Harriet Tubman had a dream. The whole next day she celebrated that dream and what she saw in it, which was the freedom of her people. “My people are free!” she proclaimed. In the present tense. But all around her was the nightmare of slavery.
And not only in the states where chattel slavery was still a legal practice, but in the nationwide Fugitive Slave Act, a policy that some would say has never gone out of practice. A policy by which any Black person could be detained, interrogated, stopped, frisked, held against their will, and punished for resisting. A policy that further weaponized whiteness and gave any white person reasonable cause to handle, mishandle, report, suspect Black life in general, anywhere, doing anything.
Yes. Even at home. Yes. Even asleep. Bird-watching? Sure.
This is part of the context of the nightmare that Black people have been living with or dying under for centuries and that it is harder for non-Black people to ignore in the time of cellphone-camera documentation. But Harriet Tubman had a dream. And that dream put her to work. She went to South Carolina and organized for a year to get the intelligence and the community support of over 750 enslaved Africans on rice plantations who would free themselves and each other on June 2, 1863, at the Combahee River. It was a military attack that shifted the position of the Union Army in the Civil War. It was an economic attack that targeted the rice plantations that were bankrolling the confederacy. It was concerted collective action on behalf of the possible, in the midst of a nightmare.
Assata Shakur’s grandmother had a dream too. In the dream, she saw her granddaughter’s freedom. And while the state was completely clear that no person who had been a member of an organization that put the words “Black” and “Liberation” and “Army” together could be allowed to continue their work, Assata Shakur’s grandmother was right. A community of people took major risks to free Assata from prison and get her to Cuba, where she continues her purposeful and inspiring work to this day. In the midst of a nightmare during which the police shot, tortured, confined, and defamed Assata, her grandmother’s freedom dream is what actually determined the future.
So what does this have to do with us, Durham? Are we in the midst of a dream or a nightmare? What can these historical dreamers teach us, beyond the co-optation of Martin Luther King’s dream speech, which has been misused to portray a myth of liberal equality while the nightmare rages on?
The dream has everything to do with the dreamer. Psychoanalysts say that the meaning of a dream is determined by the symbolic worldview of the person dreaming. And maybe what we are realizing now is that all dreams are not created equal, or more precisely, not created to make us equal. Because, as Fred Moten taught me, the dreams of the settler become policy. Which means they become police. In Durham we could translate that to say, the dreams of developers become city mandates.
Who do you imagine sleeps well at night in a context of unaffordable housing and rampantly rising evictions? Who sleeps well with the incessant sound of construction work, exempt even from Durham’s city-wide stay-at-home order during the first month of the recognized pandemic? What is the equity of dream real estate when developers consider an investment in police a necessary element of convincing elite residents that Durham is a safe place for them to lay their heads, while Black residents are dealing with the trauma of knowing police get away with coming into Black people’s homes and murdering them while they sleep?
And the city council is complicit in how the dreams of developers have already become policy in Durham, as especially evidenced by their recent decision to increase the police budget and lower the human-resources budget, in this moment of all moments.
Maybe the dreams of Harriet Tubman and Assata Shakur’s grandmother had nothing to do with equality. Maybe they were about calling a nightmare a nightmare and aligning our action toward the possibility of freedom. And we need them right now. Because the dreams of our revolutionary ancestors are intergenerational too. The dreams of revolutionaries birth revolutions. And these dreams are alive here in Durham. I am grateful for the persistent work of Durham Beyond Policing to dream and practice a world beyond captivity. And I challenge my fellow Durham residents to conduct an ethical sleep study right now. Is it time for you to continue to work toward your dream, or is it time to wake up?
ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS is the author of M Archive: After the End of the World, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, Dub: Finding Ceremony, and co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Follow her on Twitter. Comment on this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.