Baltimore in the 1970s and 80s, like the Baltimore of Freddie Gray, demanded that young Black men be brave. Everyday. And I learned that courage fighting on the streets of the Mid-Atlantic port town where I was born and raised.
It was under the weeping willow tree that stood somberly in front of my apartment building that I had my first street fight. I wasn’t alone. At my side were battle-tested warriors who came to help me fight off these bad guys who had invaded our neighborhood.
Today, I find myself frustrated when individuals are characterized as “bad guys” or as “evil”. Humans are complex and we all have a story. We all have a reason for doing what we do.
But these were legit bad guys.
Villains who came to my ‘hood with one mission. The total destruction of our planet.
I sprung out my door and dove behind the tree that served as our base of operations. What the invaders did not know was that I had the power of flight. That - along with my invisibility, kinetic energy blasts, and power to read minds - made me a formidable foe for any adversary intent on doing us harm.
I sent my boy T’Challa to move in first and get some recon on the enemy. Storm created a cloud cover for us. Cyborg hacked into their computer systems to slow them down.[i] Finally, I would move in and rescue my mom from the evil alien Klansman trying to enslave Black folks again. And just as I stood face to face with their powerful grand wizard I heard from the front door of my building:
My mom’s voice calls me back to our dinner table and back to reality.
It was fighting racist supervillain aliens that I first learned courage. Or to be more specific, it was in my imagination that I first learned courage. More than thirty years later, I recognize the irony in my retreating to the worlds that I created in my mind. These imaginary courageous journeys were a survival tactic – a mental escape from the real battles my eight-year-old self was too scared to engaged.
My mom was dying. My father had just lost his job due to racism in his field. And it was all way too much for me. From age eight through my mother’s death when I was eleven and even well into my teen years when my father would also pass, I used the one real super power that I had – my imagination. When the reality of my life became unbearable I easily jumped to a world where it was safer - where the pain and grief of loss and racism could be escaped. Or maybe in my imagination, I had the courage and the tools to work for healing and to fight back. I miss those adventures. I still have old notebooks where I wrote my dreamed-up characters down, describing their powers, even sketching them. I saved the world hundreds of times.
As an adult and as a father I enjoy writing at my breakfast table as it allows me to look out upon our backyard and see my daughters playing outside. Sometimes they are practicing soccer. Sometimes they are just singing and dancing. But occasionally I see them running around with and speaking to others that only their eyes can see. Their adventures sound more like Nancy Drew mysteries or Harry Potter tales because they actually read things besides comic books (unlike their dad in his youth). And I smile because imagination lives!
This is the message I try to pass on to young activists. Speaking out against oppression and fearful hatred is key. Critical refusal in the face of injustice is essential. But we must have the ability to imagine something different and imagine ourselves working to build that something different. We draw from the prophetic aspect of our religious traditions – and rightly so – but we must also draw from the creation narratives of our faiths as well.
I have long been drawn to the activism of the nineteen-sixties in our nation. Names like Martin King, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta were taught to me as a kid and they have walked with me in my cloud of witnesses ever since. Through them and other activists I learned of the phrase “Power to the People.” As a child I might have amended that to say, “Super Power to the People!” as I flew around sad trees trying to uplift the world.
But while in the U.S. we spoke of “Power to the People”, at the same time in France, a popular phrase of activists and artists was “L’imagination au pouvoir!” ”Power to the imagination!”
It is true. There is so much power in our imaginations. It’s there that I learned to be brave. And it’s there that I believe we can draw plans to bravely build something new around poverty and homeless.
What follows is a complex dance about a complex aspect of our lives together. Perhaps there are three “dancing couples” in this book that are seeking to keep the rhythm and not step on each other’s toes, while trying to make something beautiful.
The first dance is between reality and imagination. Like my childhood games which were housed in my head, heart, and in the world around me, this book dances between painfully real experiences that I had and witnessed while working and walking on the streets – and imaginary acts that are perhaps my way of processing what I’ve seen. This portion of the book is told in verse as I have long attempted to process life through poetry. Maybe it’s more than processing though – maybe it’s prayer and hope.
I’ll leave you to decide what’s real and what is imagined.
Secondly the story is a dance between the two literary genres featured in the book – poetry and prose. The poetry is a novel-in-verse and it tells a Mosaic story of liberation. The prose is a theological reflection on that journey and the journey that we all find ourselves on. Together, they form a Theopoetic. I do so wish I could take credit for this amazing word which like all the best art may be interpreted and defined in a range of ways. I see it as meaning the inspiring intersection of art and theology. An effort to do theological work from a poetic paradigm rather than exclusively in a scientific, legal, or over explanatory way.
Finally, you may choose to read dissent descent: a theology of the bottom with either practical or spiritual eyes (though preferably both). Perhaps you will enter these pages and allow yourself to be heartbroken and moved by the tragedy of homelessness. Maybe this will lead you to add your hands to the heavy (yet doable) lift that it will take to bring about an end to chronic homelessness in our society. Or you might engage the text from a spiritual perspective. In the writing, I found that in many ways the outward and downward journey of the main character transfigured unintentionally into a type of spiritual allegory. Here the hero’s journey is downward, where life, and freedom, and God are to be found.
Maybe these ways of reading will dance in and out of vision for you.
However you receive this little book, please know of my deep gratitude in your reading it.
One final story of preface: I shared an early version of this project with a gentleman who has had lots of success in helping other authors promote their work. He was generous with his time and feedback. As we were talking though, he paused and I could tell he was weighing whether or not he should share his final suggestion or not. He finally does and says that, “The book might be more successful and gain a wider audience if you were to take out the protest parts and all of the Black stuff.”
I immediately flashed back to a conversation with my dear sister, the brilliant Ruth Naomi Floyd in which she talked about temptations and the difficult journey of the critical artist. She shared an image that I have never forgotten saying that, “It might be beautiful, and it might have Tiffany’s diamonds on it, but it’s still a handcuff if you can’t be who you are.”
The temptation to ascend upwards towards more power and money and influence is an ever present pull away from who we are and what we wish to produce as artists – indeed as humans.
Much of what follows is messy. A lot of this was uncomfortable to write and dream (and some was uncomfortable to witness). Yet, so much of the point of the story is related to freedom. I wanted to write this free so that others might be free. Thus, I give it away freely.
[i] T’Challa/Black Panther first appeared in Marvel Comics and was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Storm is also a character from Marvel comics and was created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. Cyborg was created by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez and first appeared in DC comics. These three early Black comic book characters captured my imagination and inspired me as a kid. They still do.