In her inspiring 99U talk, writer Ashley C. Ford explains how significant life experiences opened up her ability to expect things she didn’t previously think were possible for herself and others. The lack of imagination, Ashley tells us, is what holds us back as humans. But nurturing the superpower of imagination within yourself opens up endless possibilities for your work, life, and impact on other people.
About Ashley C. Ford: Ashley C. Ford is a writer, podcaster and educator who lives in Brooklyn. She is writing a memoir entitled Somebody’s Daughter, which will be published by Flatiron Books under the imprint An Oprah Book. Ford is working on a collection of interviews (B-Side Chats) with her husband, Kelly Stacy.
She was also the host of the first season of Audible.Com’s literary interview series, Authorized. She has been named among Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in Media (2017), Brooklyn Magazine’s Brooklyn 100 (2016), and Time Out New York’s New Yorkers of The Year (2017).
I wanna talk to you guys about a couple things today that have been running through my mind since about…hmm, November 2016. And and I’m not saying it’s political, okay? It’s not. It could be. And we’re gonna get into it a little bit. But it’s not so much about what happened then. It’s about what I couldn’t imagine then.
I couldn’t imagine at the end of 2016, to be perfectly honest, that we would still be here in 2019. It was really hard for me to imagine. That’s how badly my imagination had gotten. Like, that’s how terr- I just sort of like, you know what I did? I went to Harry Potter World. I’m not kidding, that’s what I did, because the only thing at that time that I could really think of that would help was magic. That was it. And I was like, “Yo, I’m not sure if magic exists, but if it’s anywhere … it’s at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” So I went, and I had a great time. I had a lot of fun.
And then my dad got out of prison after 30 years. Right? Couldn’t imagine that happening either! I thought he was gonna be there forever, I’m serious, and I know that right now that’s like, “Hey, that’s not really a joke,” But the truth is, I never thought I would get the opportunity to have my father, or be in a relationship with my father in the real world. And now it’s been years, and I talk to him on the phone all the time. We got into a fight once. Me and my dad, we got into a fight and I never thought that could happen. I giggled about it after the fight, because I was like, “Holy shit, I got into a fight with my DAD!”
There’s so many things that for most of us seem like everyday things. Very normal things that other people cannot imagine. When a lot of you sit down with an idea in your head and you create a beautiful piece that actually looks like what you had in your head, to me, that is magic. To me, you are magical.
I’m also a little big obsessed with superheroes. Always have been, you know? I think a lot of kids who grow up feeling a little out of control and like they’re in the middle of some chaos really, really love the idea that if things really went down they could save the day. And I was definitely one of those kids. Absolutely. I was one of those kids to the point that when my husband was just my boyfriend, not ‘just’ but you know, but when he was my boyfriend, he asked me, “Hey, if I were to propose some day,” which I was like, “you will.” He said, “You know, rings and things like that? Are you into that? Are you not into that? I don’t know how you feel about those things.” And I was like, “Very into rings. Yes. I am.”
But then I made, you know, the offhand comment which was also kind of a real comment for me, you know, “But I’d only accept a wedding ring made out of adamantium.” And if you guys don’t know what adamantium is, it’s essentially the stuff that Wolverine’s claws are made out of. And doesn’t technically exist, but we’ll see. But, before we could find out whether or not adamantium really exists, he wanted to propose. And so he proposed to me with an Avengers collectors ring with a Gamma ray symbol on it because my favorite Avenger is the Hulk. And he got himself one too. because they were really cool, and because that’s just who we are. And so those were our engagement rings, and he actually still wears his as his wedding ring. To appease his mother, we got a different ring for the wedding ceremony, but we bought that at the mall for like $8 and then we chucked it right after. Don’t tell her that! Do not tell her that, but that is what happened.
The superhero thing is something that has never gone away from me, and it never will. I just can’t help it. There is always part of me that is really, really hoping that I’m gonna be able to save the day, and I think I’ve come up with something that I can do, but also something that we all can do. And it is hard, but we can do it. Okay? So let’s just start there, no debate. It’s hard, but we can do it. Okay? Great! I’m so glad we agree.
