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Re-imagining the Possibilities

I am about to make a broad and sweeping generalization, but I believe it to be true: The failure of modern living is the failure of the imagination.

The root meaning of the word imagine is “to picture to oneself.” In other words, when we imagine, we create an inner picture of something not visible to our physical eye. One kind of picture we are all accustomed to is an image of something we have done or witnessed. This is the visual aspect of memory. It is not imagination. Imagination requires something more of us. It requires that we see what we have not seen, what we may never see, what may not even exist.

Obviously, literature is the royal road that enables us to enter the realm of the imaginative. Literature enables us to experience what it is like to be someone else. Through literature we experience other modes of being. Through literature we recognize who we are and who we might become.

It is summer, 1956. I am seventeen years old, about to enter college. I don’t know what made me think of my senior English class and the unit on Romantic poetry that summer, but I did. And I remembered reading about the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and that something about him had, yes, caught my imagination. So I went to the library and checked out a biography of Shelley. The discovery that there had been someone in the world who had not believed in God was revolutionary. In his atheism Shelley presented me — the son of a fundamentalist Methodist minister — with the possibility that there were ways to be other than the one I knew. I can still see the seventeen-year-old me sitting beneath the large tree in our front yard making my first attempts at writing poetry and, by the end of that summer, reaching a startling decision: I wanted to be a writer. Because of Percy Bysshe Shelley I knew I was not destined to be a minister like my grandfather and father; I knew I would not be the pianist my mother wanted me to be. Because of Percy Bysshe Shelley I reimagined what was possible for my life and responded to something in my soul that had theretofore not been recognized.

Literature invites us into realms of the soul by asking us to imagine that we are someone other than who we are. Literature requires that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others. Literature is the place where the possibility of blacks and whites and men and women experiencing each other is created. I am convinced that if I can bring you into my being through the use of the imagination, then I have created the possibility that you and I will see that we are more alike than we may have thought.

In 1978 the now-deceased novelist John Gardner published a small book called On Moral Fiction. It was daring of him to use the word moral, because he risked guilt by association with those who seek to ban books, legislate personal behavior, and have us all re-created in the image of a god who is a perfect reflection of them. But morality is not a prescription list of dos and don’ts. Morality is about the spirit we bring to living, and, by implication, to literature. If, in the presence of a person or a book, we feel ourselves mysteriously but unmistakably confirmed as human beings, if we sense that life itself is being celebrated in this book or person, then we are in the presence of the moral.

John Gardner put it this way:

We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. It is not didactic because, instead of teaching by authority and force, it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach. It clarifies . . . and confirms. . . . [M]oral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.

Perhaps the key phrases are “thoroughly honest search” and “explores open-mindedly. We are not accustomed to conceiving of the moral either as searching or exploring “open-mindedly,” or imaginatively.

Let me try to explain what I mean by describing my own career as a writer. In thirty years I have published fiction for adults and children, poetry for adults and children, books of political, cultural and social commentary, literature, history, religion, and autobiography. I write for children as well as adults because my moral vision of what it means to be human includes children, and that means the child who resides in each of us. Children’s literature offers a kind of moral space all too often absent from much contemporary adult literature.

In my books I put ordinary people in ordinary situations and watch what happens, because that is who we are — ordinary people living in ordinary situations of family, school, work, and leisure. This is why my work focuses mostly on the lives of the ordinary people who are the bedrock of black history.

I learned this point of view from my father, a minister who grew up on a farm outside Brinkley, Arkansas. Although his profession gave him an elevated social standing in the black communities of Kansas City, Kansas, and Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up, my father was always more comfortable with ordinary people. Many years after I left home I flew to Nashville to visit my parents, and my father met me at the airport. As we walked from the gate to the parking lot, I couldn’t help but notice that as we passed blacks who worked in the airport — skycaps, cleaning people — my father greeted each one and each one responded, calling him by name.

Through my father I learned not only a respect for poor people and working people but a respect for the past. I loved to hear my father talk about what things had been like when he had been a child and through him I acquired a love of listening to older people. I can remember listening to their stories and feeling sad that I could not be in their minds so I could see the pictures they were seeing as they recounted what things had been like.

