Black dreams and storytelling have long been a part of the push towards Black liberation
Against all odds, Black dreams continue to thrive and evolve under systemic racism—especially through the stories we tell.
by Jamila Mitchell
The emancipation of freed slaves and subsequent constitutional amendments of the 20th century meant that white people could no longer marginalize Black folks through the physical bondage of chattel slavery. Faced with new restrictions, they quickly resigned to maintaining their rule through a new age of psychological warfare on the formerly enslaved, and this oppression often depends on suppressing the creative thought of those forced into marginalization.
Contemporary white supremacists have invoked the racist operations of the U.S. intelligence community to attack the political progress that #BlackLivesMatters and other movements against white male supremacy are creating. The FBI’s recent terrorist classification of Black Identity Extremists is just one of their tactics.
Yet, against all odds, Black dreams continue to thrive and evolve under systemic racism—especially through the stories we tell.
For longer than I have been alive, there have been consistent calls for and work towards better representation and inclusion of Black creatives, characters, and stories in modern fiction.
Blaxploitation films of the 1970s were a part of a significant moment for Black folks in American cinema, and they eventually evolved into even more gratifying content. Movies such as the 1972 film Blacula, about an 18-century African prince turned vampire, paved the way for record-breaking productions like Marvel’s Blade franchise starring Wesley Snipes as possibly most exciting vampire hunter ever. Two years later, Black children were enamored with the cartoon series Static Shock, a story about an electrifying Black teen superhero from DC Comics.
The country was brimming with Black celebration and white speculation over the widespread fanfare of powerful Black people fighting for justice. Representation in fantasy and fiction energizes belief in creating change; that we can have the same impact on the world that our imagined heroes have.
Before stories were told through comics and science fiction, the dream of liberation from white supremacy was coded in the early Black church. Black Christianity was, perhaps, the first school for Black dreamers in America. Enslaved Africans throughout the West and in colonized Africa sought refuge in the Bibles that they were given to harmonize with the spirit of liberation and justice.
Despite debated inaccuracies of political liberation within biblical contexts, from the Exodus story of Moses and God’s freeing of the Israelites to Saint Peter’s escape from prison in the Brook of Acts, these stories are the heartbeat of many Black sermons of liberation.
Since congregating together was largely prohibited for enslaved Africans, group Christian worship often was among the most punished offenses under the paranoid eye of white slavers. As such, prayer became the seed that made the Black church a major birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Spiritual gospels fueled the esteem to address institutional racism with righteous indignation.
Dreams of freedom were—and often continue to be—at the core of Black Christian prayer, and visions of piety creating a better world has always been at the heart of Black Christianity. The work by white supremacists to erase Black dreams of freedom from the Bible is as old as the Anglo colonization of Black indigenous lands.
Howard University professor Dr. Cain Hope Felder explains this erasure:
“The modern academy has unfortunately zealously sought to whitewash all inhabitants of the ancient ‘Near East’ in the vicinity of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers” (Reddie, Anthony G. “Black Theology in Transatlantic Diagologue”. Palgave McMillan; New York, NY. 2006).
Whitewashing history and theology intends to both erase Black leadership in human civilization and prevent Black people from imagining a world in which we can be brilliant. If we do not know where we come from, it is hard to consider the possibilities of where we are going.
I have come to understand that what cannot be imagined cannot be realized, as everything created outside of consequence begins with imagination. Truly, even physics cannot defeat what the mind wants to make happen.
White children grow up reading textbooks, seeing movies, and watching TV shows where great inventors, world leaders, fictional heroes, and even gods are white. It is consequentially natural for them to believe they can do anything and be anything they want, just as their white parents, predominantly white schools, and mainstream media tell them.
Meanwhile, Black children, historically, have been starved of the same intellectual nutrition due to the erasure of Black skin, aside from shallow stories of slavery and a fraction of whitewashed revisionist Civil Rights stories. Fortunately, for as much as history can be perverted, resistance resides in the birthing of new minds.
With each new generation, new Black dreamers are born, and Black dreams are a constant resistance against the oppressive status quo.
As a Millennial, I have the opportunity to work towards a liberated world for my people because I am at an age where radical creativity is rocking the mainstream narrative with somewhat more ease than it has in the past. Black nerds like myself, are no longer limited to white characters due to improved access to works by creatives such as Octavia Butler, Yaa Gyasi, Shonda Lynn Rhimes, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. And thanks to CaShawn Thompson, the world now has a constant reminder of #BlackGirlMagic.
What a time to be alive. Blackness in fiction (and real life) has been lit in a whole new way with gems like Issa Rae’s Insecure HBO series, inspired by her web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. With her show, she brings us the richness and complexity of Black young adult women’s loves and challenges the glass ceiling imposed on Black women in Hollywood.
Netflix finally gave us a Black as hell live-action Luke Cage, based on Marvel Comic’s heroic tale of a former felon turned superhuman hero that fights corruption in New York City.
The rest of world the world was not ready for the Black dreams on screen in the form of the long-awaited, record-breaking Black Panther from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Millions of moviegoers around the globe are seeing the Ta-Nehisi Coates-inspired evolved storyline of the comic book hero, turning the first film of the new MCU franchise into a nearly $1 billion worldwide hit.
In a time where Donald Trump is President of the United States and has filled his cabinet with literal white nationalists and blatant white supremacists (ahem, before many resignations and firings), Black people are rejoicing at the idea of the superior Black nation of Wakanda and our royal Black-Black-Blackity-Black heroes T’Challa, Shuri, Okoye, among others. Wakanda is where Black dreams are today, and Black excellence continues to be everywhere.
Black dreams are important. As we continually watch so many police and white vigilantes go unpunished for murdering unarmed Black children, the ability of surviving Black people to dream and tell stories of ourselves in the future is a form of resistance.
Our enslaved ancestors shared their dreams of freedom and a greater world in the church. Throughout slavery, the Black Codes of the 1800’s, and the Jim Crow era, those dreams transformed into the movement which demands that the world recognize us as human.
We’ve continued sharing our dreams of freedom through groundbreaking artistic forms that both reflect modern day activism and inspire visions for a brighter future. We must keep dreaming to realize the promises of tomorrow, and we must protect those Black dreams and stories at all costs.