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When They See Us Yesterday

When They See Us Yesterday: The Black Imagination Beyond State Violence

I believe we can build a world where the Black Imagination no longer has to be a response to state-sanctioned violence.

This article contains light spoilers for “See You Yesterday” and “When They See Us”.

I sat down with my Queer Parent and one of our close friends to watch the new Netflix Original Movie, See You Yesterday. It is a film by Stefon Bristol about two Black kids, CJ and Sebastian, who build a contraption that sends them back a day in time. They attempt to use this newly-invented technology to save CJ’s brother from being murdered by police. Shortly thereafter, Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us premiered on Netflix. This is a four-part dramatized series that covers the stories of all five boys known under the moniker of Central Park 5: Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, and Kevin Richardson.

After watching these films, just days apart, I began imagining what it would be like for those five boys if they had access to creating a different future through time travel. What if there was an alternate universe in which those five boys never had to learn what it meant to survive the state; to live through (Black) Death. Imagine with me, for a moment, that prison abolition is the time travel we need to transform the lives of Black folks in the future.

The Black Imagination has conjured awe-inspiring realities. Black people have manifested new futures through our imagination. When we were unsure of how we would eat, our Mothers were able to imagine a future in which we are fed. When we were unsure of how rent would be paid, our Mothers imagined a future in which we are housed. We draw on phrases like “where there’s a will, there’s a way” to bring to fruition a new morning—the one that comes after a night of rain: where dew rests on grass and the sun shines bright. 

This is often how we travel through time. Our minds see a moment where we have what we need and eventually our realities catch up to it. But what if the Central Park 5 had a real time machine?

When They See Us (2019) via Netflix

If Kevin could travel back in time, to the moment he was preparing to go play basketball with his friend, maybe he would have chosen to go straight to the basketball court or head home and practice to become first chair in his school’s band. If Yusef could travel back in time, maybe he would have chosen to continue making plans for the weekend with his friend rather than following the rest of the boys to the park. Maybe Antron would have continued eating and talking sports with his father. Maybe Raymond would have gone to the party with his boys. And as Ava invited us to picture in the fourth part of When They See Us, maybe Korey would have chosen to stay with his girlfriend.

Had they been able to time travel, they would go back to a moment where the park was a place of refuge and playfulness and not a site of death. Maybe, in that reality, Yusef would have never had to remind Kevin at a meeting for registered sex offenders that he was still loved, even if only by his mom and sister. Maybe they would not have had to register as sex offenders at all. If they could travel through time, maybe Raymond would have led a life that would not have led him to selling drugs; a moment in time where his father would not have had to tell him that “what them people stole from [him], [he] can’t buy back.” Maybe Kevin’s sister would not have had to sit with him in the juvenile detention center to tell him that he needed to find something to look forward to; at 14, without that moment in the park, he would have still had his entire life to look forward to. Maybe Antron would go back to a time where he and his father were best friends, where they could sit and eat while arguing playfully over sports, and not have to live in a moment where guilt led his father to hating himself, leading Antron to hating him.

I imagine that the moment Korey heard the white male juror ring out three “guilty” verdicts, and right after he ran over to the prosecutor, that he would have happily used CJ and Sebastian’s tech to travel back to a few moments. Ava walks us through what it would be like had he chosen to stay with his girlfriend instead of going to the park, but I want to imagine that he traveled back to the moment he said yes to supporting Yusef at the precinct. Maybe the park was fun to him and, therefore, not something he would regret later. But he only said yes to supporting Yusef because Yusef’s mom would “kill him if he didn’t.” So what if he knew about just how much Yusef’s mom did not care about him? Maybe he would have allowed Yusef to go to the precinct by himself, which would mean he never falls asleep there and thus does not take the biggest fall of the five. Or maybe he chooses to go back to the moment in front of the store with his sister, who he called “big bro,” where she catches him skipping school and tells him not to. Perhaps, following that moment, he becomes a star student; he learns to read, develops aspirations for his life, and goes off to college—taking care of Marci the way she once took care of him.