I grew up with a view that history was not what was found in books but what was lived by ordinary people whose names never appeared in books. So it was natural that I would want to put their stories and as many of their names as I could find into books. In To Be a Slave, Long Journey Home, This Strange New Feeling, From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, and Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, I try to show the dignity and courage in lives thought to have none.

I have also sought to give these lives voices through which they can be heard for themselves. This is the moral underpinning of my books of retellings — Black Folktales, The Knee-High Man, the Uncle Remus Tales, How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have?, John Henry, and What a Truly Cool World. Although the language of these retellings is contemporary, the spirit of the stories is theirs, a spirit that was still very much a part of my cultural landscape when I grew up in the forties and fifties. My books about slavery and the books of folkloric retellings are different sides of the same experience, different expressions of the same moral imperative — the communication of the humanity of those whose humanity has been denied, an invitation to the reader to live in the imagination what others lived in the flesh.

Another element informing the moral perspective of my work is my belief that books for children should introduce them to language as a source of wonder and power, that language should carry the reader beyond the narrows of reason and into the infinity of the imaginative. So I take great care to craft language that sings, that evokes, that touches the imagination, because I want children to experience language in the fullness of its power.

Regardless of the intended age group, I make sure that the language of my books is familiar enough so the reader feels comfortable but that there is always something a little more difficult than he or she might expect, or even be ready for. This is not a matter of vocabulary as much as it is how I use images. In John Henry there is the scene in which the hero is trying to smash a boulder with his hammers:


The hammer hit the boulder. That boulder shivered like you do on a cold winter morning when it looks like the school bus is never going to come.


The boulder shivered like the morning when freedom came to the slaves.

In the first paragraph the simile is familiar, the boulder shivering like a child waiting for a school bus on a winter morning. But in the next paragraph, the boulder shivers “like the morning when freedom came to the slaves.” The meaning is not in the words of the simile. The meaning is in the emotional reverberations the simile sets off in the soul, reverberations that echo back in time to a historical moment and forward to next February when that child is waiting for the bus and suddenly, for reasons that child will never understand, time collapses and compresses and for an instant he or she is not sure if now is then or then is now — and that big rock over there looks like it could use a warm coat, or at least a scarf.

In Sam and the Tigers I sought to do something different with language. How to take Little Black Sambo, a book many had condemned as racist and immoral, and make it moral? Obviously, I had to use language that would not only create an entirely different atmosphere than that of the original but also direct readers’ attention into and out of the story, simultaneously. I believe that the subject matter of literature is feelings — whether the book is Anna Karenina or Sam and the Tigers — and so I came up with figures of speech that described emotions:

He held up a coat as red as a happy heart . . .

Sam looked until he found a pair of pants as purple as a love that would last forever . . .

Sam found a pair of silver shoes shining like promises that are always kept . . .

He pointed to an umbrella as green as a satisfied mind.

I wanted to concretize the emotions of a boy who is undergoing the coming-of-age ritual of making the decision as to what clothes his parents are to buy him. So Little Black Sambo became an initiation story, and the language attempted to convey the emotional awe of such a moment, a moment we have all experienced, though we may not consciously recall it.

It is the writer’s responsibility to create the language through which we recognize our souls. Perhaps this responsibility weighs more heavily on those of us who write for children — and it should. It is through our words that children first encounter the possibilities of language, first understand that there are words for inchoate feelings, first believe that words can give one the power to name what is inside.

I think of writing as a sacred trust in which I re-imagine the possibilities of living in the soul. My books are consciously directed at the soul of the reader, which means that what I write is an expression of my soul. And I define the soul as that piece of the Divine which has been put into my keeping, that piece of the Divine which has been placed in your keeping.

I was initiated into this process of re-imagining possibilities by a gift from my first wife. I had mentioned casually one day that I thought it would be interesting to own a human skull. Imagine my surprise when, after happening upon one in a curio shop in New York’s Greenwich Village, she bought it for me.

