Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey

Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey

by Jan Willis


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From an Alabama mining camp to India, from the Baptist church to Tibetan monasteries in Nepal, Dreaming Me is the account of how one woman realized her dreams against all odds.

The black section of an Alabama mining camp in the 1950s and 1960s is not where you might expect to find a budding Indo-Tibetan scholar, the first American woman and the first African American to become so. Jan Willis's journey from the Jim Crow south to Wesleyan University is a moving tale of spiritual exploration and a profound healing of the rage and low self-esteem that are the legacy of racism.

The civil rights movement was in full swing during Jan's teenage years, when she and her family marched with Martin Luther King in Birmingham, and when she later became one of eight black students to attend Cornell University. As with so many others of her time, Jan was constantly faced with the dilemma of how to win the struggle for freedom. She participated in the takeover of an academic building at Cornell, and she was actively recruited by the Black Panthers. But a trip to India, and her relationship with a Tibetan spiritual master, would set her firmly on the path to peace-both outward and inward.

Three decades as a student of Tibetan Buddhism gave Willis the structure and support to transform her life by helping her to confront the old wounds and to discover a well of confidence and joy we all share.

Author Bio: Jan Willis, the first African American Indo-Tibetan scholar, is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, where she is one of the school's most popular teachers. She is the author of several books on Buddhism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573221733
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/14/2001
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

    When it began, I had just walked up the long wooden steps at the back of my grandmother's house and entered the kitchen. In the darkened room, directly across from me, I saw the table and the broad back of my brother-in-law, James. My sister, San, was standing at one end of the table. She glanced at me as she reached into the cupboard and slowly brought down what appeared to be a chocolate cake. I thought she was going to feed me. I sensed that I had come here to eat; to be nourished in some way. But instead, she set the cake down in front of James, and it disappeared behind his massive back. It was not for me. I was deeply hurt; soulfully wounded. I determined to leave. I would go back to our house. This was not the only place to get food. I would eat somehow. I would not beg!

    Just then, a dark and wispy shadow figure moved close to me. When it spoke, I heard my mother's voice whisper threateningly into my ear: "You know it's dangerous out there!" I immediately felt panicked, my knees buckled, and my body developed a cold sweat. I sensed too that "outside" was fraught with dangers. Still, in frightened defiance, I turned and leaned out the door.

    Next, I stood in a dry and very dusty place. The hot air that waffled and shimmered parched my throat. The dust was powdery under my feet. There were cages and wire coops all around me. Some of the doors to the cages stood opened. I looked toward one near to my right. When I did, suddenly a soft andplushysnake-like creature sprang out. The plushy creature was dirty white and spotted black. It jumped just in front of me, and I recoiled in terror as it came to rest limply on the powdery ground. I noticed that the other cages were all empty.

    I found myself slumped down just outside the railings of a large corral. My head was touching one of its aged wooden slats. Inside there was a lion. He prowled the corral alone, circling in the heat, head down, his massive paws making the hot dustily upward. His mouth was bloody. I was frozen in fear. I could neither run nor take my eyes off the beast. He was a magnificent creature: solid, firm, massive, powerful. In spite of the dust, his coat shimmered and gleamed. As he prowled, ravenous and near to me, it seemed that I could smell his awesomeness. In spite of my fear, I wanted to touch him.

    The scene shifted and I was inside what appeared to be a barn. There were animal stalls here and hay underfoot. Another lion prowled anxiously, this time even closer. I gasped and turned my head away.

    Then I was running. Running down a long red-dirt road in this arid country. I was running for my life. My only thought was "All the cages are open!" I knew the lions were after me. I didn't know how many, but I knew they were after me. I ran and ran, out of breath, panting through the hot air. I saw no one, no one to go to for help.

    Finally I ran up to a town that looked like it was out of a Western movie. I scrambled up some stairs. A cowboy sat leaning against a building, his stirruped boots propped up against a railing. I screamed to him, "Please! Help me! They're after me!" But the man only rearranged his hat more securely over his eyes and leaned back again. I raced along the raised wooden walkway until I heard voices and turned through a set of swinging doors.

