In the summer of 2016, Seattle-based conceptual artist Natasha Marin started a Facebook group called Reparations.
The idea was simple: People of color would ask for something they wanted, and white people would volunteer to provide that thing. White people could also offer random goods or services, and if a person of color wanted to accept that thing, that person would call dibs. The Facebook group quickly bloomed into a website, the idea went viral, and Marin engaged 250,000 people in the process.
Creating this network improved the lives of people of color in measurable ways. It also stirred up a big old troll's nest. As the site drew more attention, Marin started receiving more racist e-mails and death threats than she could count. Dealing with the racist fallout of her anti-racist project stressed Marin out. But instead of abandoning her communal art practices in the face of this white rage, she created a series of art exhibitions to rejuvenate her spirit and radiate what she calls black joy.
In Black Imagination, a new anthology of sorts published by McSweeney's, Marin collects some of the spoken testimony she and three other artists—Amber Flame, Rachael Ferguson, and Imani Sims—gathered from a diverse set of black voices for an installation by the same name that ran at CORE Gallery in 2018.
As part of that show, the artists recorded participants responding to three prompts: (1) What is your origin story? (2) How do you heal yourself? (3) Describe/imagine a world where you are loved, safe, and valued. In the book, Marin arranges the responses in reverse order, and she breaks up the testimonials with a series of her own poems called Interludes: Rituals. All of the contributors are writers or artists of one variety or another.
The responses, of course, are as diverse as the people who gave them. When asked to imagine a world in which they were loved and valued, poet Ebo Barton dreamed of a world where their "art would be art and not always be activism." Sharan Strange came through with some premium hippie energy, offering a vision of all people thriving in "a place of radiance and deep peace, as in a meadow mid-morning." More than one artist imagined a place where their bills were paid.
Still, others found the task of imagining such a future here impossible. "The illusion / is that we can rebuild here / But this is the / place that murdered / our seeds, / our mothers, / our fathers, / and divided us so close to the bone / we can't identify where we ever connected," writes Kiana Davis.
In her poems/rituals, Marin embraces Audre Lorde's notion of self-care as an act of self-preservation and therefore an act of political warfare in a world awash in white heteronormativity power structures, and offers lyrical instructions for reducing stress by enjoying sensual pleasures and leisure. To sum it up in one of her funny lines: "Moisturize and decolonize."
In all, Black Imagination reads like a survival guide with a sense of humor as deep as its sense of history, a literary oasis for black people fed up with the white gaze. The pieces by Quenton Baker, Robert Lashley, Reagan Jackson, and Marin are standouts, but the book also turned me on to great writers I'd never heard of before, such as Kenyatta JP Garcia, Kiana Davis, and Aricka Foreman.