Electric Dreams

Response to Strephon Kaplan-Williams' comments on
"Why So Few Blacks in the Dream Movement?"

Anthony Shafton

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Shafton, Anthony (2005 June). Response to Strephon Kaplan-Williams' comments on
"Why So Few Blacks in the Dream Movement?". Electric Dreams 12(6).

[EDITOR: This reply refers to the following article: Kaplan-Williams, Strephon (2005). Reply to Anthony Shafton’s “Why So Few Blacks in the Dream Movement?” , Electric Dreams 3(12), March 2005. Available online : http://tinyurl.com/dneuo]

"Why So Few Blacks in the Dream Movement?" originally appeared on the cover page of the ASD Newsletter (predecessor of Dream Time) in the Fall 1991 issue. It was written in reaction to the 1990 ASD Conference, the first I attended, where African American participants numbered only 2 or 3.

Strephon Kaplan-Williams (SKW henceforth) must have missed the article in 1991. He may well also not have seen the several articles of mine on the subject of blacks and dreams to appear in Dream Time subsequently; nor comments on the topic in my book Dream Reader (SUNY, 1995) and one edited by Kelly Bulkeley, Among All These Dreamers (SUNY, 1996); nor my full book on the subject, Dream-Singers: The African American Way with Dreams (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), which was favorably reviewed in Dream Time. But whether or not SKW is aware of developments of my research on black dream culture, it's puzzling that he chose to react against an article 14 years after its appearance.

SKW's argument opens: "First, Shafton assumes I think . . . ." But SKW is mentioned neither in the text of the article nor its bibliography. This puts his whole discussion in a peculiar light.

SKW offensively implies that he but not I sees "people as persons," and that I show "prejudice" by "categorizing blacks and whites." He "of course looked for cultural differences" - without categorizing? - but "did not find any" worth attending.

It would have made a more plausible case if SWK had responded to the specific reasoning of the numerous black psychologists and dreamworkers I cited in the article - among them two members of the ASD, Loma Flowers and Bruce Bynum - who don't hesitate to categorize themselves and who do recognize psychocultural reasons why the dream movement was not attracting more African Americans. Neither they nor I would ever suggest that such cultural features disqualify blacks to any degree from dreamwork, nor that blackness must necessarily enter into work with every dream of black persons. However, as my article argued, ignoring cultural differences contributes to the subtle pressure blacks are under to conform to mainstream patterns. SKW should consider the possibility that the black dream group clients on whom he prides himself may at times have censored themselves for want of a congenial environment in which to reveal themselves.

I didn't have an easy time finding a publisher for Dream-Singers, my book about black dream culture. White editors, as does SKW, took a safe but superficial politically correct position. So it's instructive that when the book was finally accepted, at Wiley, it was for a list of black interest titles and by a black editor. It's one thing to reject genetic race, another to brand as racist, as does SKW by implication, one who affirms the reality and influence of the social construct.

Without going into detail, here are some features of African American beliefs and attitudes about dreams explored in Dream-Singers. These are of course merely trends or tendencies, they should in no way be misconstrued as either/or differences.

Seventy percent of American blacks affirm the spiritual reality of ancestor visitation dreams, as compared with 35% of American whites. This is one of several features of black dream culture probably due to survival of African cultural traits. For predictive dreams, 92% of blacks affirm belief, as against 57% of whites. Statistically significant differences are also found in knowledge of dream signs; in the occurrence of "meant for" dreams (where the dreamer believes the meaning of the dream is meant for someone else and should be conveyed to them); and in openness to dreamlike experiences in the waking state (visions, voices). Also, blacks are more likely than whites to grow up in households with family dream sharing; to be exposed to testimony involving dreams in church; and to have knowledge involving dreams in connection with numbers (or lottery) gambling and with spiritual magic in the form of hoodoo.

In general, dreams matter to blacks. That's not just my judgment, that's what many blacks will say. A hospital lab tech, one of over 115 African Americans I interviewed on the subject of dreams, told me that "black people, they respect their dreams." Poet Sterling Plumpp said that dreams are "at the core of black culture." Another writer, Eileen Cherry, reminisced thus about her experience:

My mother and sisters, and people in my family, we talked about our dreams, all the time, like "Ooo, I dreamt about Aunt Pat last night," "Ooo, I had this dream about'cha," and "What did you dream last night?" But it's connected to reaching out, it's connected to community, it's connected to another level of communication. And the dreamwork in the African American community is connected to the religious experience. So it's embedded in my life.

Consider King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Nearly all whites assume King meant ‘dream' in the sense of ‘hope' and not ‘night dream'. Nearly all blacks I interviewed about it, by contrast, take both meanings, and take them as interrelated. For example, one woman replied to the suggestion that King meant only a waking hope:

No, no. Nn-nn. Martin said he had that dream. I believe you have a hope, and then comes a night dream that affirms it. I think that you believe in the one when you believe in the other.

One thing pointed out in my 1991 article is that de-emphasis of the real-world, social dimension of meaning in dreams, in exclusive favor of their intrapsychic meanings, is one feature of the dream movement unattractive to potential black participants.

Perhaps these few observations will begin to persuade SKW that however successful he may be with the dreamwork method he touts, his work and that of other dreamworkers won't suffer from better information.