On a late summer afternoon, while toiling in the garden of a mainline estate, my coworker Jarrod shared a prophetic dream of playing basketball and failing to make the winning shot. Though his dream was from the previous night, he mentioned it was a recurring one. Jarrod, a former Big Ten basketball star, claimed he hadn’t reached his full potential because he didn’t make it to the NBA. Now, in his early forties, he was in his fifteenth season as a landscaper. A muscular and unexpectedly meek Black man from a religious family, Jarrod was raised by a domineering father who was also the coach of his high school basketball team. When I asked him if he thought his stress-influenced dreams recycled through his memory as a result of his own insecurities, he shrugged off my question.
I felt a semblance of guilt for not only drawing the conclusion of how Jarrod’s dream was connected to his own insecurities but also having the audacity to express that to him. Later, I realized I was projecting how I viewed my own recurring dreams. I shared with Jarrod how, as a child, I used to have falling dreams which were a manifestation of my anxiety. A conclusion I came to in adulthood. Jarrod expressed how he also had falling dreams as a teen, especially during the basketball season when he was being coached by his father. When I told Jarrod how I still have recurring dreams, but instead of falling I am in a zombie apocalypse, he burst into laughter.
I fueled this laughter when I shared how one of my most memorable zombie apocalypse dreams was being sheltered with a group at Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia and having to decapitate Andre 3000 of Outkast with a katana in self-defense as Big Boi encouraged the sacrifice. I am imbued with joy and laughter when reflecting on the dream. But I also recognize how it combines my fear of losing those who inspire me, my admiration for haunted cities in the south, and how accustomed to sacrifices and the loss of life I have become as a Black American.
Land of the Dead resonated with me more than any other piece of contemporary zombie media. It was released in 2005, the year I graduated high school, as I was unceremoniously ushered into the lower ranks of the capitalist system. The presence of a Black zombie in particular was familiar and unsettling.
I have been a fan of zombie films since I was a child. They elicited my curiosity even before I was aware of the social commentary present within the genre. In a profile of Science Fiction writer Octavia Butler, she describes recording her dreams as a child, which later served as source material for the worlds she would develop. Dreams have been a source of inspiration for me, expanding my imagination through the surreal. But it is the waking life that has had the most profound influence on not only my dreams, but also the characters within the worlds I imagine while providing me with substance from my reality.
As a child, I held the unique position of residing in two opposing communities. At home, I existed within a strong, proud, lower-middle class Black family. The community we resided in however, was decidedly upper-middle class, and at school, I studied and played alongside children from a range of social classes, religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. It was through the discrimination and prejudice I experienced from the ignorance of predominately my White peers, as well as my teachers, that I learned the ways in which power dynamics contribute to how we perceive ourselves.
This environment spawned first my falling dreams, and later the zombie dreams that began when I was a teenager. Dealing with microaggressions from multiple angles was traumatizing, producing anxieties that I would not fully recognize or come to terms with until I was in therapy as an adult. By the time the falling dreams had stopped, I was versed in White supremacy and the ills of being Black in America. That recognition, though not completely liberating, provided an ease of mind that led me to examine how the cultural environment I was raised in influences all of my relationships. The community I resided in presented context towards my positionality within the world. But it was films, especially the zombie ones I was drawn to in my teens, that provided further introspection.
"Zombies to me don’t represent anything in particular. They are a global disaster that people don’t know how to deal with. Because we don’t know how to deal with any of the shit."1 said George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead. While Romero's reverence for zombies may be less defined than my own, we both share the belief that they represent a shifting climate.
Land of the Dead resonated with me more than any other piece of contemporary zombie media. It was released in 2005, the year I graduated high school, as I was unceremoniously ushered into the lower ranks of the capitalist system. The presence of a Black zombie in particular was familiar and unsettling. Known as “Big Daddy,” his large and muscular physique alluded to the “black buck” trope of slavery. Yet he still provoked sympathy, possessing a fleeting glimpse of humanity that can only be found amongst those who are oppressed.
As a Black American who exists within a capitalist system, it is impossible for me to not identify with this reading of the zombie. While zombies are the monsters in films, it is people in the real world who enable and enact the monstrosities that impact all of humanity.
This characterization, though subtle, felt intentional due to the plot and underlying themes of the film. I saw Big Daddy as a nuanced portrait of a Black man stripped of his humanity. He was a victim of a disease that first killed him, then brought him back to life, and he was now simply trying to survive alongside those recklessly spiraling towards their own death. His lived experience in the film felt parallel to the plight of marginalized folks in our contemporary landscape. Similarly, we too share space with a domineering ethnic majority who are clearly on the decline while failing to see their role in the demise of civilization. As it exists in Romero’s living dead, the oppression we experience as marginalized folks is dehumanizing and leads to ghastly feelings.
