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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 234-236

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Book Review

Dreaming Me:
An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey

Dreaming Me: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey. By Jan Willis. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001. 321 pp.

This book invites comparison with Diana Eck's Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras(Boston: Beacon Press, 1993). Both are by prominent women scholars, both have "spiritual journey" in the subtitle, and both are about Christians who come to terms with a non-Christian religion—Hinduism in Eck's case, Buddhism in Willis's case. But as soon as one gets past the titles, it is the differences that strike one. Where Eck maintains an Olympian poise, hobnobbing with Hindus but remaining a Christian and an objective scholar, interpreting and analyzing as she goes, Willis plunges into Buddhism without rejecting her family's Baptist tradition, becoming a fully participant observer so as to ask how her own history and the history of her fellow African Americans can be healed by an intensely personal internal dialogue. Eck gives us theology. Willis gives us herself. Recognized as "one of the first American scholar-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism" (294), her students ask her if she practices meditation as well as teaching it. She gives a carefully crafted answer that unifies the practice of Buddhism with the practice of academic teaching as an authentically human activity within the Humanities.

The book has the form of a Hindu epic, incidents from Willis's life interrupting the frame story, the dreaming of the title. This dream (whether actual or metaphorical, we are not told) moves with considerable dramatic power from the terror of being pursued by lions to the dreamer's transformation into a lioness who roars the Dharma like Queen Shrimala. Its five parts are called Birth, Odyssey, Choices, Becoming, and Return, taking us from her childhood as a Baptist in Docena, Alabama, to Cornell University, to India and Nepal, and back to Docena, as a self-described Baptist-Buddhist (310).

Willis's journey is intimately bound up with her search for self-acceptance as a "white gal"—a noticeably light-complexioned black woman in the Jim Crow South —and for the nobility of African Americans as fully human beings. Her early experiences [End Page 234] were not encouraging. Blacks were not only physically segregated in Docena, they were electronically expunged from television shows by spurious technical difficulties ("trouble along the cable"), and she endured an attack by the Ku Klux Klan on her family's home. The customary but thoroughly illegal suffrage examination administered to her father included such questions as "How many words are there in the U.S. Constitution?" (58, italics in original). He had been specially prepared for such absurdities, and he passed. Midway in her pilgrimage Willis searches for her roots (or "kin," as she says, using the Southern word) in county and federal records, and her initial excitement turns to humiliation as the white historian tells her, with disdainful triumph, that her intelligence must have come from the white slave owner who "everybody says" was her "granddaddy's daddy" (251). A black woman was presumed to be lacking in native intelligence, and Willis's intellectual powers suffered insult not only from whites but from her own mother, who, perhaps having internalized the white folks' contempt, regarded being smart as somehow evil (25). As a student at Cornell, Willis discovered black power and participated in Black Student Alliance (BSA) demonstrations, sometimes involving guns, but she came to believe that direct political action was not for her. She was, she decided, a teacher at heart, and after much soul searching she opted for the "peaceful transformation" (129) that she hoped would come from the study and practice of Buddhism.

Although her skin color was a puzzlement to some Indians, who wondered about her caste, her Tibetan teachers in Nepal accepted her as a student who was at least the equal of the white students, and even, perhaps, superior to them. A spot of blonde in her hair was interpreted as the...