Negative Imagination

As she often is, liprap is right.

She’s right to ask for our silence, that we don’t do the easy thing, don’t let our mouths start to churn out the familiar sound bites after we read the awful story about how Ja’Shawn Powell‘s short life ended.

Because God knows that’s a natural reaction, the urge to make sense, explain, or even to soften the heartbreak of such a thing, but liprap’s right to point out that this is not what’s needed at the moment. We may need it but Ja’ Shawn’s mother Daniella Powell most certainly does not.

In her shock, she is still thinking her son needs new clothes. I am
grateful for the presence of her extended family at this time, and I
hope that more New Orleanians all over this city will reach out and
show her that her feelings matter, that her son did not deserve this
fate, and that she should not be thinking “What if..?” for the rest of
her days.

A memorial fund has been set up. In NOLA donations can be made at the locations are listed at or mailed to Liberty Bank P.O. Box 60131, New Orleans, La

So, if we don’t take the easy way out at such a time, what do we do? Other than to help with logistics and expenses for the survivors of such tragedy, what do we do with a story like this? I ask because I believe more is needed. Not because it makes a difference to Ja’Shawn’s story, or helps his mother, or helps the DA get justice. It’s needed because it helps us, all of us, be better humans, be better parents, to be better neighbors, to be better stewards for our injured cites, to be fully awake in this country of ours, in the world. Times are hard now. They are getting harder every day, and this is just one story. There will always be more, the stories of strangers, of friends and family, maybe even us. Stories about one life, or stories like Katrina, like 9/11, like Baghdad, like Gaza.

Despite the murderer’s explanation, it wasn’t hard times or financial need that brought about the death of this American child. It might have hastened it, or shaped the narrative, but that wasn’t the reason. There isn’t one easy reason for a tragedy like this, there hardly ever is. It’s a thousand things coming together and it’s also a thousand missed chances. It’s incomprehensible, a black hole of hurt and want. So, again, what do we do? We walk up to the edge and witness. We listen and watch. We bear it. Because it is and we are. To reduce reality to something, some place, where such black holes don’t happen just makes us less viable, and actually makes the world less survivable.

When I read liprap’s post about Ja’Shawn, it reminded me of a part of a theater piece by Anna Deaveare Smith. The video is below, and the piece I was reminded of starts at 6:10, though I’d recommend watching all four parts. Some of it is awfully difficult but it’s an amazing performance.

While Myisha Jenkins’ story does bear a very slight resemblance to Ja’Shawn’s, it was Smith’s introduction toA Mirror to Her Mouththat I flashed on after reading liprap, the part where she quotesMaxine Greene about the idea of negative imagination. Because that is what the black hole is, negative imagination. A vaccuum without possibility.

Despite what she told Smith, Greene has done a lot of valuable work around the questions of how we as a people deal with tragedy, particularly how we teach our children to live with the incomprehensible. Not necessarily to solve it, or comprehend it, but to live with it, to bear it.

Below, Greene is talking about children but I think it applies to all of us.

And yet, it seems to me, the crucial demand of our time is to attend, to
pay heed. Only as we do attend to those pressed into invisibility by
disaster can we save ourselves from the corruptions of indifference.
Only as we notice
intentionally notice the person, in the windblown
robes in Darfur (the young woman raped by her enemy, now holding a baby,
the fruit of that rape, in her lap) can we avoid becoming objects
ourselves because of the ease of transforming that young mother into a
thing, a mere object. And the problem today (or one of the manifold
problems) is to enable the young to develop a sense of agency through
learning to learn, to imagine, to empathize. Only through that feeling
of agency, even in the face of the uncontrollable, can young people
collaborate to develop some mode of making a difference, even without a
promise of completion or success.

2 thoughts on “Negative Imagination

  1. Exactly! Once again, as much as we possibly can, we need to keep compassion at the forefront of all our human interactions. I think that got lost somewhere in the last eight-plus years or so…and then some…

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