    I found myself inside a bar. The place was packed and seemed somehow familiar—like an old New Orleans Cajun club I had once been in. I heard the raucous sounds of zydeco blaring. My fear redoubled since I felt again like an intruder, a stranger, out of place. Still, I needed to find someone who would help me. Trembling, I was buffeted along from one sweaty body to the next. Desperate to get away from the lions, I pushed farther and farther in. Somehow, I moved through two long dark rooms, until I found myself in a back room, opened to the sky, with a few tables, and people scattered about and along a long bar.

    As I stood there, bent over and panting, a slim youngish white man came up to me. He reached into his shirt pocket and held out to me a clutch of money. As he did so, he made only one comment, phrased in the form of a question, spoken calmly and steelily: "Did you bring them?"

    I knew he meant the lions.

    Furious and deeply pained, I woke up.

    I am a black woman from the South who teaches Tibetan Buddhism in a mostly white elite college in the Northeast. I have come a long way since leaving home. It has had its costs.

Chapter Two


* * *

This voyage that I am on,
This is a journey about what's basic:
A sense of place and of belonging,
Of safety and of being whole,
Of family, and home.

When I was a little girl, one of my mother's friends called me "white gal." It was the nickname I hated most of all. Other children sometimes taunted me with negative slogans: "Deanie Pie's daddy must'a been a white man." I was called "yella gal" more times than I can count; and each time it was a wound that pierced deep. I folded in, ashamed at the core. Both my parents were black. Even so, because of such mocking, I felt like a co-conspirator.

In the middle of my thirty-ninth year, just after my mother had had a very angry bout with my father, she turned to me and began narrating the details surrounding my birth: the surprise, pain, hushed secrecy, and wrangling that soon erupted concerned my light skin and sandy blonde curls. It seems it was the colored nurses' aides at Lloyd Nolan Hospital (the company hospital that all of Birmingham's steel, coal, and iron workers were required to use) who had first shattered my mother's calm and relief following the birth of a healthy child.

    They came in groups to my mother's bedside with secret warnings: "Uh-huh. Girl, you done messed up now! Dat baby jes as sure white as dat white daddy dat fathered her. You better look out from yo husband, if you loves life!"

    Later, after seeing me for the first time, my mother, too, had apparently thought there had been some sort of mistake, some mix-up of babies. Initially, she also worried. But soon enough, having come to know that I was in truth of her womb and, therefore, also only of her union with my father, she countered their attacks with a simple declaration. She said, "You should have seen my father."

    My father was mum on the matter—at first. But even as I lay newly arrived in Lloyd Nolan's nursery, my father's father, Belton, had begun making suggestions to him about my mother's possible "illicit collusions." My mother's hurt and sorrow in all this cannot be fathomed. And while still a newborn, I believe I sensed this troubled welcome.

    Subconsciously, it seems that I knew my parents fought over me. Fought bitter battles of censure, hurled cosmic disclaimers: "It is not mine!" and, even grander for a black child, "It is not of my race!" Perhaps my early sense of abysmal isolation and loneliness stems from these first moments and days of life.

    My mother explained that it was only after her father, Ellick's, visit that the source of my fair coloring was grudgingly accepted by the two male Willises. My grandfather's name was Alex, but most people pronounced it "Ellick." Ellick White (his surname was descriptive, as well as Welsh) had come to visit my mother late one evening. They had not seen each other for years, and whole worlds of experience and pain had found life in the time intervening. My father was working the graveyard shift down in Ensley's steelworks when Dorothy heard the thud of footsteps on the wooden porch and peered nervously through the front peep-hole to see the scraggily dressed old white man standing there. Hunched forward, he called her name in muffled tones: "Dorthay? Dorthay?" She leapt backward from the door in fear, grabbed me up in her arms, and ran on tiptoe back to the kitchen to summon Miss Chank, our neighbor, with anxious knocks through the wall.

    We lived in a double-tenant frame house then, on Pleasant Hill Road in Ensley. Behind that street sloped the muddy trails that led down through the scrubs, across the tracks, and directly into the blast furnaces of the steel plant where my father worked. Often men would come up from the plant, like old hoboes, to forage for food or to nap on the porches of the black folks lucky enough to have company houses so near work.

    We lived on one side of the house: my mother, my father, my older sister, Sandy, and me. Miss Chank occupied the other half of the house, and for reasons always unknown, she lived alone. My mother needed Miss Chank to come help or to go and get help, since she did not recognize the old white man hulking on the porch to be her own father.

