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Memoir Review    

 

Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey
by Jan Willis
Riverhead Books, 2002 [paperback edition]
ISBN: 1-57322-909-1
 
 

Dreaming Me is storytelling at its best.

Jan Willis was born in the "colored" section of Docena, an Alabama mining camp outside of Birmingham, in the 1950s. The author was subjected to hatred and humiliation firsthand. One of her earliest memories is of watching her mother stand behind the door with a loaded gun to protect her daughters as the Klan burned a cross on the family's lawn.

Dorothy, her mother, wanted her to be "saved" and worried about her soul, while Oram, her father, worried about her intellectual growth and education. Her father, who had always loved learning, ran away from home to Talladega College and camped on the grounds because he had no money. In a heartbreaking scene, his father forces him to return home to a life in the mines because there were no jobs for educated blacks. A lesser spirit would
have given up but the author's father placed the education of his daughters above his own safety.

When Willis, who marched with Dr. King in high school, was offered a scholarship to Cornell in 1965, she left Alabama on her longest journey away from home.

Three years later, she had developed the confidence to travel to Nepal on an exchange program to study Tibetan Buddhism. The violence surrounding her in America was counter to the Buddhist practice she was learning. As a young woman, an activist, and a "thinking Black person in this country," Willis felt she had no choice but to join the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s.

After her graduation from Cornell, in a move she describes as "piece or peace," Willis left the turbulence of the U.S. to study the chants and devotional rituals she considered the essence of Tibetan Buddhism. Her spiritual journey would lead her to Columbia University where she was the first American woman as well as the first African-American to become an
Indo-Tibetan scholar.

Jan Willis began writing Dreaming Me as a memoir about her family and their life in Alabama at the urging of family friend Alex Haley. Calling herself a "Buddhist Baptist", Willis incorporates the oral traditions of Alex Haley's Roots, the historical perceptions of Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home, and the good humor of Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. She embraces the symmetry of her mother's warning "not to go too far away from home" and her father's belief that she should "think for herself." Dreaming Me is a memoir filled with forgiveness, acceptance, and transformation.

While it has become cliche' to describe the 1960s as a time of great awakenings, Dreaming Me reminds readers that dedication to justice and the possibility for social change existed for a generation.

Jan Willis has taught and written about Buddhism in America for more than three decades. She's a professor of Religion and Walter A. Crowell professor of Social Sciences at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Time magazine (December 11, 2000) cited Willis as one of the top religious innovators of the millennium for her work in making Buddhist practice more accessible to people of color.
 
Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

2002 Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved