No Longer a Dreamer
Since I first read Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates now infamous essay, The Case for Reparations, I’ve been enraptured by his words. Coates is a gifted writer, for sure. But what drew me in wasn’t the style with which he wrote, but the words he was saying. Specifically, it was the way his words completely shook up my previous understanding of, well, most everything. To use an analogy from his latest book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi is perhaps most gifted at waking people up from their Dreams.
Coates described “The Dream” as a metaphorical place crafted and fiercely protected by mainly white people (or people who believe to be white.) It was a place he could only view through the television set in his poor, Baltimore living room. The Dream sheltered white children from the gangs, violence, beatings, poverty, and permanent required state of vigilance that Ta-Nehisi and his black friends had to maintain. It was a state of thinking. A way of seeing the world, or specifically, America, as a mostly good place full of equal opportunity for everyone. A place that was just. Had good laws. People living The Dream see police as protectors, racism as something mostly overblown and from the past, and poverty and violence a result of laziness and bad choices.
Of Dreamers, Coates says:
“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates,
Since first reading his essay on reparations, I felt the tendrils of The Dream loosening their grip on me. It didn’t take much time, or research, to awaken completely. All it really took was a willingness to look at the world (and history) not through the lens of my own experience and privilege, but through the eyes of the oppressed.
When you start looking at the history of our country as told through someone other than the victors, America’s gleam begins to fade. Starting with the slaughter and decimation of the Native peoples whose land we claimed, building on the backs of generations and generations of slaves (250 years to be exact, as Coates notes–black people in America have been free for far less than than they were in chains) then 75 years after those slaves were freed another race of citizens dehumanized all over again. During this time thousands were lynched, hundreds of thousands killed by bombs dropped, and many men, women, and children languished in abject poverty.
No country has survived without making grievous, heinous errors. No nation is without pain or war or poverty. The point in Coates spotlighting this history and me echoing his words is not to attack America or reject the good our country is done. The point is to decimate The Dream. There is danger in glossing over all this bad we have done, and focusing only on the good. When history classes spend twenty minutes teaching on slavery and two weeks teaching on America’s exceptionalism, we put kids to sleep to the reality of where we are today. When white kids grow up only understanding the world through the haze of The Dream, they can’t comprehend the reality of police brutality against black citizens, or the history of poor black neighborhoods caused by redlining and white flight, or the effect their own seemingly small microagressions have on their “black friends” or family. If you’re Dreaming, you can’t grasp why any of these problems having anything to do with you. With the present. Like Coates said,”We meant well. We tried our best.” But “’Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
The best way I can describe, in my own words, what it’s been like this past year to wake up from the Dream, is through the film The Truman Show. To me, The Dream is like the world expertly crafted for Truman. It’s ordered, neat, has neatly clipped lawns and well-dressed neighbors and a feel that everything is good, and right. It’s not Truman’s fault that he was born into this bubble. There’s nothing actually wrong with him leading out his days oblivious to the uncontrolled world outside his little town. But it isn’t real. It’s a lie. And slowly Truman starts to realize this, the more he pays attention. Streets don’t magically clear themselves for everyone, just him. Time doesn’t revolve around everyone’s needs, just his. A part of Truman realizes that it can’t be this way for everyone. And it isn’t.
My favorite part of the movie is the end, when he unknowingly sails his boat into the wall painted to look like the sky. Truman goes through a cascade of emotions when he reaches out and touches that plaster. Understanding, horror, shock, anger, fear. But then he finds the door to the outside. What propels him through it isn’t just his desire to see the woman that disappeared from his past again, but I think, to know the truth. It’s scary to wake up from The Dream, but not everyone wants to stay asleep.
At times, I feel like Truman, fruitlessly banging my fists against the plaster sky. Because there’s no going back. Once you wake up from The Dream, and you see the inequality and injustice all around you that you, a Dreamer, benefit from, you have no other choice. You have to walk through that door. You have to turn your back on the safe and known and accept the truth.
You have to work to awaken the Dreamers.