s so many of us are already aware, we are roiling inside of Octavia Butler’s prophecy. Her novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, respectively, capture so much of our now: a California in ecological peril, a mob-inciting president, and the have-nots having even less with the passing of each day.
But that means we could also be inhabiting Butler’s vision of new, autonomous communities. Against the backdrop of religious fundamentalism and white supremacist violence, Black female protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina founds her own wisdom tradition, Earthseed, which inspires the formation of an intentional community named Acorn. Earthseed: Books of the Living are scriptures revealed to Lauren, and they appear throughout both novels.
So here we come to what I envision as Dreamseed: Books of the Resting, or the body of work flowing from Black Dream Escape (BDE), a therapeutic practice focusing on Black and Indigenous rest~sleep~dreams.. Founded by Black and Native senior “rest doula” and licensed therapist Onika Reigns, BDE also includes Windafire, a Caribbean, Black Latine, queer, and gender-unified healing artist. According to Onika, who coined the term, a rest doula is “a person who guides and supports individuals from a rested state to a dream state through varying mediums,” including lullaby sessions, guided meditation, and more. Sometimes it means an collaborative art installation of Black and Native people at rest; while it could be called durational performance art — that is, performance art involving extended periods of time(lessness) — it is not endurance art, or the art of hardship, privation, and longplay misery. Enough of that, insists our ancestors, and so echo the rest doulas of BDE.
Recently I got to breathe and speak with Onika, who has received the There Are Black People In The Future artist residency as well as support from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the Office of Public Art. Here are some of the traces of that interview, interspersed with verses and visuals from BDE’s very own “Dreamseed.”
Q: When you think of world-building in relationship to your work, what comes to mind?
A: Rest has to be foundational to what other [alternative] societies might look like, and new ways of being in this world. Mostly because I do think of the rest as simple as breathing or breathing as a form of rest. Because breath is a given, and you need it to survive, I think of rest that way. So doing that intentionally in a new world would be imperative, like the building blocks we can’t go without. [It is necessary] if we want to build a functional, sustainable society and world where people are thriving instead of suffering and only going day by day with just existing.
Q: Any thoughts on justice and joy?
A: I think of the rest client that I have right now. She’s in my three-month program and she talks a lot about how sometimes when she's trying to experience joy, she gets anxious about it ending. So that kind of prevents her from being able to enjoy it in the moment because she's thinking about, “Oh, well, this time won't last. When's the next time?” A lot of times with Black and Indigenous people, it's something that's taken away from us time and time again, as we all know. And so we do have to actively seek it. For a lot of us, it’s not coming into our world unless we’re present about it — and rest helps us with all of that, because it is a mindful practice. That is a form of justice...being able to experience joy wholly without the anxiety and intrusive thoughts. You can seek justice in many different ways; it doesn’t always have to mean work or labor on our part.
Q: I think of your work as reminding us of the redemptive powers of boredom. Is there anything you want to say about boredom?
A: Yes, Windafire and I embrace that completely. One, because both of our voices allow for boredom and sleepiness. We don't have much inflection in our voices when we're doing our meditative practices or just in real-life. In a way that it is meant to regulate the nervous system — some voices are intended to energize you, to make you feel passionate about something. Our voices [help people] settle in, to bring down energy. I like to talk about that because we are both Black-bodied individuals, and there are many varieties of how Black voices can be used or are used to bring about some kind of healing to a community. It’s important to make that distinction, especially for low-entertainment voices like our own. The way a lot of us play roles in this society as Black and Indigenous people is that we are expected to entertain. Whether it be through the arts, or people assuming that you’re funny, entertaining, [or] interesting to be around because you’re Black.
Coming back to the justice part, it’s radical now to be a boring Black person. Being a full person in your passion, being funny, being able to show off your talents; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just that’s how we get used up. That creates burnout. It’s good to have talent. The problem is how our talent is commodified and taken for granted. It is quite interesting to embrace being boring or having your voice as a Black-bodied person put someone to sleep vs. charge someone up. For me personally, it's taking back control of how I am perceived in the world. If there's any entertainment value, I want to have a say in how it is.
