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Why So Few Blacks in the Dream Movement?

Anthony Shafton


African-Americans pay at least as much attention to dreams as do whites in this country. Yet they are seriously under-represented in the popular dream movement and also in dream science. The ASD is well aware of this fact, as witness Jane White Lewis's report on last year's conference.

The question: why—above and beyond the inertia of segregation—are blacks estranged from whites in the area of dreams?

The dream literature provides little guidance. Race in any connection is a topic not often raised, and then almost only from a white (albeit broad-minded) point of view (e.g., Winget et al., 1972; Gregor, 1983; Haskell, 1985; Wikse, 1988). Otherwise the literature is ostensibly "color-blind"—which, from a minority standpoint, generally means "white." Moreover, African-American dream culture per se has hardly been touched upon, by authors white or black.

I put the question to a number of black psychologists and dreamworkers. The opinions to follow draw heavily on their answers, especially those of Faheem C. Ashanti, William M. Banks, Carole "Ione" Bovoso, Loma Flowers, Gerald G. Jackson, Charles Payne, William D. Pierce, Loudell F. Snow, and E. Bruce Taub-Bynum (undated citations of these persons refer to personal communications). [Note added 1999: Loudell F Snow turned out to be white.] Of course I don't speak for them, still less for blacks in general.

Many of those interviewed said that blacks, with their pressing reality concerns, consider dreamwork a luxury they can't afford. Dream groups, along with other growth modalities, are viewed as white middle class pursuits. Even successful blacks, those most likely to participate, are too busy contending with the real or perceived danger of sliding into poverty to get involved. Dreamwork takes a certain mentality of leisure which they—not to speak of the less advantaged majority of blacks—do not possess (Payne).

What of potential black dreamworkers? Some choose conventional career tracks, which promise more success (Flowers). Although whites confront the same fact of life, a decision to leave the mainstream comes harder to those who have, as have the majority of black candidates, earned their way to the status of professional against high odds. Others choose approaches they believe address issues of survival in a racist society more directly than does dreamwork. Bear in mind the urgency of social and economic (on top of emotional) problems often besetting blacks seeking help. When "the real world is the problem," dreams and dreamwork may seem "less relevant" (Banks). Black psychologists opt for approaches perceived to be more empirical and concrete (Jackson, Pierce).

This attitude to dreamwork belongs in the context of a general criticism of Euro-American psychology. Certain black psychologists consider racism "the major impediment to psychological wellness in the black community." Consequently, when blacks reach out they have a right to expect "social and political advocacy" (White, 1984). Otherwise, "the professional's mission is oppressively one of getting the client to adjust to the status quo" (Jackson, 1980a). Color-blind white psychology suppresses specifically black issues. It lacks a proactive orientation, while implicitly throwing the burden of change onto blacks (Banks, 1980). Dreamworkers should be aware that many potential black participants expressly or intuitively share the view articulated by black psychologists, and keep away.

There do exist currents of social activism in Euro-American dream psychology, notably in the tradition of "culturalism." Adler urged us to reject many values of the culture. Fromm launched a "critical evaluation of the effects of Western culture [on] mental health and sanity" (1955). In The Forgotten Language (1951), Fromm's widely read book on dreams, this line was unfortunately left merely implicit. The lapse has in part been made good by Ullman, a "neoculturalist" (1969) who acknowledges (1973, 1988) the influence of Fromm's social ideas, which he combines with Adler's penchant for community outreach. While he has not issued anything like Fromm's political agenda, his discussions of "social myths" are germane to the concern about racism expressed by black psychologists. He speaks of "the emotional fallout from the social arrangements and institutions around us" (1988), of "embedded kinds of ignorance" and of "power deprivation" (Ullman & Zimmerman, 1979). These all entail "social myths" embedded in the "social unconscious" and appearing "inevitably" in dreams, where they are accessible to dreamwork (Ullman, 1973).

