Creating Reparations: How Might We Nurture the Unreasonable Imagination?

I have focused the second quarter of my 11th grade American History curriculum on reading Ta-Nahisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” as a lens through which to look at post-Reconstruction America. His writing and ideas are, as is now widely known and recognized, lyrical, compelling, challenging and important.

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Our guiding question. A biggie.

I may, at some point, post something more detailed about how we made meaning from this complex text, which teaches history as I believe it should be taught — as a spiral, past seeping into present seeping back into past and future — but right now I want to return to the idea that we, as teachers, must
make sparking, cultivating, and sustaining a radical imagination our work.
And, as our Design Thinking partners will remind us, this beautiful imagining must be coupled with a bias towards action.

Our culminating projects for this inquiry have been to imagine a way to make reparations for slavery, for Jim Crow, for redlining — for centuries of legalized and institutional racism. Coates does not make any specific recommendations — something some of students were annoyed by. Rather, he suggests that funding HR-40, a bill that would authorize the study of what reparations might mean, is the very least we can do. I asked my students: how might we make reparations for slavery? Students went through a wild ideation phase (paint the white house black! Give Black people our own continent! Dye everyone green!), and slowly narrowed their foci down to issues and ideas that pulled at us and seemed do-able.

My students chose interesting and compelling ideas: some are working on how to make reparations through health, some through education, a few through a fair housing market, some through the race gap in wealth accumulation, and others are looking at the criminal justice system and mandatory minimum sentences.

While their ideas are wonderful and some are startlingly original, this work of re-making the world is hard. And it’s uncomfortable, and students are, in general, not used to doing it. We have not asked them to do this — to unbridle and unfetter their beautiful minds and to deputize them to act on their ideas. Mostly, we ask students to rearrange information, and talk about it. Mostly, we do not ask them to create ideas from whole cloth.

So their ideas are good — the suggestions and actions they are taking would make the world a better place than it is now.  Yes, we need affordable housing.  We need better ethnic studies in school. Our courts are wack. Fast food is killing communities of color.

But, these ideas are not mind-blowing.

They are reasonable. They are reasonable solutions to unreasonable conditions.

I realized, after smiling through their pitches for reparations to me, that I did not do a good job nurturing the outrageous, the astonishing, the wondrous.  As I watch my students struggle to imagine reparations for what some argue is America’s original sin, I realize that I need to enter another dimension of possibility with them, a dimension I, as a consummately reasonable adult, am certain I don’t fully understand.

I want to free them — in our safe little cave of experimentation and love — to be unreasonable in their imaginings of a world free of the oppressive structures and mechanisms that confine us all, and to imagine what lies in that stunning, freeing dimension.

I’m keeping at it. As one of my heroes Tony Kushner says: let the great work begin.

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3 thoughts on “Creating Reparations: How Might We Nurture the Unreasonable Imagination?

  1. Oh my, Shannon! I got all kinds of feels while reading this. *Radical* imagination is really you doing what say you mean to do: awaken the power to envision that which we do not yet know. And my first thought was that in this exercise we are asking our students to do what we have not yet been brave enough to try ourselves. ( I say “we” here because I identify strongly with your purpose & approach.) This must be very difficult work because we (adults especially) do not practice it. We typically steer our thoughts and actions in quite the other direction: towards the safe, secure, predictable, and established. So what you are doing here with your students is a phenomenal example with so many possibilities for continuing, iterating, stepping outside the stream of “normalcy” to dream adventures which may benefit us all. Nurturing the outrageous is something we can all strive for. With your choice of topic you have already approached the outrageous on so many levels, believe me. Thank you for teaching dangerously.

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    1. Sherri, thank you so much for your deep reading and your deep thinking. I do think this is so hard for all of us, and I feel lucky — so very lucky — to be doing this work with young people who will go along with me on these flights. I am also so happy to be in dialogue with people like you, and be able to create a radically imaginative community across oceans and time zones. We need one another!

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