Last week's unusual snowfall closed roads, schools, and caused several event cancellations including 2 talks by Walidah Imarisha. The award-winnning author and historian was supposed to discuss black history in the state and prison reform.
Imarisha says that even as a child she’s always been a history nerd. So when she moved to Oregon as a high schooler it was natural for her to want to dig into the past to understand why she was only one of a few students of color.
IMARISHA: “Being in Springfield and Eugene was very instrumental in my beginning to question you know race and identity and power.”
As a historian and author, Imarisha tours around the county, giving lectures that include her research on black history. She often explains exclusionary laws that banned black people from living in Oregon. That past, she says, still effects people in today.
IMARISHA: “If people are not aware of that, then it’s probably because they have the privilege of not having to be aware of how their race is privileging and determining their existence in here in Oregon.”
She says she visits Springfield and Eugene often and still has friends and family here. However, she says, not much has changed since she left.
IMARISHA: “There have been some demographic shifts especially at my high school. I think that the underlying issues are still the same because they are institutional and deep seated. And there’re not something that time or demographic shifts that will change on their own.”
Understanding Oregon’s history led to her desire to change the future. In 2015 Imarisha co-edited Octavia’s Brood with Adrienne Maree Brown. It’s an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories that suggest all organizing is science fiction.
IMARISHA: “Every time we imagine a world without prisons, a world without borders, a world without oppression, that’s science fiction because we’ve never seen that world.”
Imarisha also came up with the term Visionary Fiction.
IMARISHA: “For me, Visionary Fiction is very deeply rooted in the context of organizing of saying how can we use this space to imagine beyond what we’re being told is possible because true liberation and true freedom exist beyond the boundaries of what society tells us is possible.”
For Oregon, she says one of the pieces of visionary fiction is that it has to be collective.
IMARISHA: “No one person is going to have the answer that actually we’re all so much more brilliant and ingenious and creative when our individual creativity come together collectively.”
Imarisha says it’s going to take a lot of work to uproot institutional racism, but people have to acknowledge its existence first. But history, she says, has always shown that when there’s oppression there’s resistance.
IMARISHA: “Black people were outlawed from living in the Oregon territory, they were told their presence made them criminals and that they would be publically whipped until they left the territory and they stayed. To me that is a visionary act."
Imarisha says at the moment she’s focusing on alternatives to incarceration. Her nonfiction book, Angels With Dirty Faces, details experiences both in and around the prison system.
Event organizers and Imarisha are working on rescheduling her events for a later date.