After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
It has been argued that the idea of apocalypse is a colonial concept—that the fear of society being destroyed is only a detriment to our current reality. This begs the question: what are we actually afraid of losing? A reality that is rooted in white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy? These are truths and realities that many of us, especially Black women, can certainly do without. A desire for—not fear of—a complete and total destruction of everything we know to be “true” is a necessary component of our freedom, liberation, and revolution.
The nightmare of apocalypse is being replaced by the dream of a world that could be, a world that offers a life well lived to those most marginalized in our modern reality. A critical conversation about dreaming has woven its way into popular culture. Yet this concept and practice is not new. We are witnessing the uncovering of a sacred tool that has been employed generation after generation for existence beyond—beyond oppressions, beyond scarcity, beyond enslavement, beyond desertion, beyond inaccessibility, beyond an inability to claim ourselves.
In my pursuit to gather the ways dreams have offered tangible solutions for survival, I was humbled. The fact that I as a queer Black woman exist on planet Earth is the product of a dream realized. The fact that I am the product of a lineage of Black people who insisted on falling in love, joining in passion, and carrying a child to term for generations is proof that they had hope. Proof that they dreamed of a future in which their offspring might exist with as much or more joy, opportunity, and purpose as they did. This awes me.
Chronicles of African-American living, growing, celebrating, strategizing, building, and joy amid some of history’s worst displays of humanity offer us evidence that dreaming was an essential component of Black people’s ability to see beyond their circumstances and through to something in which they found hope. I believe we can gather clues that this formula is not only accessible to us, their descendants, but indeed that it is a gift our ancestors left behind with an expectation that we would continue the dream into new and ever more fruitful Black futures.
It is said that one morning in 1860, underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman came to the breakfast table singing the words, “My people are free! My people are free.” Reportedly, she was unable to eat due to the excitement her body held that morning. It wasn’t until 1863, three full years later, that the emancipation of African-Americans took place—but that night, Harriet had such a vivid dream of freedom that she celebrated as though it had already been achieved.
Tubman was known for her predictive visions, which started after an injury she endured at 13 years old. She began to fall unexpectedly into sleep-like states and reemerge with stories of her vivid dreams. These dreams would often support her navigation of dozens of enslaved people to freedom.
The theme of dreams offering protection and guidance to the African-American community has shown up in everything from predicting pregnancy to choosing winning lottery numbers. A heritage of trusting our dreams and visions appears in our lived experiences as well as our folklore, literature, and art. An African folktale called “Tortoise’s Dream” centers on a tortoise who dreams of an abundant fruit tree. Trusting in the dream he was given, the tortoise makes his way diligently to find the fruit tree—and once he does, he discovers that all the promises of abundance that his dream originally predicted were true, offering him and his community joy and security.
Sometimes dream guidance comes in the form of a symbol or story, but in many cases, African-Americans speak to the ancestral portal that dreaming provides. Rooted in the various traditional African spiritual practices, visits from ancestors in our dreamworlds have deep significance to everyday living. Anthony Shafton, author of Dream-Singers: The African American Way With Dreams, looked into the tradition of ancestral visitation among Africans and African-Americans. He notes, “In the African view dreams above all else serve as a channel of communication from the ancestors to the living.” We can even see this referenced in popular culture today as a nod to our traditions. For example, in the novel Beloved, author Toni Morrison speaks of a house “peopled by the living activity of the dead.” Or in the song “Black Parade,” Beyonce Knowles Carter sings, “Children runnin’ through the house and my art, all black/ Ancestors on the wall, let the ghosts chit-chat,” speaking to a welcomed ancestral presence in her home.
In her book We Are Each Other’s Harvest (the title references a line from a poem by Black feminist writer Gwendolyn Brooks), author Natalie Baszile tells the story of Black farmers, figures often lost in the shadows of the colonial understanding of American agriculture. The book outlines tales of farmers and land stewards spanning from the deep corners of the tobacco fields of the Carolinas to the frigid textile farms of Anchorage, Alaska. In gathering evidence of the intention of longevity, We Are Each Other’s Harvest demonstrates Black farmers’ hopes and dreams through their relationships with the land they knew would still be there long after they’d been buried within it. The skills and knowledge that cascade from generation to generation are a practice in dreaming: the belief that our people will be around for the harvest.
Up on a hill in Virginia are the remnants of one of these very gardens tended by those enslaved on the plantation called Monticello. Owned by Thomas Jefferson, these field workers spent their days raising the cash crops of the Jefferson estate, and in their moments of downtime, deep into the evenings, they tended to their own plots of land. Using the same hoes, axes, and wedges that they employed in Jefferson’s fields, enslaved families, such as that of Bagwell and Minerva Granger, found space and reason to cultivate growth of their own. A small plot near their one-room, dirt-floor cabin held the rows of vegetables they would use to supplement their own diets, sell to other enslaved or free families, and store in the underground root cellars that historians have discovered—cultivation for a future they believed they might exist in, a future they very well might have imagine existed in freedom.
