Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 March 2021
The dream as a rhetorical trope has a long history in African American literature and public discourse. Dreams and visions appear in a number of pre-1830 narratives and are characterized by the narrator’s interactions with the incredible, the divine, or the phantasmagorical. Because dreams are idiosyncratic and unreal, describing those dreams allows narrators to communicate important ideas or goals that might be heterodox or forbidden. Moreover, since it is both personal and imaginary, the dream is entirely unverifiable. This combination of imagination and narration is one reason early African American autobiographers made use of the dream vision as a rhetorical trope: the dream preserves a fictional space within a fact-based narrative. Within these fictional spaces, narrators could offer up visions of justice, morality, and faithfulness that deviated from white, European, and/or Christian norms. They could produce versions of self that were more capable, more powerful, or more insightful than the men who controlled the dominant institutions in the colonies and early United States. Ultimately, narrators could use dreams to make claims on their readers and – at the same time – to authorize their own actions in a world of prohibitions.