The American Dream
“American Dream” is a term used too often to describe a certain destination that Americans, both those born and bred in America and migrants who arrived in these shores from other lands, dream of reach.
It was coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931, in his book The Epic of America, to describe the common dream of “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability of achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth of position” (Adams, 2001).
It is a dream of equality, of being able to live a life of one’s choice, and live it with freedom and dignity.The American dream that traces its roots centuries earlier, when the founding fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It has been a long battle since, an arduous and often precarious one.
Blood has been shed and lives offered and taken in desperate effort to realize this dream.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted and proclaimed in 1865, to officially abolish and prohibit slavery, was one big step. In the eyes of those who never needed to dream the American dream, it had been accomplished with that one step. But more than a hundred years later, it appears that the Emancipation Proclamation has not succeeded in its goal of granting equality, liberty and happiness to all Americans, or Truslow wouldn’t even have coined the term “the American dream” which today is still very much alive in the hearts of American people.
Little has changed and has been done to realize that dream so that, more than ever, it has become an object of obsession, a must-have, and must-achieve. Today, it glows brighter than ever in the hearts of every American, more particularly, those who were the target of the Emancipation Proclamation, those who were subject to slavery and inequality: the African-American, the women, the unprotected children, the laborers, the migrants, and the poor. But only those who learned to stand up and fight have found a piece of it.
Artists and activists have been trying to show that glow, expressed in rage, and make America pay attention to this reality. In her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody relates her life as a young black woman born to a poor family in Mississippi, one of the southern states notorious for advocating white supremacy. Abandoned by her father when she was nine, Moody was forced to work a porch sweeper for an abusive white lady to help her mother bring in food at the table. At that young age, Moody already sensed the prejudice Negroes like her received.
In high school, she began hating it. “I hated all the whites who were responsible for the countless murders… But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders” (Coming of Age, 129). Fired up with rage, Moody began to step forward to claim her rights. The Civil Rights movement was at its peak and she jumped in. It was while working in the movement that she had one of her first experiences of prejudice. “The white students… started chanting all kinds of anti-Negro slogans…
The rest of the seats except the three we were occupying had been roped off to prevent others from sitting down. A couple of the boys took one end of the rope and made it into a hangman’s noose. Several attempts were made to put it around our necks” (265). It is common knowledge that the the Klu Klux Klan used a noose for hanging their black enemies on a tree before lynching them. Moody’s stories of horror include finding her name on the “wanted” list of the Klan and the death of people who fought for racism as passionately as she did.
She even came to a point where she questioned Martin Luther King, whose stance of non-violence resulted in his own violent death. And even as she rallied alongside the male sex and put her life in line as they did, she faced inequality in their company. As a woman, she was expected to cook and clean for them and do secretarial work for the group. Despite the threats and heartaches, she continued to fight for racism and fight for her right: her American dream. In the end, Moody emerged as a hero, inspiring people to share her passion and help people who are in the same situation as she.
Through this, Moody believes she has achieved her American dream, attesting that wealth and happiness comes from what you do with your life, in her case, fight passionately for her convictions. In a similar way, John Steinbeck tried to call the attention of Americans through a book he wrote in 1939 that told the story of Oklahoman farmers migrating to California during the Great Depression to find a better life. Aiming to capture the real essence of his theme, he lived with a family of farmers in Oklahama and trailed them throughout their journey to California.
The result was The Grapes of Wrath, the story of the Joads, a poor family of sharecropper, who were driven away from their own home by economic hardship, drought and changing policies in agriculture. Along with thousands of other Oklahomans who shared the same predicament, they set out for California to seek other lands to till and call home, jobs to sustain their health, and dignity to keep their souls alive. What they find instead is the opposite. There is not enough space where they could build a home, not enough jobs that offered decent wages, and there is lack of rights among the workers.
Steinbeck’s realistic depiction of the plight of migrant workers has served as a chronicle of the Depression Era and a review and analysis on the economic and social system from which it resulted, posing essential question about justice, land ownership, and the role of the government, stating that the migrants’ sufferings were caused by their own fellow Americans more than bad luck, bad weather and bad timing. Steinbeck had his own share of wrath from readers during the time the book was published for the first time.
In protest of the book, the citizens burned and banned, and debated on, it. Steinbeck was called propagandist and socialist by both the leftists and the rightists. However, historical accounts prove that Steinbeck actually underplayed the situations and that in fact they were worse than the he described them in the book. In the same way that Moody was hailed heroine for fighting bravely for her rights, Steinbeck won a Pulitzer for his book that exposed one of the discrepancies of the government in congruency with the contents of the United States Declaration of Independence.
While Moody’s advocacy to eradicate racism and sexism is on its way to seeing the light, especially with the recent election of the first African-American president, the end of the plight of the migrant workers may still be a long way coming. In some ways, their conditions have greatly improved since the Depression. Today, migration, especially country-to-country migration, is being closely monitored by Immigration in order not to fall into an over-spillage of workers and under-supply of jobs. The government is not taking chances on these problems. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are “over 1.
3 million immigrants entering the U. S. yearly, and women comprising over 50% of that population” (“Feminine Face of Migrants,” 2). Thus, it states, “it is crucial that we pay attention to their special needs. These women may be at risk because of a combination of their immigration status and their gender” (2). However, there is still so much to be done about migrants before they could be called safe. The same IOM paper cites a 2001 Human Rights Watch report that “among the female migrant domestic workers interviewed, the average hourly wage was $2.
13, only 42% of the legal federal minimum wage of $5. 15” (3). Furthermore, recent welfare reforms have narrowed the criteria that these migrants may qualify for public assistance” (3). This greatly puts the migrant worker at risk and lessens their claims to equal rights. The “all Men (who) are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence do not only include men, women, whites, blacks, the migrant, and the poor. The children, with or without known parentage, have an equal share to these rights. As early as the 1860s, Horatio Alger has been advocating this.
In his novel, Ragged Dick (1867), tells the story of a fourteen-year-old foundling who, through his generosity and industriousness, rises above his situation. An inspiring story which was considered by most as childish fantasy at the time, its success nevertheless inspired Alger to support charitable institutions that focused on foundlings and runaway boys. Today, there are thousands of such institutions all over the U. S. monitored by the Child Welfare League (CWL), yet there seems to be lack of them as 1.
3 million youths are still reportedly homeless and living in the streets (“Youth Runaway Speech”), most of whom ran away from home. A 1992 study by the National Association of Social Workers indicates that of these, “465 have been physically abused, 38% were emotionally abused, and 17% were being sexually exploited” (“Youth Runaway Speech”). Right now, the CWL, in cooperation with other such organizations as well as several churches and communities, are working together on the prevention and early intervention with families of these troubled children with troubled parents.
It may well still be a long and arduous battle for the full realization of the American Dream of every American. And often, the enemies who try to block the way are ourselves, our own fellow Americans, and there is no worse enemy than that. But then again, only those who have learned to stand up and fight have found a piece of the American Dream, and there is no reason not to. Works Cited Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. New York: Simon Publications; 2001. Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick. Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar; 2007.
“Feminine Face of Migrants: Exploitation of Domestic Workers in the US. ” International Organization for Migration. 2004. Accessed 10 December 2008. Iom. int/unitedstates. Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New Yor: Oxford University Press, 1991. Moody, Anne. Coming of Age in Mississippi. Austin, TX: Delta; 2004. “Operation Runaway Conference, Youth Runaway Speech. ” Child Welfare League of America. 6 July 2001. 10 December 2008. https://www. cwla. org/execdir/edremarks010606. htm Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 2006.