In African American history, the tumultuous period between the mid-1950’s and 1969 was a time of intense struggle for long-suppressed civil rights throughout the United States. Many African Americans engaged in some kind of protest that ranged from the nonviolence of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to the violence of the Black Panthers. Memoirs of the participants in the Second American Reconstruction have become common. This book by Jan Willis is rare in this field. Few blacks sought an avenue of personal healing that looked to the wisdom of Eastern cultures. Jan Willis chose this unusual route by becoming a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism through her study of that path in India and Nepal. Dreaming Me recounts her journey from a childhood that bore the deep scars of racism and segregation, through the epic protest movements in Alabama and at Cornell University, to her personal and professional engagement with Tibetan Buddhism.
Willis begins her memoir by recounting a dream where she is desperately threatened by lions. The dream personifies the fears and burdens with which she has struggled as “a black woman from the South.” In the dream, her mother warns her, “You know it’s dangerous out there!” Still, she faces the external challenges that, in the dream, take the form of lions. She recounts, “I knew the lions were after me . . . I ran and ran, out of breath, panting through the hot air. I saw no one, no one to go for help.” As she awakes, “furious and deeply pained,” she summarizes her life story as an African American woman from the South who now teaches Tibetan Buddhism at Wesleyan, a privileged, predominantly white college in Connecticut. She explains, “I have come a long way since leaving home. It has had its costs.”
Willis narrates her life story in essentially chronological fashion. The book is divided into five sections. Part 1, titled “Birth,” describes her childhood in Alabama through her graduation from an all-black high school. In part 2, “Odyssey,” she leaves her small southern town to attend college at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Her college years also include an even more distant journey to spend a year studying abroad in India. Part 3, “Choices,” focuses on her adoption of Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of Lama Yeshe in Nepal, where she spent her first year of graduate study. In part 4, “Becoming,” Willis finds herself through her life work, teaching, and her scholarly study of Tibetan Buddhism. Her personal practice and understanding of Buddhist meditation and philosophy deepens. Part 5, “Return,” completes the circle by connecting with her family’s history and Baptist religion.
Although this structure provides a basic framework of her life, Willis’s memoir is not a straightforward narrative of her life story. Instead, Willis concentrates on the inner transformation that unfolds as she finds ways to come to terms with her racial identity.
In order for the reader to understand this transformative process, Willis first establishes the situation and her experiences as an African American girl growing up in the Deep South of Alabama during the 1950’s, when segregation was still a way of life for blacks. She lived with her parents, Oram and Dorothy Willis, and her older sister Sandra (San) in a small house in Docena, known as “the Camp,” a rural town that was created just outside Birmingham to house both white and black workers in the coal mines that sustained the steel mills of the city. The black sector of the town was discrete and cut off from the white neighborhoods. As a result of the Jim Crow system of racial separation, it took a special effort to persuade the whites in power to provide street signs and a gravel road for the residents of “the Camp.” Despite the May 17, 1954, ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that struck down “separate but equal schools” throughout the South, schools in Alabama remained segregated as whites resisted implementation of the Court’s decree. Still, Willis received a good education from dedicated teachers who fostered her thirst for knowledge but tempered her impulses with firm discipline.
Beyond relating these basic circumstances of growing up as a second-class citizen, Willis also imparts an excellent picture of the psychological burdens that this kind of existence placed on her. As she crossed a corner of the white section of town on Saturdays to retrieve the family’s mail at the commissary, she invariably endured taunts from a...
(The entire section is 1864 words.)