fact, only appear to overthrow. Instead, with every breath, they transform from both without and within. They redistribute power. In my mind, these changes are painful and necessary and impossible if we cannot imagine them first.
Despite the power of imagination, of art, of science to design us the world we both need and deserve—the world that will outlive us and our children—those who resource movements often fail to seed dreams. As a result, we organizers, the ones whose lives and bodies are forever deliberately focused on unhinging the gears that churn oppression out, we remain mired in crisis—personal and political, steeped in negativity, competition. There are few collaborative spaces to imagine, to scenario plan, to create, or to dream—and even less money to operationalize those dreams into action. In this dearth of creative space, I find myself withering. And when an opportunity arises, when a creative idea finally is breathed to life—we know just what to do.
We critique the hell out of it. We talk about how it won't work, how ridiculous it is, how unrealistic. It seems sometimes that the only thing we can imagine, is our own failure.
Can you believe that it was the words of the food critic in the cutest cartoon movie ever, Ratatouille, that made me realize how desperately the movement needs new ideas and new leaders to emerge? This wierd little creative cartoon that has nothing to do with anything made me think about how important our communications, arts, science, and cultural leaders are. We need them. I need you. You are the ones who will set our liberation to the beat of our own hearts, make us listen to the song, make us love it. Consider this quote from Ratatouille—just replace the food with the creative ideas organizers from Detroit to Dakar, and all over this world, are serving up to nurture our movement.
"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal (read: idea) from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the "meal" and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking (read: social change) is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. ...I realize, only now do I truly understand... Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. I will be returning...soon, hungry for more."
I am like this critic, humbled and hungry for the story of our future. Aren't you? The future deserves a story, as much as the story of me, us, and now. As much as opportunity does. We need to show, not tell, what justice looks like in the words and values that already live here. We need a story as rich as the ones in these books, as far-reaching, as informed. And we need the storytellers.
We, and this is all of us, those historically disenfranchised and those historically privileged by the debilitating pattern liberal democracy has become, need a liberatory narrative. And when I say narrative, I don't only mean words. The worlds of these books I mentioned only feel real to me because they mirror the structures of meaning that exist today, albeit in new forms. Narratives are, for me, much more than words. They are all the places where knowledge is created. They are the songs, the pictures, the way our lives fit together, the structures of government that spell out exclusion in the clearest terms possible, they are in the experience of citizenship and the experience of colony. So, it is not enough to change the story. We must also change the authors, and the structure of the book. Only then can new meaning arise.
There are new models emerging. There are efforts being made across the globe. These are the risk takers, not the critics. These are the doers and the dreamers, not those sitting in judgment over them. I for one have staked my reputation on the success of the Center for Media Justice and the Media Action Grassroots Network, which is attempting to raise an unusual movement to transform media strategy and win communication policies and rights that could build a platform for progressive power. These organizations, like hundreds of others, are trying to combine both old and new tactics in new ways with those most impacted to produce real change. We are under the gaze, and yet we risk. We risk, we fail, we try again, we succeed. That's the hope anyway.
So, this is a shout out to the risk takers—those whom I know and those I don't. To those who invest in risk-takers. To those who prefer to try and learn from their efforts rather than simply sit in judgment of those who take risks. We must reflect, we must evaluate—but constant negative critique will never raise a popular progressive movement. Negative inspiration is the arena of the conservative Right. Hope is our science and our art.
My mother used to say, "Music is the purest form of prayer and change is the only god there is." I don't know. But I do believe that art, music, song, dance, science and faith can help us build a popular liberation movement. I believe in organizing that inspires and uses all of it. Hell yeah. I'm trying something. I'm hungry for the story of the future. So I'm trying, with you, to tell it and create the means by which it can be heard. For the storytellers who will emerge, for those who risk it all in campaigns, for the planet that could be saved, for the people who will save themselves. I hope we win. All of us.
My tired stream of consciousness four cents, inspired by a cartoon.
Malkia Cyril is the Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network.