Dreams in the African American Folk Tradition

Written By

Jermaine Archer, Ph.D.

In exploring the cultural connections between Africa and the antebellum South of what became the United States of America, slave narratives are among the most compelling sources for examining the slaves' remembrance of Africa. Expressions of cultural memory found in the narratives from both men and women of the 1800s suggest that despite the increase in an American-born population and an emerging African-American identity, African culture did not dissipate with each passing decade of the nineteenth century. In fact some of the more popular book length narratives of the antebellum period demonstrate the persistence of memory within the slave quarters.

One mode of remembrance of African cultural and spiritual practices within the slave milieu was through the symbolism of dreams.  While the meaning and corresponding signs of dreams in the African American folk tradition have varied from locality to locality, they have consistently served as a channel of self-divination through which the dreamer is able to grasp a fuller meaning of his or her life.  It has been a long standing belief in the black community that dreams are a critical tool for unlocking the door to the future.

A number of ex-slaves who contributed to the genre of nineteenth and twentieth century slave narratives have provided insightful accounts of their community’s experience with dreams as a sort of life roadmap intended to prevent and reveal certain occurrences or to decipher that which was not completely understood in the conscious state.  Frederick Douglass implied in his second narrative that he would have been wise to have heeded the warning signs that came to his friend and esteemed slave conjure doctor Sandy Jenkins during the planning of their escape from slavery.  Sandy’s symbolic dream of birds seizing Douglass during their flight came to fruition when Douglass’s plot was discovered.

In Harriet Jacobs’s nineteenth century memoir she recalled a dream she had of her children just prior to their sale.  She recounts that she knew something was going to happen to her children.  Jacobs’s dream was later confirmed when she was informed that the previous day, her children were sold by her owner to their father and were being looked after by her grandmother.  Jacobs attributed this good fortune to none other than divine intervention as she believed that would improve their lot.

Harriet Tubman steadily received forewarnings and hints oftubman.jpg the future through her dreams.  She admitted that she often dreamt of flying over a diverse landscape which she later came to symbolically interpret as her escape to the North.  Upon Tubman’s arrival in the North she encountered the same persons she saw in her dreams.  She also often had an uncanny sense of when folk were in danger and needed her assistance.  One of her most intriguing premonitions involved the militant anti-slavery advocate John Brown. Just prior to meeting him for the first time Tubman had a dream that she would later come to decipher as a divine warning.  In Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, Sarah Bradford wrote:
She thought she was in ‘a wilderness sort of place, all full of rocks, and bushes,’ when she saw a serpent raise its head of an old man with a long white beard, gazing at her, ‘wishful like, jes as ef he war gwine to speak to me,’ and then two other heads rose up beside him, younger than he, --and as she stood looking at them, and wondering what they could want with her, a great crowd of men rushed in and struck down the younger heads, and then the head of the old man, still looking at her so ‘wishful.’  This dream she had again and again, and could not interpret it; but when she met Captain Brown, shortly after, behold, he was the very image of the head she had seen.
Tubman did not understand fully the meaning of the dream until after the disastrous attack on Harpers Ferry.  It is fairly well known that Brown’s men proved to be no match for an outfit of U.S. Marines.  Ten of Brown’s soldiers were killed including his two sons Watson and Oliver.   On the following day Tubman learned the tragic details of the attack from a local newspaper.  It was then that she finally understood the meaning of her dream.  The serpents represented Brown and his sons.

Writing on the inhabitants of southern Nigeria, Major Arthur Glen Leonard found that the dreaming of a snake meant that one’s enemies were seeking to cause tremendous harm and quite possibly death to the dreamer.  It was believed that this was caused by an “evil” or “antipathetic” spirit who visited the person having the dream.  While Harriet Tubman was not specifically targeted at Harpers Ferry, those responsible for bringing down John Brown and his cohorts in many ways represented the opposing forces to everything for which she stood.  Thus, her dream of snakes and their association with one’s adversary was very much in sync with others who were also influenced by African culture.

In his book Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1969) folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett included perhaps the most sustained enumeration of “dreams-signs” among African Americans.  Puckett’s informants disclosed the meaning of a number of dreams such as those concerned with death, quarrels, business, money, legal matters, health and misfortune just to name a few.

Dreams continue to be an important aspect in African American social and spiritual life.  It is not uncommon for one to take seriously the advice of the matriarch or patriarch of the family who claims to have an uncanny feeling that derived from their dreams.  Slave narratives reveal that enslaved Africans in the United States continued this socio-cultural feature and, via practice, the interpretation and reliance on dreams for direction and guidance evolved in ways that served the group and/or the individual in the antebellum south. This body of literature demonstrates, more important, that Africa and its traditions held firm in the memory of its people.

Jermaine Archer is an Assistant Professor of history in the American Studies Department at SUNY, College at Old Westbury.   His book Antebellum Slave Narratives: Cultural and Political Expressions of Africa will be published with Routledge Press in 2009.


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Ajayi Olutayo

Ajayi Olutayo

11. October, 2012 |

People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!

Marcus Edibogi Akor

Marcus Edibogi Akor

11. October, 2012 |

Thanks for this powerful article. I am very glad I read it. Keep up your great work and remain Blessed Law!

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