Letter to the Editor: In response to ‘Do you dream of a better world?’

Ayanna Harrison | Class of 2019

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.

  • José Madero

    Hello Ayanna,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to my Op-ed. I definitely did not intend to suggest that looking back at history was in any way sufficient to devise a better world and I agree with you that imagination and creativity are essential if we are to come up with a better system. In that sense, history acts as an inspiration, as Harriet Tubman’s heroics clearly did on you.

    We unfortunately live in a society deeply rooted in the present, where the current social, economic, and political systems are treated as natural laws that cannot or should not be tampered with. Fredric Jameson famous quote that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” really brings this point home. Your classmate who could not imagine a peaceful existence without prison is a good example of how both lack of imagination and lack of historical context plague our minds today. To that student I would recommend David Friedman’s book “Legal Systems Very Different From Ours,” where he or she would learn that not only is peaceful existence without imprisonment possible, but that it has already existed and still exists today among specific communities. Historical knowledge wouldn’t hamper his or her imagination, it would enhance it.

    I find it interesting that you picked William Morris’s writing as an example of a utopia. I do not know if it was mentioned during your course, but Morris was the founder of the British Socialist League and the utopia he describes in “News from Nowhere” has all the common characteristics shared by the communist ideals of the time (you can check out Mark Twain’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism” as one of many examples of similar representations of society.) If you find Morris’s utopia in any way appealing, you might find it interesting to read the works that inspired him, with Marx being the obvious start. Furthermore, the revolution that opens the book is no other than the socialist revolution to which I allude to in my Op-ed. The goal of the October Revolution was, literally, to build the utopia that Morris describes. I’d recommend Pete Dolack’s “It’s Not Over” if you’re interested in understanding how and why it all went wrong. To keep with the idea of building a better future, Dolack describes his work as a book about the future which spends five chapters talking about the past.

    Finally, I agree with your assertion that when it comes to building a better world, “our greatest obstacle will not be any physical threat, but our own ability to think beyond what we already know.” I would just point out that thinking beyond what we already know won’t get us very far if we do not know much. Here, the famous metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants applies.

  • peters43

    Truly where the crunch comes-do we dare?