Letter to the Editor: In response to ‘Do you dream of a better world?’
I would argue that the key to a better, more inclusive and equitable future does not rest solely in looking backward throughout history for concrete evidence that revolution toward societal betterment is possible, but in combining our past knowledge with imaginative thinking. Many often misquote Harriet Tubman as saying, “I freed a thousand slaves and could have freed a thousand more had they only known they were slaves.” There is evidence to suggest that she more realistically led close to a hundred slaves into freedom. Accounts state that these trips were made more difficult by some wanting to turn back rather than face the consequences of being captured and punished or killed. In those moments, Tubman revealed her weapon and threatened that her comrades in escape could either die at her hands or at the hands of their masters, but she would not allow them to leave without a fight and risk compromising her own safety and the safety of those who would willingly venture on. Although the quote concerning a thousand slaves left in captivity never left Tubman’s lips, its truth endures.
Very often, progress comes in the form of people performing feats that were previously branded impossible. There was no reason to believe that Harriet Tubman, an old black woman born and raised in slavery, could plan and execute escape for herself and tens of others. Her escape was rooted partially in a comprehensive understanding of her reality. As the quote suggests, she had to first know that she was a slave before she could seek out freedom. But she also had to believe herself capable of essentially carrying out not one but several miracles. Imaginative or fictive thinking allowed Harriet Tubman to make her escape. Similarly, we can look to fictive utopian narratives to inspire our plans of a more perfect future. William Morris’s 1890 novel, “News from Nowhere,” makes persuasive claims for how we might realize this. The society which centers the novel begins with a revolution much like any great societal or cultural shift in history. In Morris’s novel, government makes a bid to suppress revolution with violent force. He then identifies the very important distinction that rather than respond in fear, the people—comprised largely of working class laborers—respond in pointed anger. Further, this anger does not subside after a few days but is a mobilizing force.
In the account that follows, the narrator describes an anarchist, socialist, post-prison abolishment society. Throughout the story’s unfolding, there is an eye towards past injustice. How could so many people be allowed to suffer? As we discussed the novel in my 19th Century Science Fiction class, at least one person remained skeptical of peaceful existence without prisons. My response relied on the theme of injustice and exploitation of working class people that weaves throughout the story. We cannot say that prisons work if the majority of prisoners are from oppressed and marginalized groups. Wealthy people, for the most part, are not populating our prisons. So, then, we must examine and remedy the systemic ills that push so many people into poverty with no other means of survival than illegal acts.
The notion that my classmate did not recognize prisons as a tool for suppressing the working class, and could not fathom a society without our failing imprisonment practices, returns to Tubman’s imagined quote. In order to realize a better world, we must frankly assess who and what we are. If we are slaves to old western European systems of societal organization, we must be able to state that explicitly. But we cannot then allow ourselves to be hampered by the parameters of what has already been done. We need to free ourselves intellectually and consider practices that go beyond concrete historical evidence. To create a world that we have never seen, we must act as we never have before.
In her own description of a thoroughly black utopia, Toni Morrison writes, as things fall apart in the imagined society, “How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it.” It seems that in any push toward a sort of utopia, our greatest obstacle will not be any physical threat, but our own ability to think beyond what we already know.