Back in the 1970s, when Joseph Boskin, a professor of African American studies at Boston University, was researching American humor, he came across the following joke:
"Way down South in slavery times, there was this handsome fella, a muscular young slave. . . . One night he found himself stumbling out of bed like a sleepwalker. He slid out the door, not waking anybody up, and walked half-naked through the cotton field toward the master's house. . . . When he got to the big white house, he went straight to the window under the magnolia tree where the master's young daughter's room was. The window was just a wee bit open for a little fresh air, and this fella opened it the rest of the way and climbed straight into that girl's room.
"Now, when he climbed in, she woke right up, and she was so scared she couldn't talk or scream or anything. He lifted her up in his bare arms kind of rough like and took her out to the edge of the cotton field and laid her right down in the dirt. She laid there a moment trembling, all helpless and everything; and he stood still above her, looking real powerful with the moon shining all over his muscles. When he bent down and ripped off her nightgown, she asked, real scared, 'Are you going to rape me now?'
"He looked her in the eyes then and said, 'I don't know Missy. You tell me. It's your dream.' "
This statement, "It's your dream," has profound resonance for me, leading me over the years into the thicket of who we, as Americans of various races and ethnicities, dream the other to be. I was born to a Mexican Catholic mother and an Anglo Saxon Buddhist father who met in the cultural ferment of Santa Fe in the 1940s. My father was largely disowned by his mother for marrying a Mexican, so though I am recognizably what the world calls white, my sense of kin and culture has always been Latino.
I was 13 years old and still very much in a child's flux of confusion and longing when I first met a black man. After picking wild herbs along a levee, I set foot for home with a satchel of leaves and small purple flowers. At the spot where the dirt road crossed the railroad tracks stood the coal-black man, tall and lanky, carrying a suitcase tied with string. He talked fast while he shook my hand, telling me how hungry he was and how obliged he would be if I could get him a bite to eat.
Without thinking much about it, I took him home and made him a perfect 13-year-old's meal of boiled hot dogs and ketchup on Wonder bread. Before eating, he blessed me and the food with a long, clearly memorized prayer in a sing-song voice that I found hypnotic. I sat quietly while he ate and made him a sandwich for the road. Then he got up and walked toward the highway, and I watched him until he disappeared, not knowing how completely this little interaction would change my life.
This stranger I met at the crossroads, who conscripted me into a small act of kindness, opened the door to the mysteries and misadventures that would dominate my adult life. At first it was simple, crazed wanderlust--by 15, I was the vagabond in the story, offering my own blessings from the crossroads. Later, the hunger for the open road was supplanted by the need to meet and befriend the other in myself. Early on, dreams became the uncompromising mirror through which I could observe my vagrant, changeable and multiple identities. Over the past two decades, the black man I met as a kid has returned often to visit me in my dreams. He always stands on the edge between the known and the unknown. He has a taste for the unconventional, this dream ally, and tends to direct me on the path that is most interesting and least likely.
Like many people, I was burned to the marrow by the fires the week of the Rodney King verdicts. I felt as if my soul was at stake if I didn't find a way to respond. I had just finished writing a book about people's dreams of the end of the world, collecting dreams spanning several decades from people of different countries and examining them closely for underlying patterns. The week of those fires, I began to ask questions about dreaming that underlies the anguish of race relations in this country. What are the core images and ideas that shape our experience of the other? At the deepest psychological level, whom do we imagine each other to be? And what may dreams tell us about finding our way out of the confusion around us?
In scanning the clinical literature on racial identity and racism, I discovered a couple of gaping holes. Although much literature speaks of the symbolism of black personas in dreams, there seems to be an implicit presumption that all dreamers are white. The thought that black people might also dream about white people is virtually never addressed. The way of the world, in which blacks are highly visible yet adamantly unseen, is mirrored in psychological research.