Nightmares Released, Dreams Held

To live with consciousness is to always know ourselves poised between dreams and nightmares. In this reflection, Josina Guess joins one ancestor, Langston Hughes, and one future ancestor, her daughter, to hold fast to dreams and to release the nightmares.

Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021

The day after a historic Georgia victory and an attempted coup on the U.S. Capitol, I walk into the kitchen in a fog. My youngest daughter, Phoebe, perched at the messy counter, licking peanut butter from her fingers, tells me she needs help understanding a poem in her fifth-grade online class:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

This one, by Langston Hughes, I know by heart. I memorized it as a student at Alexander Shepherd Elementary school in Washington, D.C. I’m thankful that it is included in her Georgia public school curriculum. She listens to a recording of him reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” while I slice bread, make toast, try not to let my spirit drown.

“What does this first line mean?” she asks about “Dreams.” The exercise has four possible answers. I help her think through her options: A, B, C, or D. I tell her “hold fast” means to cling tightly. She chooses A.

There are dreams worth holding onto. I grab a mug of yesterday’s coffee and put it in the microwave. The mug is black with a montage of photos of Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. Capitol, and some of the words from “I Have a Dream.” Those words and images warm my hand as I explain similes and metaphors and the importance of holding onto dreams.

But what should we do with the nightmares? I wonder and do not speak aloud. I abandon the crusts of bread on the counter and head back into my bedroom/office for a work call. How do we keep the nightmares from holding fast to us?

In early June 2015, I had a dream, a strange nightmare, really, and wrote it down. In my dream, I was back in Washington, D.C., walking down a wide and empty Pennsylvania Avenue. Confederate battle flags hung from every light post. I didn’t recognize this gray city. President Barack Obama was walking down the street with his head down, and I shouted across to him, “Hang in there, I’m praying for you.” He raised his fist and offered thanks.

Just a few weeks after that dream, a white nationalist murdered nine people at the close of Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their names were Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson. The killer proudly displayed the Confederate battle flag with dreams of reigniting the Civil War.

Rev. Pinckney was also a South Carolina senator and Obama delivered his eulogy. Do you remember? We once had a president who publicly reflected upon the meaning of grace and sang “Amazing Grace” — in the middle of a waking nightmare. I cling to the power of that moment, even as I honor the honest critique of the way that it was quickly distorted into an easy call for unity.

Obama spoke these words before he sang:

“What is true in the South is true for America. … history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.”

Our nation swung in the opposite direction, choosing a narcissist for a president whose only dreams are power, fame, and self-aggrandizement. Only a criminal would seek to pardon himself. These past four years have pushed us further apart and to the brink of social collapse. The opportunity remains today and in the days ahead to break the cycle of hatred.

Randall Kenan wrote a prescient Letter from North Carolina: Learning From Ghosts of the Civil War just days before his death in August 2020. He wrote about the convergence of Donald Trump, the pandemic, and the uprisings in response to police violence. “The coming war will not be about the monuments, but the mentalities. Let’s be clear on what that future war will be about: Why hold on to these antiquated notions of skin-color signifying some type of superiority?”

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, a violent throng of white supremacists (spurred on by the worst president in U.S. history) stormed the U.S. Capitol, a palpable convergence of racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and Christian extremism. Those Confederate flags triggered so many collective memories of racialized terror and the memory of that strange dream I had five years ago — that awful sinking feeling. How they cling, “to these antiquated notions of skin-color signifying some type of superiority?” It was the continuation of a nightmare come true.

After that mayhem, 147 lawmakers voted to reject the election results instead of rejecting the very lies of white supremacy that allowed for those events to unfold. The current president’s despotic behavior has spurred motions for a second impeachment. We do not know what the days ahead will hold.

To what can we hold fast? Can we teach our children about dreams and grace in a historical moment that still feels so terrifying and dangerously uncertain?

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Where I live, in my adopted home state of Georgia, it is cold, but there is no snow. The red camellia buds outside my kitchen window are about to burst into glorious bloom, and a dream is trying to awaken, a vision more powerful than the perpetual nightmare of homegrown terror, baked into our nation’s identity and history, that keeps threatening to drown it out.

In both the November presidential and January run-off elections, we exercised our right to vote, in record numbers, in an incontrovertibly free and fair process. Due to the visionary leadership and organizing efforts of Stacey Abrams and others who have been working tirelessly over a decade or longer to reinforce democratic processes, a clear majority of Georgians chose to reject the night terror of Trumpism.

Thanks to the integrity-under-fire of Brad Raffensperger and others on his staff, and a host of election workers who did not yield to pressure to continue the cycle of voter suppression, every cast vote was properly recorded and counted and certified.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are our new senators, thanks to the multiracial, interfaith, nationwide coalitions of volunteers, letter writers, election officials, and voters that made Georgia — Georgia of all places — a place where dreams can start coming true. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and their new administration must pick up the pieces of our bruised and battered nation as we all navigate and lean into the work of a long-overdue need for reckoning with who we are and who we wish to become as a nation.

My daughter spent Thursday, Jan. 7, trying to understand Hughes’ poems about dreams, while we all tried to make sense of the events of the previous day and the long arc of history that led to it. If an individual or a nation lets go of its dreams, those dreams deferred can stink like rotting meat — or explode.

The nightmare does not have to have the final word.


Saturday, Jan. 9.

I open Facebook and see my friend Marie Cochran founder of the Affrilachian Artist Project reading Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

Her friend, Robin Lindsey Dake, had just recorded herself reading it, and Cochran is urging everyone to take the time to record themselves reading the poem aloud in its entirety. I take up her challenge. It will take work to become a nation that we never were. I hope you will join us.

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be —

I believe the grace Obama was singing about that mournful day is a state of being, a way of looking at ourselves, our neighbors, and our nation’s egregious and ongoing wrongs. Grace holds us — including the fear, outrage, and generational grief we are feeling. Grace helps us hold our dreams and work toward release from this collective nightmare.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
We have already come.
‘Twas grace has brought us safe thus far
And grace will lead us home.

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