So I want to tell you a couple stories about how you and I can become certain kinds of superheroes, because the thing is, I think, I really do think, guys, that the thing that ails us as a society, as a country, as a global community most of all, is a lack of imagination. So much of the things we hate or loathe or worry about, all of those things are about what we can’t imagine or won’t allow ourselves to imagine.
I am a queer black woman in America. Yes, queer, even though I have a husband, because I am bisexual and because as many married people can tell you, just because you are with one person doesn’t mean you stop being attracted to other people. It just doesn’t! My husband’s name is Kelly, but I am not a Kelly-sexual. I am still Ashley. And Ashley is attracted to all kinds of folks, so you know, watch out.
Imagination and what we can imagine, not just for ourselves, but for other people and about other people, is what can actually change the world. Racism is not really about hate, racism is about a lack of imagination. Racism is about what you can’t imagine that other person being worth, being worthy of, or being able to contribute to the world. That’s what that’s about. Classism? Same. All of these things that ail us: homophobia, transphobia, it’s all about what you can’t imagine might be true, could be normal, could be okay. When somebody says, “Eh, I don’t know if that can happen” what they’re really saying is, “I can’t imagine it happening, and so I have decided not to bet on it. I’ve decided not to take a leap of faith. I’ve decided not to hope.” And those are decisions we’re allowed to make, but that don’t make them decisions based in reality. They’re just decisions.
When I was about 18 years old, I went away to college. And I came from a community that was mostly black kids. Mostly. So when I went to college at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, which was a fantastic college- oh, we got Cardinals out here? Let’s go! Let’s go! But if you went there you know that it’s about 11% black, right? It’s different. And I encountered things that I had never heard before. I encountered conversations that I had never had to have before, and one of the things I got to do was go on something called an alternative break.
Now growing up, part of me wanting to be a superhero and wanting to help people meant I really wanted to get out there and help the poor, right? And my mom was like, “Yo, quit taking cans of food out of our pantry. We are the poor.” So I was like, “Oh!” Because I didn’t think of us that way. You know? That wasn’t a word I would’ve used to describe me or my family at that time in my life. So I thought it was my job to help and then I was told that, “No, you can help, but not in that way. We have to eat too.” And I was like, “Okay.”
And then I go on this alternative break in college, right? And we go to some place called War, West Virginia, and I go there as the only black kid on the trip to War, West Virginia, and I’m terrified. I’m like, “What did I get myself into? My grandmama told me not to do this. Why am I doing this?” But I had it in my head that I was gonna go there, and I just wanted to see something different. I just wanted to see a different part of the world. I wanted to know something. I had never been to Appalachia.
What I found in Appalachia was not just a community of people who are in great need of help, I found some of the most lovely people I had ever met in my entire life. I’m gonna tell you what I was worried about. I was worried that I was gonna get in this van and take my happy black ass to West Virginia, and I was gonna get outta that van ready to pick things up and take things places and these people were going to be like “What’s she doing here?” That’s what I was worried about. That didn’t happen. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen to someone else, I’m not saying it’s never happened to someone else, I’m saying it didn’t happen to me.
What happened to me was that I got to help throw a birthday party for about 35 kids in that community who hadn’t ever had birthday parties because they couldn’t afford them. What I got to do was go visit a man who built a cabin in the middle of a field by himself, with his own bare hands to help kick his addictions. I got to sit in a classroom and talk to seniors, some of whom were straight-A students, who couldn’t imagine doing anything with their lives except working in the same mines that their fathers and their grandfathers had. And that lack of imagination was killing them at 18 years old. They didn’t want to talk to the college kids who came because they didn’t even want to think about the fact that they are supposed to be thinking about whether or not to go to college. That decision had already been made for them. And they weren’t supposed to imagine anything else.
