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Collective Dreaming: An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Almah LaVon - The Feminist Wire

Collective Dreaming: An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Almah LaVon

By Tala Khanmalek

If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core—the fountain—of our power, our womanness; we give up the future of our worlds.

–Audre Lorde

Audre_Lorde-Collage-150rez-911x1024Co-organized by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Almah LaVon, Dark Sciences: A People of Color Dream Retreat is the first convening of a queer-black-feminist imagined collective dreaming house for people of color. In addition to Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind and The Revelry, educational projects also founded by Gumbs and LaVon, co-sponsors of the retreat include: River Rose Apothecary, ALLGO, Art in Praxis, Maximize Good, and Charis Circle. To support Dark Sciences, please consider making a donation here (specific amounts include perks).

Tala Khanmalek (TK): I grew up in a family guided by my grandma Fakhri’s fal giri or fortune telling rituals. Interpreting dreams is of course, central to her practice. It was my grandma who taught me that dreams are meaningful and sometimes prophetic, especially the dreams of womyn. How did you come to understand the value of your dreams?

Almah LaVon (AL): A life-changing reading from a very gifted psychic and Babalawo unleashed things for me. I had dreamed the future before I met him, but this man—without knowing me—saw this in me and encouraged me to listen to my dreams, hone my dreaming skills. And, of course, my dreams themselves led me to understand their power and value. Over time, precognitive dreams have a way of making you pay attention! I experienced hypnagogic visitations and voices—all bringing powerful messages, warnings, and advice. My dreamlife is such a laboratory of immediacy that I couldn’t avoid getting shook and taking notice.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs (APG): How beautiful! My mom is a therapist and she was in graduate school when I was growing up, so I always remember feeling comfortable to share dreams that I remembered and that we might think about in terms of what it symbolized. Also, at my high school there was a hippie teacher named Thrower Starr who taught an elective class on dreams. But what really catalyzed my dream practice was my younger brother Seneca.

Seneca has a great memory for his dreams and he is also a skilled lucid dreamer (which means he knows he is dreaming when he dreams so he can make choices inside of his dreams). When he was about 10 years old he told me about an experiment that he had done by collecting stones and sleeping with different ones under his pillow. He found that the stones had an impact on his dreams, and that the genres, settings, even some of the other people who would be in his dreams fell into patterns related to which stone he used. Amazing, right? He also taught me about a black stone he used, which was the nightmare stone. When I challenged him about why blackness had to be associated with nightmares instead of something positive like wisdom he explained (so patiently) that nightmares were indeed wisdom — just wisdom we weren’t ready to have yet. Once he helped me find the wisdom in a very hard nightmare that I woke up from.

He’s my dream guru. So long story (not so) short, I started to keep a dream journal and to work with my dreams in poems in order to get like Seneca. He’s the best.

TK: What are some of your everyday dreamkeeping practices?

AL: I keep a dream journal. That mostly involves jotting down dreams and dream fragments after they happen, but sometimes I write down what I want to dream about before closing my eyes. Sometimes I simply announce my dream request aloud before sleep. I used to maintain a dream altar, but haven’t re-established it here in this apartment. I do have some chimes hanging near the head of my bed—and the inscription dangling from the chimes reads “dream.” So that’s my aerial altar of dreams for now.

I think my most important practice is to simply treasure my dreams, talk about them, act on their guidance, take them seriously and playfully, and keep them on my skin all day. There is no waking up.

APG: I sleep with a dream journal and a pen next to the bed, and my partner does too. So first thing I do when I wake up is write down whatever I remember about my dreams, even if it is just a vague feeling. I find that I remember my dreams much more that way. Often something in my dream will be a prompt for the first poem of the day. Since my partner and I both track our dreams, sometimes we casually talk about them during the day. If someone I haven’t seen or thought of in a while shows up in a dream, usually I will reach out to them too.

TK: Why is it important for people of color to dream together and what led you to co-organize a people of color dream retreat?

APG: The concept of the dream retreat comes from the idea that our dreams are not only individual resources for our growth and development (though they are) they are also shared resources for our communities. Sometimes we dream about each other. Sometimes our dreams are in conversation. Almah taught me about groups of people who could know when a natural disaster was coming through the warnings in their collective dreams. I know that I have had the experience where even in a short workshop people started dreaming images and answers to other people’s situations in their dreams. I think sometimes we underestimate how interconnected we are as a species. So for the exact same reasons that we know that it is valuable for people of color to come together to create solidarity and share insights and intentions, it is important for us to be intentional about how interconnected we are in our dreams. In chorus our dreams have whole new meanings and a lot of power.

TK: How is dreaming a “dark science” and why is it important to reclaim dreaming as such?

Nanny_Collage_150rez-1024x1020APG: Well of course, literally, most dreams (but not all) happen during sleep which may be at night, or at least when people have their eyes closed. But the real reason that we named the retreat Dark Sciences was in honor of Nanny of the Maroons, a warrior woman who was a leader in a community of Africans who escaped slavery in Jamaica.  She led her community and resisted the colonizers by being attuned to nature, ancestral communication, and practicing what most people would call magic. The maroon word for that type of connection and magic is “science,” so they call Nanny of the Maroons “the great scientist.”

We wanted to honor this understanding of science and affirming the darkness of our dreams. We want to honor people of color, and also the darkness of the universe, the alternatives to enlightenment assumptions that our species need in order to stop destroying itself. We also want to affirm that while we don’t have domination or control over our dreams, we can relate to our individual and collective dreams intentionally. We can remember that our lineages have rituals and practices around dreams that are very specific, and we can conduct experiments like Seneca to gain even more from our dreams. Our dreams are not just random, they are part of an intricate communication that we may never fully “master” but which can definitely help us liberate each other and ourselves.