    "Miss Chank! Miss Chank! Wake up! Come help! There's some old white man out on the porch!" my mother began shouting as she knocked louder and louder against the creaky slats of the adjoining kitchen walls.

    "What's dat you say, Dorothy? I's coming, honey!" was finally the response from the other side of the wall. And out she came, drawing her night robe up tight around her and calling up that deep, brusque voice of hers as she grabbed the heavy stick she kept poised nearby. Miss Chank bounded to her front door.

    "What do you want up here, old man? And what're you doin' out here on our porch in da middle of da night?"

    My grandfather fell back, startled by the sudden assault. He took off his hat, and, holding it in both hands, he explained:

    "Ma'am, my name is Alex White. I'm looking for a Dorthay Willis, said to live here."

    My mother, back at our front door listening, now slowly swung it open.

    "Daddy? That really you?"

    "Yes, Dorthay. It's me."

    "Lawd, Daddy, we almost called the law on you! Come on in and tell me why you come after so long, and in the middle of the night." Miss Chank, too, made apologies, commenting on the dangerous times and how one couldn't be too careful. She wished Dorothy and her father a pleasant visit before, quietly now, fading back into her side of the double-tenancy and to whatever dreams my mother, in her desperation, had so abruptly shattered.

    My grandfather, I am told, stayed with us for about two weeks after this rather shocking appearance. For the first time in his life he was without a steady job. The younger woman with whom he'd immediately taken up as soon as my grandmother, Sadie, had died had tired of him. He still had his good looks, though. He had twinkly blue-gray eyes, hair straight and soft as corn silk, and skin as white as any white man.

    My father, and my grandfather Belton who lived just a few doors down from us in one of the biggest houses on Pleasant Hill, met Ellick then for the first time. After early suspicions retreated, the two showed him a cordial enough welcome. It was, no doubt, during this time also that they could see whence my own looks originated.

    I myself saw my grandfather Alex only a few times. Seeing him left no doubt that he was at least half white. In fact, after another visit to us in Docena when I was about nine, I asked my mother why this particular white man came to visit us and why he called San and me his "little darlings." Though she told me that Alex was her father, my curiosity was not appeased.

    I remember the first time I consciously saw "Alech," as I called him. He was a tall man. He wore a suit, brown as I recall, with thin blue pin stripes, a white shirt, and a tie. His pants were held up by suspenders, a mark of age as well as sophistication, I thought. I also thought he was very handsome; and kindly, too—for a white man. He would call us to him and have us sit on his knees. My sister and I liked to feel his hair, to run our fingers through its fine texture; and he let us play in it. He also seemed to know a lot about gardening; a good deal of conversation went on about the plot of vegetables and my special patch of strawberries we kept in our backyard.

    As time passed and I grew, I became more and more the spittin' image of my father. Everyone agreed that Dean was sure enough her daddy's child! In time, my father too recognized it. Still, there's a funny thing about doubt, anger, and denial once unleashed: in spite of later correction and understanding, they are not so easily relinquished.

    As for me, I became known as a moody child, one who was always thinking and brooding rather than playing. I was sensitive and reflective far beyond my tender years; and I am convinced that my behavior, at least in part, stemmed from my earliest mixed reception.

When I began working on my family's history later in life, I clearly remember the day that I became, literally, sick from having to look through white slave-owners' materials in order to trace my black kin. The more I stared at my scribbled charts, the sicker I became. It was not that I hadn't known there were white ancestors in my family's background. Given the contours of African American history and the system of slavery that so long dominated in the United States, hardly any black person in this country has avoided the forced mixture of the races. I knew my "light" skin came from somewhere, but it was much harder to own up to its having come from a specific someone.

    I was following a thread of evidence indicating that my maternal great-grandfather was a Jewish storeowner named Mayer who lived in west central Alabama. But it became more and more clear to me that it didn't much matter whether or not this particular Mayer was my great-grandfather. Nor did it matter that he was Jewish. Most of my closest friends were Jewish; and whenever I thought of black-Jewish relationships, I considered us natural comrades, equally ostracized and discriminated against and—at key historical moments—working together to combat injustice. No, what mattered was that my maternal great-grandfather was white. That fact alone somehow made me feel dirty and polluted. Abstract ideas didn't produce such emotional turmoil; concrete examples, living flesh did.