I’m gonna tell you another story. Really quickly, okay? When I was in about 7th grade, I had a tech teacher named Mr. Martin, and I used to fall asleep in Mr. Martin’s class every day. I fell asleep in his class every single day, and every day he was like, “ASHLEY FORD! “Wake up!” and I would. And then I’d fall asleep. And I’d be in trouble every single day. And then, Mr. Martin would see me wandering the halls of the middle school after school, after everybody else had left. What I would do would be hide in the bathroom and then I’d just walk around. I’d be like, “Nice, 8th grade hallway … 7th grade hallway … oh shit, Mr. Martin!” You know? And had to run. And Mr. Martin would be like, “Ashley Ford, get out of here!” You know? Every day!
And one day I saw him, I watched him make a different choice. I watched him decide to imagine that the reasons he thought I was falling asleep in class, and the reasons he thought I was skulking around the school after hours might not be what was actually happening. I’m walking down the hall, touching lockers, looking at stuff, and I see Mr. Martin at the end of the hallway. I get ready to run, and he goes, “Ashley, stop.” And I stop, and he goes, “Come here.” And I walk over, and he goes, “Why? Why?” He was like, “You’re falling asleep in class every day, and then you’re staying at school longer than you have to? Why?”
And I don’t know why I decided to tell the truth, but I did. And I told him that the reason I fell asleep in his class was because I didn’t really sleep at night. And I didn’t really sleep at night because my childhood anxiety was so bad and my fear of the world around me got so bad at night in the dark that I would just stay awake and cry. Or I would hide in my closet, where I was surrounded by walls, so that I didn’t have to be scared. And then maybe I could squeeze in three hours of sleep. And that’s how I slept for most of my childhood.
And then he asked me why I stayed after school. And I told him that it was because right after school I walked home. And what I had noticed about walking home from school was that there were a few men in the community who drove around in the neighborhoods when kids were walking home after school and would say really gross things to girls. And quite often to me. But if I could wait about an hour, about an hour and a half, if I could hide at the school and then walk home, cut through a few yards, I could avoid those cars and I could be okay.
So Mr. Martin made a deal with me. He would give me a tape that I could listen to at night, that would help me sleep. The tape was called “Return to Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins. It was a tape of lullabies, and I know that sounds insane. But not only did it help me, I am a huge Kenny Loggins fan now. Okay? You are all in the danger zone when I’m in the room, okay? I’m just letting you know. He gave me this tape, and it helped me. I got to sleep. And then he told me, “And you can stay in my room for one hour after school, but you have to read the newspaper. And then you have to write something about what you read in the newspaper.”
So I did. Everyday after school, I would come to his room, he would hand me a Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, I’d sit down. I’d read the Journal Gazette, I’d find something to write about. I’d sit at the computer and I’d write until my time was up. At the end of the school year, he gave me a bound book of everything I had written.
I sold a book last year. Don’t get too excited, it’s not coming out for a while. And everybody keeps asking me, “Oh my god, your first book, how does it feel to have your first book coming out?” And I keep answering that question, but to be honest I keep thinking “It’s not my first book”.
What happened to me in War, West Virginia was that I learned to imagine worlds and places and people in circumstances that I hadn’t before. And what happened to me in middle school was that somebody decided to imagine that all the reasons they thought I behaved the way I did might not be the real reasons. And it changed my life. Both times, imagination made me so much better.
I was obsessed with being a superhero because I wanted to be physically strong, because I didn’t want to be intimidated, and because I wanted to be able to carry heavy things and help people. I am still very strong. Don’t get it twisted, the guns are in the house. But, what I found is that everything that made me super, everything that made me a hero, didn’t have anything to do with how much I could carry or how hard I could fight.
It had to do with what I could imagine for myself and for the world around me. And that’s what you could do. If you can be brave enough to imagine past your understanding, you can change everything. And not just the world, but the people who live in it. It’s not enough to think about changing the world on a grand scale. It is enough to think about changing the life of one person, and what could happen when you change that life and how they could affect the world, and how that could affect you.
We can make beautiful things together. Not just on paper, but in reality. Do that with me. Do that for me. And I promise, I promise, I promise, you will die, die thinking of yourself as someone worthy and beautiful. And maybe even a little bit of a superhero.
Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.