Seeing What Needs to Be Seen
Dreams can help us see what we need to see but don’t want to, for the good of all.
In February, I vacationed in Florida with my wife, our son Mikaelin and his girlfriend Luina. We floated with manatees, watched a pod of dolphins cavort from the deck of a boat, saw a mama alligator sunning on a river bank with a dozen babies, and sat on the beach in the sun, the weather cool for Florida but much warmer than either of our home cities – Seattle and New York, both far to the north.
And we shared stories. Mikaelin is an audio engineer and had just been in Louisiana recording an album. He and the artist spent time on the newly-opened Whitney Plantation, the only plantation in the South that tells the story of slavery from the slaves’ perspective. He described the moving experience of recording in Antioch Baptist Church, originally built by freed slaves and later moved onto the plantation to round out its depiction of the slave experience. The church is filled with realistic ceramic statues of slave children.
As we drove to Johns Pass to board the Dolphin Quest boat, Mikaelin said, “I had a dream last night.” In the dream, he is a detective investigating a series of murders. He interviews the ghosts of the victims one by one, hearing their stories in detail, trying to identify the murderer.
We both thought the dream was likely related to his stay in Louisiana. Many slaves – and many African-Americans after slavery ended – were murdered by whites. An installation at Whitney commemorates the German Coast uprising of 1811, the largest slave revolt in American history, which took place close by. Dozens of rebels, who lacked firearms, died in the fighting.1,2
As a shamanic practitioner, I have been taught that sometimes, when people die suddenly or violently, their spirits don’t fully cross into the spirit world; they get stuck, becoming what we call ghosts. These beings are often lost and confused, and they try in various ways to get our attention, including the strange noises and occurrences – a light suddenly switching on, a cold shiver down the spine, a knock in the night, a scary dream – familiar from ghost stories.
Ghosts often need help finding their way to the spirit world. Sometimes they need their stories to be witnessed. It occurred to me that Mikaelin was called in the dreamworld to witness the suffering of people who had been murdered on or near the plantation in Louisiana so that they could move on. I wondered, as mothers often do, if he needed my help with this.
The day after we returned home from Florida, I had this dream:
I am going to work. I walk into a building across from a large park. I push the button on the elevator, and as the door opens I see a large platform. On it are 10-12 dead or dying African-American people. There’s been a slaughter. One is half-sitting, looking at me. I am horrified. I run out into the park, hoping the perpetrators are no longer around. I will call 911 as soon as I’m no longer in danger.
A few days later, I journeyed back into the dream with my spirit ally Heron. My intention was to see whether I was being called to cross any ghosts into the spirit world, as I have been trained to do.
One of the people in the elevator is still alive, half sitting up, and angry. I realize I’m afraid of him. The others are dead. It’s clear there is nothing for me to do here. I go into the park and pray that the dead will get any help they need from their ancestors. I ask, why was I called to see this? The answer is, because white people need to see this. This is only a small part of the violence, the horror that was and still is experienced by slaves and their descendants. We need to see it so that we can help make it stop. I am not having this dream so that I can offer healing to the spirits of these people; I am having it because it is I and other white people who need healing.
The message of this dream and journey is still resonating for me. It is so easy for me and other white people to focus on the problems of African-Americans, to think that “they” need “our” help. The fact is that racism is a problem OF white people; it’s a problem FOR African-Americans and other people of color. If we own and address our problem of racism with courage, persistence and compassion and bring to light our own unhealed ancestral histories of being “other,” we can begin to stop the harmful impacts of racism. (For more on this topic, read Lisa Iversen’s book Ancestral Blueprints: Revealing Invisible Truths in America’s Soul.)
One of the main barriers to stopping racism is that it has been and still is invisible to white people. It is astonishing to me that in the many tours offered on plantations in the South, none outside the Whitney describe or honor the experience of the slaves who made the owners’ wealth possible. But the same is true of our entire economy, which has its roots in slavery. We need to learn and talk about this shameful history, and we also need to open our eyes, our ears, all our senses to the racism in our own and others’ actions and interactions in the present.
In the journey, I am afraid of the anger of the one man who is still living. That is my first reaction to him – not “Is he bleeding to death? Can I help him?” In this way, I am reacting very much like the cops who have murdered African-American youths in recent months – assuming threat before feeling human connection.
Many white people express feeling upset or intimidated when African-Americans show or voice anger about racism. This anger has its roots in deep injustice. Critiquing the feelings of people whom we white people have oppressed is not our business. What is our business is to make injustice visible and to stop our participation in it wherever and whenever we have the power and influence to do so. This is more often than we think.
1Mimi Read, “N.O. Lawyer transforms Whitney Plantation into powerful slavery museum,” New Orleans Advocate, Oct. 14, 2014
2R. L. Barnes, “America’s largest slave revolt: the German Coast uprising of 2011“, US History Scene, Nov. 1, 2011