I did not know how to respond when I opened the gift box and saw someone’s skull inside. At first I was afraid of it. I felt pity for whomever this had been, and I tried to imagine what kind of life one had to have led for one’s head to end up in the window of a shop in Greenwich Village. I put the skull beside my typewriter — which gives you an indication of how long ago this was — and over the days and weeks I began to know it. I would stare at the sockets where its eyes had been, the holes of its nostrils, the exposed teeth. I would hold the skull and press the bones beneath the eye sockets and then I would press my face in the same places until I felt the identical spot. And gradually I became aware of the skull beneath my skin.

As I became more acquainted with the skull, I was intrigued by the fact that I had no idea whether this person had been male, female, white, black, Jewish, or Muslim. I knew that a physical anthropologist could have told me, but that was secondary to the fact that an untrained eye could not look at the skull and know its gender, race, religion, or nationality.

And I began looking at people and removing the skin from their faces to try to see their skulls. I realized that we are all skulls. A hundred years from now, if all our skulls were placed side by side, no one would know which one was me and which was you. And yet, we all prize our individuality. There’s the wonder and the challenge. We are at once unique individuals with special gifts and at the same time, we are mere skulls. A few hundred years from now, no one will know that most of us were here. At the most, our names may appear on a line in a genealogical chart one of our weird descendants will be obsessed with keeping. So, for over thirty years now, I have kept a human skull on my desk or a shelf nearby to remind me that as unique as I am, I am also a skull, and my years as a skull will be infinitely longer than the pitifully few years of my unique individuality.

So, when I write, it is my sacred trust to write to your skullness, to love and cherish the fact that we are all skulls and life is all too short and we will all die much too soon. This is the human reality, and because this is so, how dare we expend so much energy, so much time, so much intelligence on race and gender and religion and nationality? How absurd we are to invest meaning in skin color, and whether one has breasts or not, and where one lives, and whether one goes to this church or that mosque. How pathetically stupid!

I take seriously the Unseen and the Unknowable, regarding it and living in relationship to it as if it is seen and known. An interviewer once asked the novelist Joyce Carol Oates for whom she wrote. She replied simply, “God.” So I write to that part of the reader, that part of you, which exists beyond and separate from definitions of gender, race, and all the socio-political definitions that hang from our limbs and rattle like the chains of Jacob Marley’s ghost. There is a sacred place in each of us, whether we know it or not. It is from that place I seek to write, and it is to that place in you my words seek to go.

But if this relationship is to exist, you must take responsibility for that place of Sacred Truth in yourselves. You must take responsibility for the Unseen and the Unknowable and the mystery of it all: the terror and the awe and the beauty. In Judaism we speak of tikkun haolam, repair of the universe, meaning that it is the responsibility of each of us to make the universe whole, and the only way to do that is to take responsibility for that portion of the universe put into our keeping, namely, ourselves. Reb Simchah Bunam, a Chasidic rabbi, wrote:

The Lord created the world in a state of beginning. The universe is always in an uncompleted state, in the form of its beginning. It is not like a vessel at which the master works to finish it; it requires continuous labor and renewal by creative forces. Should these cease for only a second, the universe would return to primeval chaos.

Because so much of my writing is directed toward the child, I live with an abiding trust that we will repair the universe and make it whole. But the words I put to paper are only an approximation of the shadows of a reality where all is always and forever well, a reality in which we know we are skulls and exult in that fact. All we have to offer each other is the quality of who we are as human beings.

Julius Lester teaches in the Judaic studies, English, and history departments at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His most recent book, Pharoah’s Daughter (Harcourt), was published this spring. Lester’s article is adapted from speeches delivered at the USBBY Regional conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in October 1999 and at the NCTE Orbis Pictus luncheon in Denver, Colorado, in November 1999.

From the May/June 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read more from The Horn Book by Julius Lester.

Julius Lester About Julius Lester

Julius Lester (1939-2018) is the author To Be a Slave (illustrated by Tom Feelings), a Newbery Honor winner; Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History; When the Beginning Began: Stories About God, the Creatures, and Us (illustrated by Emily Lisker); and Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, among many others. His frequent collaborations with Jerry Pinkney included their iconic John Henry (winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award); The Old African; Sam and the Tigers; and collections of Uncle Remus tales.

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