Imagine That


Over the years, I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like if I’d grown up in a different time and place. How I’d sound speaking Russian or Swahili (I do have some idea about Swahili — not that great!). Whether I’d been born as a peasant or into a nobleman’s household. Whether I would’ve displayed the same intelligent, the same tenacity that I’ve learned to tap into over the past four decades. As a person who spends a significant amount of time in self-reflection and as an historian, it’s truly an interesting exercise.

But it’s much more interesting to do it as a world historian than an American or African American one. In the other two cases, imagining myself in eighteenth or nineteenth-century America around folks like Thomas Jefferson, Horace Greeley or Teddy Roosevelt leads only to one conclusion. That I would’ve heard the N-word over and over and over again, as if it were my real first name. Even if I’d somehow pulled off in W.E.B. Du Bois’ time what I’ve done up until now, the best case scenario for my life would be working as a professor at Howard or Morehouse, or teaching history in the segregated DC or Baltimore Public Schools. This wasn’t insignificant for elite, educated Blacks in early twentieth-century America. But it’s still a limited set of options in a world where race and class mattered every moment of every day.

This would explain why so many Black intellectuals became American expatriates over the past one hundred or so years. From Josephine Baker to Du Bois and James Baldwin, often the best place to live for talented folks of color in an American context has been outside of the US. American citizenship does have its privileges, ironically, if one lives away from the great beacon of democracy.

So it’s easier for me to think about what it would be like to live my life in a world context, like say, in Roman times, during the time of the Arab Caliphates, or in modern-day China. To think that I’d dream continually in another language or languages. Or that the people I’d meet would likely be less selfish and narcissistic (or more so) than the ones I’ve met over the years. To see myself as an expert in Roman, Arab, or Chinese history than in American history. To write stories of love and loss, triumph and tragedy with a different cultural and philosophical lens than the one I have now. The possibilities would be more than I could comprehend.

But then reality sets in. As an historian, I realize the one simple truth of human history. For most of it, about nine out of ten modern humans have held one occupation: peasant. Even people with great intellectual potential tended to lead simple, if difficult, lives. Farming for basic sustenance. Even in the great civilizations of China, India, Mesopotamia, Greece, Mesoamerica, the Andes, Rome, and West Africa, this has been the case. Still, a simple village life of family, love, farming and religion would seem like a blessing compared to the great complexities that I deal with every day.

Or, of course, I could’ve found myself in someone’s military, a harsh existence under the best and most victorious of circumstances. One billion modern humans have died as a result of war since 10,000 BCE, and serving as a soldier, even when well-trained, pretty much guaranteed injury or death. Still, it might’ve been cool if I’d been a ranking soldier among the Mongols or Arab Muslim armies. Not so much, though, to be part of a Roman or Greece city-state army.

Given my spiritual, philosophical and religious struggles, I may have well ended up in a priesthood or its equivalent in different times, both an intellectually and politically powerful position in many a civilization. A Brahman in India, the Mandarin class in Han China, a Jesuit in France, all intriguing possibilities when most people in the world weren’t able to read or write. In other settings, though, castration to become a eunuch in some imperial court would’ve been involved, not something I’m interested in at forty. It’s painful to just think about.

So it’s interesting to look at our times to consider what is and isn’t possible. With White women (despite this week’s Time Magazine cover on the “American Women”, not to mention Gail Collins’ latest book), some Black and Latino women, and individuals like President Obama breaking through the barriers of race, gender, class and religion, I guess we can imagine ourselves into a reality that most would think impossible. On the other hand, as a historian, I also recognize that people, even friends and loved ones, might fight us every single step of the way, and then continue the fight once reality and imagination become one in our lives.

Maybe that’s why so many of us see Obama as great or as the anti-Christ. It certainly explains why we treat our leaders — however flawed — like crap in their years, days and hours before their tragic deaths. Like Gandhi, JFK, MLK, Abraham Lincoln. Or, for that matter, like Joan of Arc, Confucius or Jesus of Nazareth himself. Maybe that’s because those living symbols of making the impossible possible strained the imaginations of so many. To the point where there was a collective break with the imagined or real as a result. Unfortunately, history shows how unimaginative most of us are.

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