Dreamed 1980/8/17 by Sarita Johnson
This dream is epic--some 1500 words, one of the longest in the World Dream Bank. It opens with gritty realism, escalates into chase sequences (except whenever you ask these cops to back off, they do!) and ends in mysterious transformations: surrealism.
A young strong Black woman visited her child in a hospital. She had with her three very young girls, 2 years old each, and the child she visited was less than a year old. I knew the story line: she was going to take her baby from the hospital without clearing it at the registration desk.
She had wrapped the three little girls in one blanket which she held in her left hand, and she gently scooped her sick baby boy into her right arm. She was a very dark woman. She did not run. She walked with bold steps toward the hospital exit on the right after deciding she didn't want to go past all those nurses to her left.
A young white nurse spotted the mother walking away with the sick boy. The nurse called to her by her name, for the woman was known by most of the hospital staff. (Evidently, the young son had been hospitalized for some time). Although she heard the nurse's warm voice calling her, the strong Black mother kept walking. By this time, I became that Black woman, and the fear mounted. I already knew the story line: I would get caught.
When I walked outdoors, I noticed that the hospital was actually an extension of the San Jose State University art building. The hospital surroundings were those of the art building, but beyond there began a field dotted with dirt mounds, dead cars, abandoned machine shops and railroad tracks.
When the kind nurse made a detour to summon male assistance, I ran. I sought various hiding places, but none seemed just right. Early evening was approaching.
As I ran further into the field, I was stopped in my tracks by a couple of German shepherd yard dogs. Almost instinctively, I fell to the ground and played dead. I saw and felt a white dog sniffing my head and finding me uninteresting. To make myself fearless while he sniffed, I murmured to myself: "So what, dog, go ahead... I'm already dead anyway."
Somehow when I knew I was safe, I got on my feet, and at this point I again became the spectator. The strong mother with the four children became herself again, but also the mother became my close friend Alma. In other words the mother was played by both the Black woman originally cast and Alma.
When the Black woman was in character, she thought to herself: "My boy's dying, if he's not already dead. If he's dead, I'll sit with him for an entire night before I bury him." She walked out of the field toward the hospital.
Alma now played the mother's part and nowhere else in this dream (except much later) did the Black woman reappear. Alma was aware of my presence. Together we walked toward the field's edge which ran along a busy 2-way street.
I told her more than once that we would wait the night with her dead baby boy before burying it. I knew she agreed with me wholeheartedly, but her face was expressionless; she remained silent--busy making plans for hiding. She suggested that we find a hiding place on the East Side of San Jose where we would be around people of our own class.
Very practically, I said: "No, there'll be too many dogs." Alma agreed, and we decided to cross the busy 2-way street to the other side that seemed to descend a dark hill of foliage.
Somehow Alma and I wound up in that damn field again. We lay down on the cool dirt. She no longer had the children with her, but the idea of their presence and the feeling of being sought after was still with us. All was dark except for the porch lights of the empty warehouses that surrounded us.
I was lying on top of Alma, and we made love in the dirt. I was about to orgasm. Alma was calm. I noticed a small, middle-aged, skinny white man in greyish-blue mechanic's coveralls slowly approaching us. Although Alma could not have seen him, she also knew he was there. She remained calm. I told the man to at least wait until I completed my orgasm. He waited! I was stunned, pleased and sorrowful all at once. We were caught.
Alma and I leaned against a rusted tubular rail bordering a warehouse, and we were guarded at flashlight-point by the man in the greyish-blue coveralls. To our left, two other white men wearing blue clothing were getting out of their cars. They joked and talked joyfully with each other. They were neatly dressed as if they had just finished performing some other duty. We knew what they were--police.
The man in the greyish-blue coveralls asked Alma for identification. She showed him a student identification card. He asked for mine. I had none on me. Suddenly he rudely informed me that Alma's student ID card was my identification. I said: "Oh." feeling very stupid. But he let us go and we were glad to be away from him.
Alma and I found ourselves in a very brightly lit women's clothing store. Supposedly we were looking at silk-like garments. According to the script, another Black woman would appear in this store and she would have connections to the original Black mother's children. Alma became the Black mother again, and sitting quietly across the crowded room was the other Black woman. This woman had very light-brown skin, green eyes, and she seemed familiar to me. Their eyes met, and they smiled secretly to one another.