The ongoing cultivation and application of skill and strategy for the nourishment of self and community among the enslaved on plantations did not wither. Today Black-owned community-based farms exist across America, such as Sankofa Farms in North Carolina, Bonton Farm in Texas, and the Armstrong Farm in Louisiana.
These modern Black farmers are the fruit of what our enslaved ancestors planted into the same ground centuries ago. A conversation about dreaming as a formula to exist beyond cannot be had without honoring those who till, plant, and harvest the land.
Poet and cofounder of Soul Fire Farms in New York Naima Penniman’s poem “A Love Letter To Future Generations” so beautifully reminds us that dreaming is an essential tool for gardening our own futures:
Our mother’s mother’s mothers
did not give up on the possibility
at least one seed would make its way
of cold hard rocky silt
and in the face of great danger
soften its shell
open its hull
extend a tender root
find water and food
there is light somewhere enough to bloom
A flower comes before fruit.
Love precedes a child.
Someone was dreaming of you.
From Fantasy to Freedom
Author and philosopher Ebony Janice has been exploring the dreamworld and its power among Black women for years. Her book and workshop Dream Yourself Free ushers women into community with each other to explore what dreaming means outside the framework of survival. When I asked her about her first reference for dreaming, she reminded me that dreaming is a core tenet of one of the Black community’s most essential institutions: the church. “I grew up in the Black church,” she said. “Black church is rooted in deep dreaming, imagination, hope, and wonder. The way we contextualize heaven at the center of every single thing—our whole lives become about the dream, the hope, the fantasizing about heaven. In fact, Black Christians have historically experienced heaven differently than any other group of people because to the ‘slave,’ heaven was the only hope of freedom. So heaven is the dream of progress or justice, of liberation, of something other than the burden of slavery and bondage.”
She launched Dream Yourself Free in 2019 to give Black women the space to explore the ways that freedom is not at all rooted in our “wildest dreams” but rather emerges from ongoing practices of dreaming. “We have been pursuing ‘dreams’ that really come from a very specific responsibility Black women and girls are socialized into around resistance and communal care over the self,” she shared. “Dream Yourself Free has been doing the work of supporting Black women and girls from a clearing of ‘what is’ into an imagination of ‘what is possible.’ I came to this because I was grieved to learn that most of what I knew about the Black women activists and healers that inspire my own work was in direct relationship to their resistance and not to their humanity. If I had been centering their personal narratives around resistance, much like I had been centering my own existence around my resistance work, then how much other dreaming, play, ease, pleasure, rest, and joy were we missing out on because we, historically, have very little reference of Black women’s dreaming, play, ease, pleasure, rest, and joy at the center of how we experience Black women.”
“It does not matter to me what the story was, dreaming gives us the tools to consider that something brand new is possible. Dreaming is not ‘new’ in the work of freedom-making; dreaming is of the intellectual and spiritual lineage of the great thinkers, activists, freedom fighters (see MLK’s ‘dream’), preachers, teachers, and elders. Dream Yourself Free is simply focusing on dreams as an essential part of the way we get to freedom, individually and collectively.”
Annika Hansteen Izora—artist, writer, and head of design at Somewhere Good, a social startup reimagining the internet—offers her own definition of what dreaming in community can offer. She describes it as a method of envisioning beyond what no longer serves us. Rooted in support, access, possibility, and capacity, her approach to community care through the lens of dreaming widened my understanding of the very natural ways dreaming shows up as practice as opposed to theory.
Today, “community” can look like a particular parish in the city of New Orleans as much as a social media movement of people invested in a common justice goal. Robin D. G. Kelley, American history professor and author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, speaks to the necessity for dreaming if we are going to evoke real change: “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down,” he writes. “We not only end up confused, rudderless and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”
Izora shares this view: “I want to think about how dreaming can sway away from toxic positivity, escapism, or reductionism. When I think about dreaming, I think about how it can be used as a strategy, as a way to critique, as a balm, as a method of envisioning beyond the status quo—which is informed by those in power.” She suggests communal dreaming as practice can look like reading and studying together; growing community gardens; creating space for rest and time for wonder, pleasure, and play; building creative ecosystems; and creating and sharing art with and among one another.
A Formula for the Future
Dreaming offers the mind a realm for play and exploration in which we can discover both our hopes and fears. For the Black community in particular, dreaming offers infrastructure for something newer and bolder than we’ve ever experienced. Luckily, we have been gifted with clues and blueprints from a long lineage of African-American dreamers, visionaries, gardeners, novelists, neighbors, and friends.
Despite all that has sought to kill us, we are here. It is not by accident and not in vain. In crafting a new formula for how to exist beyond, dreaming is a core tenet of our success—and it always has been. It will take the sensitivity to listen to our intuition like Tubman, it will take the boldness to plant seeds with the expectation of harvest like our ancestral gardners, it will take the intention of dreaming of rest as well as resistance—it will be a dream in ourselves and a dream community.