It is hopeful for the future of interracial dream sharing that such ideas are found in Ullman, the foremost advocate of dream groups on today's scene. That said, even Ullman analyzes the majority of dreams, not for social (much less racial) but for personal psychological content. In this respect he exemplifies what I was told by various professionals is a difference in how blacks and whites typically think—a difference which renders much dreamwork unattractive to blacks. As it was put by Taub-Bynum, a family therapist, whites tend to view life and interpret dreams in "intrapsychic" terms, blacks in terms of social milieu and spiritual reality, or "field."

Others concurred. Ashanti, a psychotherapist and Voodoo priest, phrased it that blacks are more oriented to the "external," both social and spiritual. Payne, a Jungian, added that blacks identify themselves with community more than do individualistic whites. Jackson, a professor of psychology, said that these considerations pertain also to black professionals and explain in part why more do not practice prevalent styles of dreamwork.

Of course many whites, both lay and professional, also think dreams can concern consensual and spiritual dimensions of extrapsychic reality. But without question the trend has been toward what Jung called interpretation on the subjective level," whereby "persons or situations appearing in [the dream] refer to subjective factors entirely belonging to the subject's own psyche" (1971). Jung also found an "objective level" of dreams, referring to immediate milieu, society-at-large, or even real spirits (1965). And he held that "Freud's interpretation of dreams is almost entirely on the objective level, since the dream wishes refer to real objects, or to sexual processes which fall within the physiological, extra-psychological sphere" (1971). But from the perspective of some black psychologists, the contrast Jung drew between himself and Freud leaves both of them, along with all other prevailing dream psychologies, concerned far less with the outer field than with the inner. It was sobering to hear Euro-American dreamwork called uncongenial to the psychology of African-Americans in just this aspect which might well be regarded as its particular genius, intrapsychic analysis.

What if a dream of "social rebellion" were said to show "upsurging of sexual impulses" instead of "desire for social change"? As Haskell once pointed out in the ASD Newsletter, this is the sort of bias which white treatments of black dreams have in fact shown. Few dreamworkers would insist on such a reading, perhaps; yet its standpoint is uncomfortably familiar. It exemplifies the two ways "our" dreamwork fails to salsify the real-world orientation of blacks: too little focus on the world and its injustice; and too much focus on intrapsychic processes.

Several interviewees framed the matter in ethnic terms, asserting that the African-American traits involved are truly African in origin. They referred to the movement among black intellectuals which finds West African (Nobles, 1980; Baldwin, 1981) and even Egyptian (or Kemetic" = 'black') (Diop, 1974, 1990; Karenga, 1990) roots for characteristics of blacks in the Americas.

"The African philosophical tradition does not place heavy emphasis on the 'individual." Indeed...in a sense it does not allow for individuals" (Nobles, 1980). Arguably, a sense of collective identity or "primacy of the group" conveyed from Africa (Jackson, 1980b), as much as the harsh life here, has contributed to the real-world, extrapsychic orientation of African-Americans; whereas Euro-American individualism lends itself to intrapsychic understandings. Moreover, to "do your own thing" is viewed as alien to Africa-based values (Nobles, 1980). Hence the general coolness of blacks to the human potential movement (Toldson, 1973) and its sequels, including dreamwork in some popular forms.

An African trait claimed to foster collective over individual identity is a time sense emphasizing past and ancestry more than future. It contributed to tribal solidarity, which, with the destruction of those bonds under slavery, was transferred to blackness per se as the final definition of tribe" (Nobles, 1980). It also emphasized kinship ties, an area of special sensitivity when blacks encounter white psychological modalities.

