The Big Lie Part 2

The American Dream

I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to land their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.) Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.

James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from a 1962 essay “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” November 10, 1962

The American dream, in theory, is defined by ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality set out in the Declaration of Independence. In practice, this dream is of freedom from social or governmental constraint. It is a freedom best enjoyed by the individual. Central to the faith is the sense that all individuals have equal opportunity – everyone has a chance to get rich. Those who succeed in making money, the more the better, deserve nor only their money but respect for living the dream. In this dream, success and with it upward mobility, is achieved through hard work. The United States is believed to be a society with few barriers. Anyone, if they want, can better themselves. Regardless of social class or circumstances of birth everyone can enjoy success and prosperity – a better and richer life for themselves and their children. The Dream only requires that one accept that just as success is due to one’s own efforts, so is failure. The poor are responsible for their own fate. The individual, not the community matters.

As Baldwin noted, for many Americans the dream should be understood as a nightmare. Its promise is but pretense. Still, many Americans cannot see the damage done by their unquestioning faith in this American Dream. The claim of equality – excluding women, people of colour, and First Nations – was always obviously hollow. The steadfast belief in the United States as a land of equal opportunity always ignored the obvious and ever present chasm between the the rich and the poor.

Believe. Many believe, profoundly, that America is the dream. It is who they are. It is deep in the culture. There are so many books, plays and songs written about the American Dream. It is hard to see the dream as a lie – delusion perhaps? The sting is that it seems so true: anyone can be anything they want to be… but there are so few winners and so many losers. The fever may never break but when it does, who knows what might replace it.

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