When I accept “queer time” and the ways that queerness moves us to create community, I can rest with ease.
Q: What’s queer about your work as a Black and Indigenous rest doula?
A: The queer part comes from what Windafire and I bring to the work, because we both identify as queer. But we have also thought a lot about what queerness exactly is, what it brings us, what it gives us in order to do the work in the ways that we do. There are other people that do rest work or dream work, work that is mindful of Black and Indigenous people, or mindfulness practices across the board. Everybody has a unique way of doing it. The way that we show up for this particular kind of work is through the lens of our queerness. I can’t speak for Windafire, but for myself I look at the way queerness has changed my conception of time.
When I started doing pop-ups and nap tents [in Pittsburgh], I came across this article about “queering” time. You know everyone jokes about how long queer dates are, or that weird joke about lesbians bringing a U-Haul to the first date. We have different perceptions of commitment and time and how to use it. It’s very in line with CP* time, and the way that there isn’t as much anxiety about being late or concern for a deadline. So I understand rest as large and flexible and expansive. I no longer expect myself to rest for an hour because I said in my head that I needed an hour. Maybe I’ll need more, maybe I’ll need less. I try to listen to my body more than my head. That’s particularly hard because historically I deal with depression; my natural inclination is to sit for days [laughter]. But now I do keep track of how I’m doing mentally, and I have a maintenance system so that isn’t as much of a concern. Now I can trust my body when it comes to my rest practice.
Improvisational riff: Onika unhitches the conversation from the clock, and freestyles about queer culture as playful and curious, as about freedom and having no model — all of which informs her rest work. “I had to steal freedom,” she confides. Sounds queer, Black, and Indigenous to me.
Q: What you said earlier reminded me: when a Black person says they are going to withdraw from civic life in a certain way, people are like, “You can’t do that!” I’m thinking of Hanif Abdurraqib’s cycle of poems, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This?” The title comes from what Abdurraqib overheard a white woman whispering at a poetry reading not long after the 2016 election, and immediately after a Black poet read some poems with flower imagery. My response to that is: what in the fuck am I fighting for, if not a world in which a Black person can write about flowers? You made me think of the queer dimension of that, that so much culture comes from Black queer people. So if you’re queer and Black, you’re expected to entertain in all kinds of directions. So thanks for framing that.
What advice or offering would you have for people who are wondering how rest is compatible with this particular moment?
A: I would advise people to steer away from advice. [laughter] I'm a therapist, and what people come to therapists a lot for is advice and to get the answer to what they want. I think the therapist’s job is to let people know that there isn't a right answer to the way in which they want to live their life. Because that's up to them — and that applies to rest.
But rest is especially useful in chaos. You don't have to have a quiet room. You don't have to have everything right in your life. The skill comes from being able to do it [when all the chaos] is happening. You can still live even when things are falling apart. I try to say that lightly because I don’t want to encourage anyone to avoid what’s happening. This kind of chaos isn’t new to the Black and Indigenous mind, especially if we’re thinking about epigenetics and how deep stress and trauma “keeps the score in our bodies,” to refer to a literal book title. So we’re very familiar with this stress level, with this high intensity — our bodies know this. We know this suffering, this particular kind of destruction. So I encourage people to remember that, too.
Not to say, “You can handle anything, you’ve been through it before!” But just remember that, and think about the ways someone in your family especially would have had to figure out how to rest, how to get through the suffering that they were going through in their life. They did it somehow, because you’re here. I don’t believe there was any possible way they could not have been resting in some fashion. It might be interesting for exploration, for people to look back in their family history, if possible, and think about how their folks might have been resting, might have gotten through these particular times and using that in present form.
*Colored people’s time: an informal, typically benign, in-community colloquialism.