TK: I’ve been reading a lot of articles (by or in conversation with Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarisha, the co-editors of Octavia’s Brood) about the relationship between sci-fi and social justice, about how genres like sci-fi help us envision a socially just world. How can dreams support the radical imagination in a similar way?

APG: Yes for sure. When I write science fiction I go to the edge of what I can consciously imagine. I ask myself, what is a world that I deeply desire that is radically different from the world I am living in now. And then as I write it into existence I start to see a few things, like how similar it actually is to the world we live in now (because I could consciously imagine it) and also how much it tells me about the depth of my own assumptions. It’s like by creating characters who have to grow inside a world that would seem like utopia to me, I challenge myself to grow right at the edges of what I thought was my best self. It’s like asking myself if nothing that I currently perceive as a problem were in the picture, what would I have to evolve into. This ends up being really scary, but also powerful for my emotional growth and development and my clarity about what my/our real internal limitations are.

Dreaming, because it starts from a base beyond the conscious mind can be even more powerful. Some call it the subconscious. In the essay you cite above Audre Lorde calls it the “non-European consciousness.” There is a place (Lorde teaches) that we have access to that is not bound by the limits of our conscious minds. The images, stories, actions, representations that we find in those places have so much to teach us. And when we bring them back here, into the world we live in daily, they refract everywhere. They challenge us, and lead us to challenge each other. Even the act of trying to explain our dreams to each other can reveal so much about the assumptions that keep us in place. And I believe that that is a major part of what it will take to live in a deeply different world, the destabilization of the assumptions that keep us in place and keep us keeping each other pinned down.

TK: How has Black feminist dreamwork shaped Black feminisms?

AL: I’m thinking of conjure women. Root women. The Black woman ancestor who surfaced in my dream as if from the grave, covered in dirt and omen.

APG: Black feminist literature and ideology talks a lot about aspirational dreams and intergenerational dreams. Like the dreams of our ancestors, the dreams of mothers for their daughters, and the dreams of a better world that black feminists actively articulate in service of the future, dreams in the sense that we are talking about them (the more intuitive level of dreaming, sleep involved) show up more in black feminist fiction as an important form and disruption of narrative and an important place of access to spirit. In their memoirs and autobiographies many black feminists write about being guided by their own dreams or the dreams of other women in their families.

Audre Lorde very explicitly used dreamwork in her practice as a black feminist lesbian warrior poet and educator. Her dreams were the major source for the imagery in her poems and as a teacher she required her poetry students to keep dream journals. For generations black feminists have had to support each other in working to create a drastically more loving world in the face of complete denial of our value, our thought processes, our existence, our labor, our loved ones, EVERYTHING. I think that the space of dreams, shared and individual, has been an important counter-space and resource.

TK: For me, past trauma–particularly ancestral trauma–often surfaces in dreams. Why is it important for folks who experience the nightmares of (intergenerational) PTSD to continue dreaming? In other words, can dreaming help us transform personal/collective trauma?

AL: This is a powerful question. No directives or musty musts here, but if someone is dreaming through the thicket of intergenerational PTSD, I would suggest that the dreamer ask for dream guides, allies, elevated ancestors, etc. to accompany them. I’ve had dream guides show up for me, and they could be helpful in this case. I’ve also been able to stop nightmares through lucid dreaming, so that might be an option as well. And finally, years ago I did a ritual with a fae witch friend of mine that transmuted some personal trauma—in fact, I stopped having these horrible dreams after doing the ritual with my friend. This is why collective dreaming and magic-making can be so powerful; together we are much more able to unspool the loom where our trauma is gathered.

Just the other day I was reading that resilience is an ecology more than it is an individual trait or possession. If so, dreaming together can weave the context for our healing. That is: a container, an atmosphere, a potentiality. Not transcendence. In fact, I’m not sure how much we’re breaking free of personal/collective trauma as much as we’re brewing adaptogens, recipes for resistance, a kiss and a fist.

APG: Yes. Yes. Yes. I definitely believe that we can get messages about our healing and the healing that we are charged to do for past and future generations through our dreams.  Sometimes in our dreams we can even face challenges that we faced earlier in life that perhaps our ancestors faced, and we can learn from those experience in a different way. I think that our dreams can also present issues to us that we’ve been avoiding.

TK: As a queer femme of color with chronic illness, I often feel like I spend more time metabolizing socially unfulfilled dreams than cultivating my own. How can reconnecting to our dreams disrupt structural oppression’s way of constantly crushing the dreams we have?

AL: That’s definitely a question to dream into. The only answer I can think of right now is: take it to the collective dream house. There’s a reason the U.S. military is hella invested in investigating things like remote viewing. The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—the very paragon of the dead “rational”—even gets that the “preternatural” has the power to bring this shit down.

APG: That’s exactly it. Capitalism treats our dreams (the dreams of multiply structurally oppressed people) as nightmares to repress. But one thing about the relationship to dreams that we are talking about is that it also challenges the internalized capitalism of our relationship to our aspirations. Are our aspirational dreams just something else that we feel pressure to individually achieve? What if that’s just not how it works? What if the future our dreamworlds require can’t be achieved? What if it just has to be listened to, collectively held, remembered, allowed, loved, accepted, like our night dreams? We really are creating collective energy to dismantle some of the american dreams, (in my case) immigrant dreams, capitalist dreams that are taking up so much energy in our lives to make space for a love and connectedness we could never individually chart up.