Instead, Korey sits in prison, beaten and isolated for years. At one point he says to his “officer friend,” Officer Roberts, “I like when you call me ‘kid.’” This signifies to me that he is trying to cling to the childhood he was robbed of. In an alternate world, one we arrived at through time travel, I imagine Korey would not have to cling to what he was already living.

See You Yesterday (2019) via Netflix

So what happens when we continuously imagine futures in response to trauma instead of futures where trauma no longer exists? How do we arrive at/to freedom if we are constantly imagining how to survive Death?

Here is our reality: we don’t have time travel. There is no time machine coming to take those five boys back in time. However, what if the answer was never in time travel? What See You Yesterday teaches us, and where it really comes to play in this analysis, is that no amount of traveling through time can save us from state violence. Our actions don’t determine what helps us to live, the anti-Black, capitalistic state determines how quickly we will die. No amount of “what ifs” can change that.

What we do have is abolition. We have a possibility to do for the future what we can’t do for the past: ensure that no one else spends their life in a cage. Our labor, at this moment, can travel through time so that all things that led to those five boys’ incarceration—the prison industrial complex, anti-Blackness, capitalism, and rape culture—no longer exist.

I believe Korey’s depiction in When They See Us is a testament to this. While many would call Korey’s mind “unstable,” I would call it imaginative. He may not have had CJ and Sebastian’s tools and aspirations, but he did have a mind that allowed him, at least for a moment, to travel through time; to visualize an alternate reality; to reflect on that which had already transpired. In When They See Us, while locked away in his prison cell, Korey is continuously traveling through time in his mind; back to moments with his sister and to a moment in Coney Island with his girlfriend. He created a game of basketball with himself by using just a rolled up magazine. He found a friend in a roach crawling through his cell. Korey manifested a new reality for himself. One in which he did not have to experience his horrors alone; one where his horrors didn’t have to always be horrors. He found a way to travel through time to be with the folks he loved through using nothing more than his imagination, and when he could not be with others, he still found a way to not be alone.

Many would see him as “crazy” or “unstable” because of this, but I saw him as a Black man using the Black Imagination to create a new reality for himself in the same way that Black folks always have. And even if that does make him, and all of us, “unstable,” there is no value lost in that. When you are always already responding to state-sanctioned terror, instability becomes less of a commentary on who you are and more about your ability to survive. I believe Korey knew this, just as CJ and Sebastian did when they continued to find ways to make time travel a reality despite how many people refused to believe in their “outrageous” vision. In this way, prison abolition and time travel are not separate, but rather two things that work in tandem to bring to fruition a new world for Black people.

Prison abolition is the connection between the possible and the impossible. It binds Black people’s freedom to time travel. CJ and Sebastian show us this in See You Yesterday by never attempting to stop the police in their time travel, but instead trying to change events that would ever even lead to police involvement. Said differently, they recognized that police could never be their point of liberation, and so the Black Imagination never led them to that point. Instead, they worked through ideas that I believe subtly point to the need to remove police from ever being seen as an institution capable of being a savior if the two of them were ever going to save CJ’s brother and their overall community. This was Korey’s reality. His mind was his time travel, the gateway to his different ending, his freedom.

So, too, must our minds be in order for us to manifest a world where prisons—both figurative and literal—no longer exist. I believe we can build a world where the Black Imagination no longer has to be a response to state-sanctioned violence. When They See Us Yesterday, our future selves will know that freedom.

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Da’Shaun Harrison is a nonbinary abolitionist and organizer in Atlanta, GA. They write and speak publicly on race, sexuality, gender, class, religion, disabilities, fatness, and the intersection at which they all meet. Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book, “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness,” which is expected to be published in July 2021. Their portfolio and other work can be found on their site: dashaunharrison.com.

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