This other Black woman wore a beautiful baggy grey "men's" blazer with four 3-inch rips across the back and collar. These rips represented children. One was the dead baby boy. The Black mother was not aware of my presence, but the other woman was, so we chatted briefly. She may have tried to explain to me the meaning of the four gashes in her blazer. I just knew we were gonna get caught in this store. The pressure rose.
Alma and I were seated in this very small waiting room in what seemed to be a trailer. The 15 seats in this waiting room were filled with women and maybe a few men. A large white man with light hair and army khakis entered the waiting room from the left with a small flashlight and other paraphernalia. He may have worn sunglasses. He warned us that he was about to shine the flashlight into the eyes of whomever he wanted to arrest (I knew this was going to happen). He very knowingly shone a thin ray of light in Alma's face. She was sitting to my left, and he called out part of the name I was using in this episode. Apparently he assumed Alma used the same name.
Alma, who remained calm throughout this while I died of nervousness, rose to her feet and to the man's request walked outdoors. I quickly followed, but the man blocked my way out by closing the door behind Alma. I panicked: "Let me out there with her!!", and surprisingly enough, he let me out!
Alma was quietly standing a foot beyond the doorway. Outside the air was cool and very damp--I think we were on a dock. Alma wore dark clothing. I grabbed her immediately in an embrace and cried the kind of cry that seems to wring tension from one's bowels if continued long enough.
Alma reciprocated the hug, but she did so in a resigned manner; she also had known this would happen to her. Fortunately the men guarding her permitted me to remain physically close to Alma. We held onto each other constantly. She was still unusually calm.
As we walked along the dock awaiting the final separation, we came upon a large group of white people sitting on bleachers watching the sea. There were people that Alma had known from her old high school and first first four years of college. She recognized a childhood creep and teased him playfully. He was very white and wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt. He viciously retaliated by calling Alma a "weirdo."
Alma was puzzled and hurt, not knowing whether this boy was referring to her relationship with me or to the "theft" of her baby boy from the hospital. She was now aware that this entire crowd from her past was against her. We walked away.
Alma and around five other women had been taken aboard a long rubber raft with a canopy, as prisoners. Alma was either to be executed for her "crime" or incarcerated for life. I was not on this raft, but somehow I was able to follow close behind and look into Alma's eyes under the canopy.
She knew I was worried about her--about me without her--and her solemn and firm countenance reassured me that eventually things would work out fine for both of us.
The weather was gray, cool and damp, and I saw other boats escorting the raft safely out to sea. Suddenly, one after the other, each prisoner became an airplane and flew off into the sky! First the prisoner on the left and then Alma! I was shocked and helpless. I would never see her again, and I could do nothing about it.
The sky was a promising baby blue when the airplanes flew into it. The dream ended, but I was able to see Alma's face again under the canopy of the rubber raft.
SOURCE: Dreamworks: an Interdisciplinary Quarterly (v.3, no.1, fall 1982, p.10-14; titled only A DREAM TALE)
Dreamworks was more open to women than many literary magazines of its generation, but the pages do feel very white, straight and... genteel. Johnson's dream stands out for its clarity about class, race, gender and queerness--how it feels to live under occupation, always suspect. The faceless white guys manspread and strut around with their petty power, yet they're weirdly blank behind their shades.
And yet Johnson has more power than it seems. Notice how every single time she asks or insists, the cops give in--they let her go, they let her come, they let her hug Alma goodbye, they let her onto the raft. Cops who can't say no!
That's been my dream-experience too; I rarely think to ask my nightmare figures to change things, but once, I met the scriptwriter of my nightmares, and every change I thought to ask for, I got. Though I instictively knew not to ask for no nightmares; they're needed. But I could shape them.
Gloria Steinem, in Revolution from Within, argued that unlearning Alma-like resignation, and instead expecting to be heard, can help defeat the cops on the outside too. Johnson seems right in the middle of that unlearning--she never expects to get what she wants, yet she keeps asking--and getting.
One more small thing about this dream. It's one of surprisingly few in Dreamworks's long run that's scrupulously reported. It's clearly dated. Its illustrations express the action and mood. It doesn't try to be stylish or pretty, but it's clear (except the mysterious ending--is it only Alma's soul that becomes an airplane, leaving her body behind?) Her bio has relevant facts--Johnson was finishing up at the San Jose State art department and was dealing with pregnancy; so these babies and hospital/art buildings don't come from nowhere. Many pieces in Dreamworks are strong on style, but fail one or more (sometimes all) of these basic criteria for good dreamwork--and good dream art. It's why, out of a thousand pages, I'm showcasing just a few dozen.
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