Dissecting the American Dream
‘Wisely, Baldwin insisted that we are always more than our pain. Not only did he believe in our capacity to love, he felt black people were uniquely situated to risk loving because we had suffered.’
― Bell Hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love
For days in a row, owing to some reason I am not yet aware of, I have been pondering over the works of James Baldwin and today, the news of the death of one of the most inspiring figures in the contemporary political and cultural arena, reminded me of how she had once talked of him. Therefore, I decided to write about how Baldwin understood the idea of being American; an identity still conflicted yet pronounced, even in works of recent intersectional scholars like Hooks.
‘America, from the viewpoint of many young Iranians,’ writes Professor Sam Roodi 'is the land of dreams. The people in our country, along with people of many other underprivileged nationalities and developing countries, cherish the dream that America is the land of golden opportunities and that it is, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, the place “where fowls fly about ready roasted crying, ‘Come! Eat me.” To these people, the American Dream signifies a vision of people as consumers, and the American story is the story of an inveterate struggle to embody this dream in the institutions of American life.’
In Baldwin’s address to his nephew, he tells him how Blacks are never born to achieve something, have a goal and a life. They surrender to mediocracy while all intellectual and familial achievements are specifically meant for the whites. In this simple advice is hidden a way of life which whites have consciously or subconsciously chosen for themselves: they define themselves against the blacks. They are what the blacks are not. They can be what the blacks can never be. In such a space, a white Americanised idea such as the American Dream does not only disillusion the disadvantaged people because they cannot ever have access to it but on a fundamental level, the idea of an American Dream was never manufactured for them. In other words, this article also argues that it was manufactured in such a way so that the people (whites) for whom it is meant, can see themselves as patrons of the American Dream in opposition to their black neighbors who possibly can never achieve it. This might give them more of an incentive to work towards it because in a capitalist system resources are limited and not everyone can have access to a dream which is so limiting in just the essence of it.
Baldwin, in Down At the Cross, talks about his childhood in Harlem which is the embodiment of what a society Black Americans can occupy - a space within a larger space segregated for the infiltration of these subhumans, the secondary citizens in a world of primary inhabitants. He talks about how when he saw beggars and prostitutes and criminals on the streets of Harlem, he was repelled by their existence. Repelled, not in a way of physical repulsion, but psychological. He felt he could never be one of them, or he shouldn’t ever be one of them. It was later, when he started understanding his reality and identity within the larger framework of the society he was living in, that he realised how easy it was for him to become one of them - a beggar, prostitute, or a thief. It was his blackness that made those avenues so attainable. This is the extreme opposite end of the American Dream, the life of an ideal American. The fact that Baldwin realised that his blackness was inherently catering to him being one of those he did not wish to be, the people occupying the lowest rung in the society, is the reason why Baldwin’s critique of the American Dream stretches far beyond the concerns of it being racially capitalist and discriminatory. Yes, sure it is racially capitalist and not meant for blacks, but what is meant for the blacks, the life of despair, penury, and servitude, is what the American dream is based against. Just as the whites view themselves in opposition to the blacks, being everything the blacks are not, the snippets of the life on the footpaths with no blankets or in a red light area, is what the American Dream requires to stand in opposition to. This makes the idea of the American Dream more lustful.
He also talks about how the figure of a father is the figure of authority in his life and how he could never imagine going against him. He talks about this tradition of sons not competing with their fathers, not going over the demarcations set by the fathers, not ever overachieving the achievements of the fathers. This is an inherent way of life in the black families. This idea of not surpassing also reflects on how the American Dream is seeped into the imagination of the American population. Unlike the whites, who are taught to dream big and are taught ‘even the sky is not the limit’, black children are taught to aim less from their familial households themselves. They are taught to be content with the minimal standards, not to achieve more than their fathers, these fathers who can even stand for larger authority figures like a white man or even larger institutions as well like the institution of slavery, bondage, and servitude. They are taught to not question, to stay contend. This further enables the manifestation of the American Dream. This Dream, which as established in this article, is only manufactured for the white audience, survives within the white imagination in multiple ways, and one of the ways is this. When it has been fed into the black mentality that they are unequal, lesser than the whites (as Baldwin mentions in his book about how his father was very disheartened at a point in his life and he bought into the idea of there being differences between a black and a white and so he joined the church), it is easier to restrict them from having access to certain things or ideas just by the virtue of segregating them through their upbringing. That is why the American Dream gets limited to the visions of the whites and even though it portrays to be blind when it comes to handwork, diligence, etc. claiming that anyone who works day in and out and builds themselves from the scratch can live this dream, it was never meant for some people who have also been enshrined the same rights after years of struggle under the Constitution of the United States of America.
Ananya Bhardwaj is currently working with The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust to curate the first Partition Museum in Delhi at the Dara Shikoh Library. She is a postgraduate of Literatures in English from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She is also the founder of Museum of Shadows of Partition which is a digital repository of inherited Partition memoirs which have been passed on to successive generations of Partition survivors in the forms of anecdotes, heirlooms, and documents.