It is casually assumed that George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead functions as a metaphor for racial relations in America. One of the main characters, a Black man named Ben, is positioned as a hero amidst a disorganized and primarily White group of survivors. As the rest of the group tries to protect themselves or their families, Ben attempts to bring them together to support and protect each other. In the process most of the characters are killed. Though Ben survives, while in hiding he is mistaken for a zombie by a rogue group of vigilantes and is killed while trying to save White members of his group. This sacrifice is a familiar outcome for oppressed people. Too often our kindness and generosity is exploited by those with privilege and power which often leads to traumatic experiences or worse, death.
In film, zombies have been portrayed as undead monsters with an appetite for human flesh. They have also presumably existed as apolitical figures. The contemporary depiction of zombies arises from Haitian Vodou culture. Their characterization manifests from the social dynamics and oppression of Haitians and therefore their origins have always been political. In their article “Exploiting The Undead: the Usefulness of the Zombie in Haitian Literature” Kaiama Glover asserts this claim by stating “a direct product of Haiti’s most essential belief system, the zombie offered a fitting vehicle for intellectuals interested in affirming their commitment to Haiti’s social and political ills.” Oppressed groups of people have always utilized stories and characterizations to express our plight. We’ve also utilized narratives to safeguard and code our stories from those who oppress us in an effort to educate and inform those seeking answers for their conditions.
Regarding the characterization of zombies, Glover adds “The zombie in Haiti is a victim, and not a predator; deserving of pity more than fear. Without any recollection of its past or hope for the future, the zombie exists only in the presence of its exploitation.” As a Black American who exists within a capitalist system, it is impossible for me to not identify with this reading of the zombie. While zombies are the monsters in films, it is people in the real world who enable and enact the monstrosities that impact all of humanity.
The parables from zombie media continue to resonate with me as I navigate being Black and Queer in an era where fascism steadily rises. I’ve concluded that my zombie apocalypse dreams reflect an effort to absolve myself of the harm inflicted on me as I’ve attempted to save myself, and those I share myself with...
Interrogating the duality of the woke and dead is a familiar tale of the human experience. We observe references to this ideology in today’s political climate, which coincidentally, and unfortunately, also operates on the systemic oppression of one group by another. Woke was once a term to signify being fully aware of one's individual autonomy and how that relates to a position within our stratified society. As a result of existing within said stratified society, which upholds ideals of imperialism, White supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, we’ve witnessed the term become weaponized against the oppressed communities that coined it. This appropriation of woke by those with privilege and power becomes harmful and evidently counterproductive when it is used to shame marginalized folks for seeking and extolling information that can change their conditions. It is aligned with systemically engrained efforts towards depersonalization and silencing akin to the characterization of zombies.
Reflecting back to Glover’s assessment of zombies, the power of Vodou, and the ways in which we as oppressed people wield the scriptures of our plight, I am reminded of Natasha Marin's article "On Feeling Black and Powerful". Regarding power in the face of tyranny Marin states “My internalized oppression wants me to make excuses for our medicine—call it woo-woo, or witchcraft, rather than acknowledge that these Indigenous practices are part of what makes us indisputably powerful. This power goes beyond muscle memory for so many of us, who discover that our practices are time-honored and our soul memory is sharp from eons of triumph over death itself. Our power is really magical and our magic is also part of our power.”
My falling dreams began to subside once I began to immerse myself in literature and discourse that empowered my lived experience. Through self education, analyses, and critique I was able to gain more consciousness in my waking life. However, my zombie apocalypse dreams remain. Because I still exist within a society that was built to oppress those without privilege and power. As an individual navigating predominantly White spaces, I still experience dehumanizing microaggressions and discrimination. While I have become more adept at processing this harm, I’ve also come to understand how this impacts my anxiety and how that often manifests in my dreams. The parables from zombie media continue to resonate with me as I navigate being Black and Queer in an era where fascism steadily rises. I’ve concluded that my zombie apocalypse dreams reflect an effort to absolve myself of the harm inflicted on me as I’ve attempted to save myself, and those I share myself with, from the abuse of living within a White supremacist and heteropatriarchal society.
As a writer and visual artist, I am disheartened by how the mediums of expression myself and my peers engage in are subjected to censorship and condemnation. Even within mediums that inherently present opportunities for vulnerable and empowering expression, we are still susceptible to forms of oppression in the creative communities we navigate and subscribe to. Fascism, and the systems that bolster it, is a disease that devours everyone from within. Except those who are inherently immune to it. It compounds the alienating and traumatic experiences that myself, and other marginalized folks, undergo through the rampant discrimination and disenfranchisement we endure daily.
In her article, Kaiama Glover addresses this in stating: "Both alive and dead, neither alive nor dead, the zombified individual always retains the possibility, albeit slim, of reclaiming his or her essence.” We may be awakened to the plight of our existence, but that isn’t subversive enough to enact the change that will protect our peace and sanity. Even in our dreams, we are subjected to the reminder that we exist in a world where none of us are safe, dead or alive.