As I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, the strong emphasis on Black Power and our African ancestry dictated that white ancestry should be kept in the closet. Its exposure gave us as a people no benefits. No matter how light-skinned, a black person in this society was still black. Of course, there was a whole subculture of blacks who prided themselves on their fair complexion. Indeed, a separate class of blacks, from the antebellum mulattoes and free persons of color to the social-climbing networks of the Bon Tons and Links, gave testimony to the benefits in terms of prestige and power that did operate among them. But I was not one of those blacks. For me, whenever my skin color had become an issue, it had always been a mark of embarrassment and shame. I was like the child who covers her eyes with her hands and thinks she is no longer visible. As long as I didn't look too closely at my own skin, I would not have to recognize the white blood that ran in my veins.

    I had lived among different cultures and had developed what I thought of as a genuine appreciation of diversity. But this was somehow very different. The spectre of white blood, so generationally close, weighed extremely heavily on me. It made me neither accepting nor gracious. I did not wear proud shoes.

    Once, when I was in Nepal, a distinguished Nepalese anthropologist began a conversation with me by saying, "Of course, your parents are mixed, are they not?"

    I had denied the accusation loudly. "No! Both my parents are black!" I had responded, wounded even by the suggestion that they might not be. Over the years, other acquaintances had made similar inquiries. Always it was embarrassing, like an accusation impossible to defend against. I felt exposed, found out. Neither of my parents was dark-skinned, but both were black; and I was black.

    Now, as I worked on this line of kin—I could not yet bring myself to say "my kin"—that old anger at being unrecognized and misunderstood resurfaced, together with that old shame. The pain I was experiencing had not so much to do with my earliest reception as with coming face-to-face with the fact of my white ancestry. My grandfather Alex's father was white. It was not frustration about which white man might have fathered him; it was the recognition that some white man had. The whole thing turned my stomach.

    I had always hated the word miscegenation. Now I experienced why. Facing the fact of my white ancestry was like being given a diagnosis of cancer. There were white blood cells living inside of me that were out of the closet and out of control. They were eating my body and nay soul alive, and I did not know if I could survive. What does one do when the oppressor's blood courses in one's own veins? How could I run away from my own self? How to make peace with such horrific origins? Historically, I was both the victim and the child of rape conceived in terror. Everyone in the whole sordid history of slavery and racist oppression and all blacks are subject to its enduring legacy: black women unable to fend off white rapists; black men unable to protect their wives and partners. Given such history, the questioning of origins, though painful, was unavoidable.

    Thus, from my birth, the history of blacks in this country became for me a very personal history. More than anything, I wanted my father's love and acceptance. As I grew older, I also wanted to be able to trust and to genuinely love others. To get beyond the pervasive sense of pain and suffering I carried, I knew I would have to find healing, to find that place of belonging that is so basic for us all: feeling at home in our own skins. And so, from my earliest days, my solitary quest became to find a way to accept myself, and to love me.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Birth
Dreaming Me: The Terror of Lions3
"White Gal"6
Life at Home25
School in Alabam'30
The Holy Opens Its Arms to Me40
The Talk53
Marching On to Freedomland57
"Trouble Along the Cable"62
Part 2: Odyssey
Dreaming Me, II73
What Caste Are You?96
Blissed-out at Swayambhunath100
Too Gullible?106
Guns on Campus115
Decision Time: A "Piece" or Peace?124
Part 3: Choices
Dreaming Me, III133
An Accident in Southern France135
Meeting Lama Yeshe149
This, Too, IsBuddha's Mind155
The Test159
Joy of the Dharma169
A Spot of Blonde172
Flesh-and-Bones Buddha179
Part 4: Becoming
Deciding to Become a Teacher187
Teaching in Paradise192
I Believe I Can Fly205
My Great Seal Retreat210
Part 5: Return
Dreaming Me, IV229
Having Crossed the Line230
Little Things234
My Search for Kin242
A Lama-Hit253
Lightning Flash256
Church with Daddy267
Mama Wore Rainbows284
Teaching as My Practice293
Women's Liberation297
A Baptist-Buddhist307
Dreaming Me, V: The Lioness's Roar312

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