The celebration of  Black History Month at the Harris School of Public Policy  — with “Black Radical Imagination” as its theme — began with a challenge.

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, told the audience gathered at the Keller Center on February 1 that they would explore “Black Radical Imagination.” That phrase was coined by historian and University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Robin D.G. Kelley to describe Black people’s dreams of the possible. 

But, he said, he would urge them to go a step further, to understand how to “decolonize” their imaginations, imaginations that for so many years have been beset with limitations “on what you can think, what you even believe you can be.” 

“When your imagination is colonized, you don't have the ability to go outside of boxes that somebody else designed for you,” he said.

Colonization of the Black imagination, Moss added, is “one of the greatest tragedies promoted by the myth of white supremacy.”

Domination of people, land, and culture is aimed at replacing “ideas of equality and agency and sovereignty with myths of inferiority and brokenness and limited capacity,” he said.

Rev. Dr. Moss signs copies of his book "Dancing in the Darkness"

Colonization, he added, seeks to create narratives that “infect the psyche and would also corrupt the soul.”

Moss’ “Decolonizing the Imagination” keynote was the kickoff event of Harris’ Black History Month 2024 celebration. It led a lineup that includes gatherings and community building and the Feb. 23 Keller Center panel discussion on “Sports, Race, and Labor.” Featuring  Bomani Jones, an award-winning sports commentator and podcast host, and moderated by Associate Professor Damon Jones, the panel will touch on topics ranging from NCAA student athletes (and their ability to earn money from endorsements) to the racial dynamics in collegiate and professional sports. 

Harris’ Black History Month series seeks to illuminate “ways in which we hope to imagine society transform,” Aremu Mbande, Harris’ associate director of Diversity and Inclusion, said at the start of Moss’s keynote. That keynote, Mbande said, was centered on “interrogating how our collective imaginations continue to shape the future.”

To discuss shaping the future, Moss tossed out examples from history including of Africa before the Atlantic slave trade. He went back to the past to quote Harlem Renaissance poet Anita Scott Coleman and returned to the present to talk about best-selling author Isabel Wilkerson. 

And as he spoke, the power of his voice reached beyond the audience, drawing students, faculty, and staff from throughout the Keller Center. They peered down from the four levels of the atrium, captivated by stories like the one Moss shared about jazz.

“We decolonize our imagination when we recognize that resistance has always been in us, even in the music that we play,” he said. 

With its roots in New Orleans’ Congo Square, jazz teaches America about democracy, he said, because in jazz “you have instruments that are not supposed to play together, but they play together anyhow.”

The saxophone, Moss said, “is designed specifically for a marching band. The piano is designed specifically for European classical music. And the drum set was not intended to play African polyrhythms.” 

And as Rev. Dr. Moss spoke, the power of his voice reached beyond the audience, drawing students, faculty, and staff from throughout the Keller Center.

All these seemingly disparate instruments make jazz together, he said, “but what jazz music does that is so powerful and unique is that each instrument, each musician is given the right to solo.” 

“You will never hear in a jazz band, the piano demanding to the saxophone ‘You have to sound just like me.’ You'll never see the drum trying to oppress the bass, or the bass trying to oppress the piano,” Moss said. “Everybody brings something to the table that adds to the composition.”

“America could learn a lot from jazz music,” he said. “We could learn that you don't try to shut down Black history, …but you allow people to play from their particular perspectives and rhythms.”

“This is the power of when we choose to decolonize our imagination,” he said. “Are you willing to center your own stories? Are you willing to share and learn stories from other people? Are you willing to recognize that resistance is baked into our culture and narrative?”

Throughout Black History Month, Moss said he hoped his audience would “learn the stories that decolonize.”

“Learn those stories” he said, “and let those stories be at the center if we are to dare to decolonize the imagination.”

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