Black Dreams, 1982

“Black Dreams.” Essay, in Heresies #15: Racism Is the Issue, n.d., pp. 42-43.

Published in the Heresies collective’s journal, this was O’Grady’s first attempt to deal publicly with issues of black female subjectivity. It is based firmly in personal anecdote and psychological description rather than the more theoretical analysis she would later employ.

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1982

“Which would you guess was the biggest category?” I asked as I handed my new black woman therapist the organization chart I’d made of nine months’ worth of dreams.

I’d finally located her in September. Even in New York it hadn’t been easy. Only one percent of the therapists in America are black, and I’d spent July and August going to one white therapist after another who’d ask the standard question: “Why have you come into therapy?” When I was too embarrassed to answer directly, they’d accused me of being an aesthete, of wanting to take a symbolic journey into self-discovery.

There was the estrangement from my son, of course. But even if I’d been able to talk about it. I couldn’t have placed it in its deepest perspective by describing the specter standing behind not just my problems with motherhood, but those with my family, sex, and my artistic persona. With these male and female therapists I couldn’t break out of the defense I’d adopted toward the  whole white world, the mystique that everything was all right, that I had no racial problems. Even when I trusted their capacity for empathy, I couldn’t talk to

them about the subtle identity problems of a fair-skinned black woman, born and raised in Boston at a time when “social” blacks (the families who sent their children to Ivy League Schools) were still trying to be white.

Meanwhile, shopping for a therapist was becoming expensive. Jung had said that series of dreams were far more informative than dreams taken singly, and since I’d begun collecting my dreams at the beginning of the year, I now had nearly 150. To save time and money I decided to organize them. At the end of August, after saying goodbye to my last white therapist, I took my journal to Martha’s Vineyard and arranged the dreams into 24 categories with names like Upstairs/Balconies and Downstairs/Basements, Papa, Mama, Devonia (my sister), Sex, Art, Fear of Ending Up Alone, and Blacks/Racial Attitudes.

The results were startling. The Blacks/Racial Attitudes series was the largest, with roughly 30 dreams containing the motif, 10 more than the next largest series. I knew I’d been kidding myself, as well as white people, about the extent of my problem, but seeing it statistically tabulated like this unnerved me. ( … )

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