Guest Blog: In a Time Before Cable, On a Night Without Internet
This is like balm. True, it is a blog, that unlovely word, and it’s coming at us on a screen, and I was tempted to read it too fast, in that careless way that we consume so much of our small and micro-screen media. We consume, sork, slurp, suck down, skim, glance, check out, share, go to, look over.
But this blog made me read. Beyond that, I did exactly what Imani writes about doing herself. I stopped reading several times and let the imagination that she engaged do its thing. I played for a minute, in my mind. Even my breathing is slower now.
Have a read yourself… – Lorene
We are houseguests and the floor is bare. Its unvarnished wood planks are more gray than brown. By the time my mother and I have arrived it is already late in the evening. He shuffles about, making awkward gestures at hosting the way aging bachelors often do. But soon enough he leaves us to our own devices in his living room. That is when he retreats off the stage of my memory.
I do not even remember who he was and I prefer not to have my impressionistic recollection disrupted with details. He was a family friend. That is enough. And his bookshelves were tall. They covered every wall I turned to. The books were mostly paperbacks, some arranged appropriately with allied spines of common height. Others were stacked too high, and teetering. Inescapable, the books defined the space.
We slept on the couch, and before us there was a modest black and white television atop a small wood table. After the lights were off the television remained on, as was our habit. Back then in the 1970s, entertainment was not customized. In the small collection of choices available you found something that caught your fancy, either a lot or a little bit. And if you liked it just a little, you let your mind wander and play during the broadcast. Being distracted by your thoughts was a standard part of watching. This made falling asleep to the hum of the television kind of nice. I snuggled close to my mother. The blankets were too thin, especially for an unfamiliar place. The illuminated figures on the television screen cast a dancing glow upon the books surrounding us. TV rays scrolled about, making titles clear, and then recklessly throwing some tome back into obscurity. At night oftentimes inanimate objects haunt us with their stillness. But these books formed a mysterious yet safe cocoon. Even a caver, looking for walls of crystal and ancient drawings would have been wrapped up into this seductive moment. I was less curious about the content of those books (I was a small child after all) than satisfied by their presence. Knowing that many of my unknowns had been documented somewhere, and were waiting for me to discover them, was plenty.
Books, for literate generation x-ers and their predecessors, reminded one that making and telling one’s own stories was always possible. No, not because everyone thought they had a bestseller book inside them waiting to be written. But books were a central form of entertainment, and they could capture your heart without taking up all your senses. And so you got a sense of your own creativity inside them. You write with authors as you read fiction. You make up voices and faces and even the precise color blue when the author writes that the shirt is blue. That was an everyday enjoyment once upon a time.
The same can be said for many other types of entertainments and forms of art. Whose mind hasn’t wandered at a baseball game? And isn’t it the case that we sometimes weep at beautiful music because it triggers an avalanche of memory or longing. Don’t we sometimes find our souls buoyed by a certain painting because we fill it up with what we take it to mean, or even make up the story behind a captivating print advertisement as we ride the bus?
The imagination is a precious gift. She makes an artist of each of us. With her we create and that is a fundamentally human act. But everlasting consumption can drown her out and I am afraid of that. Who ever gets bored anymore? Who is forced to sit with their questions and answers? There are hundreds and thousands of channels and facebook updates and tweets and youtube videos and shows and bits, all clamoring at once, and the territory for making a retreat into the sweet dark interior grows smaller and smaller. We are losing our landscapes to a hypermedia invasion.
Despite what I have said, I greatly appreciate televisual media. And until very recently I was an avid television watcher. But I have slowed over the past two years, to watching a few hours per week. And sometimes I go long stretches without a single show. I was yearning for the comforting mystery of a time when there was often truly nothing to watch, and so I re-created it by narrowing my tastes. Today my walls are lined with books and great big windows. The car and street lights, outside looking in, illuminate the spines erratically. Sometimes I play a game of divination and select a street-highlighted text, open to a random page, run my finger to the middle, and take the words I find as a message. Like these just now:
“Aasha, stricken but tempted towards hope by this brief silence, holds her gaze” (from Everything is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan)
I say we guard the magic of our imaginations in the face of the great invasion. It doesn’t require disappearing from the digital age. Lord knows I adore my iPhone and twitterfeed. This guarding is less like sword and shield protection and more like mopping up a seeping mess or throwing away a sea of paper covering your desk. It is nothing more than making space: A walk in the forest. A paintbrush on canvas. A gaze on a sculpture. A book in hand. A soundless drive. A held gaze. A midnight with a muted television, and dancing bodies of light.
Imani Perry is a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of two books: More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York University Press, 2011) and Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004.) She is also the editor of the Barnes and Nobles Classics Edition of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, and the author of numerous articles on race, law and culture. Professor Perry holds a Ph.D. and a J.D. from Harvard University, and a B.A. from Yale. She is the mother of two sons, and lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Follow her on twitter: @ImaniPerry