Prevailing views of the black family fit the tradition holding blacks to be inferior, if not from genetic, then from societal causes (Banks, 1980). True, black families have "real and definite problems associated with racism and oppression (Nobles, 1980), as blacks have long recognized (DuBois, 1961). But supposed "deficits" may actually reflect normal features of the African family, adapted to our harsh setting (Jackson, 1980b). Features found on both continents (Nobles, 1974) include: horizontal kinship ties (partly replacing the nuclear family); "kin-like" relations ("informal adoption," care for the unrelated elderly), "interchangeable" roles (children take adult responsibilities, genders exchange nurturing and earning); and the prominence of the mother-child bond (note that the white single parent home has been legitimized, while the black parallel is held pathological [White, 1984]).

In the minds of influential black psychologists beginning in the '70s, the intrapsychic, self-centered approach of white psychology is connected with the liberal assumption that blacks will assimilate by overcoming their deficits vis--vis white middle class standards (Banks, 1980). But neither progressive policies nor the ideal of color blindness recognize black mores as valuable in their own right. These thinkers insist that African-Americans derive "unique status...not from the negative aspects of being black in white America, but rather from the positive features of basic African philosophy...(Nobles, 1980).

This has little to do with dreams directly, but bears on why blacks are reluctant to bring their intimate concerns into white settings such as those where most dreamwork is done. Average African-Americans may not be aware of these anthropological perspectives, but they are sensitive to the dissonance between prevailing attitudes to black life and their own, and are alienated from white mental health by a "history of misdiagnoses and stereotypes" (White, 1984).

Are there alternative resources in black communities, contributing to dreamwork segregation? That culture has not been described in the literature—a fact which in itself should give pause. According to those interviewed, many blacks regularly consult their dreams. They are comparatively unaffected by Euro-American prejudices against dreams, having remained for so long outside the mainstream. Some regularly share and interpret dreams with relatives and friends, i.e., in ad hoc dream groups composed perhaps of varying members, but always of trusted intimates. However, few or no formal dream groups exist. Equivalent communal functions are provided by ministers, healers, and spiritualists. These persons do meet with groups; but though they also often interpret dreams, they do so one-on-one, not in group settings. So if a dreamer needs interpretive help, s/he may seek out a dream-wise neighbor or relative, or visit a minister, healer or spiritualist privately.

Euro-Americans may suppose that spiritualism and healing, or "rootwork," are superstitions of lower class blacks. As to class, not a few middle income blacks visit spiritualists and healers. "Every community has it," though white associates will not often realize the fact (Jackson). As to superstition, especially some lower class blacks do seek help from dreams for gambling, finding mates, etc., and probably such uses of dreams are more common among middle class blacks than whites. All the same, the range of black uses of dreams is imbued with genuine religiosity and esthetic appreciation. It has even been argued that beliefs about dreams which accompany folk healing such as Voodoo and Santoria are reflections of African medicine and religion, preserving to an extent the wisdom and spiritual profundity of the root culture (Ashanti, 1990).

Also traceable to Africa is a widespread belief that it is spiritually risky to disclose something as intimate as a dream to anyone not highly trusted (Ashanti, 1990). Possibly this helps account for black nonparticipation in dream groups, white or black.

Parenthetically, none of those interviewed could say that spiritual and religious trends in the dream movement have attracted wither spiritualist or more conventionally religious blacks.

Finally, what of blacks who have more completely internalized Euro-American culture? They have a stake in conforming to prevailing attitudes, which are inimical to dreamwork as well as other growth trends (Payne). They turn instead to style of individual therapy with more sanction but less interest in dreams (Taub-Bynum).

In conclusion, the existing segregation of dream cultures is not soon likely to change. The dream movement has yet to show that it can catch the attention and address the needs of African-Americans. While to say that dreamwork is not relevant to the real world is surely wrong, all the same, our methods and mind sets may not always get to the point as keenly as we like to believe. We should realize that there exist, between the races, real differences in psychocultural style as well as social condition. Moreover, the effects of those differences are compounded by today's climate of ethnic separatism. I believe that I and other whites are losers for it and that blacks are as well.



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Banks, W. M. (1980). The social context and empirical foundations of research on black clients. In Jones.

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