today we will begin to think critically about “the American Dream,” one expression of which is the song I want to live in America from the 1960s musical, West Side Story.
We’ll discuss some of the contests and conflicts of American’s own dreams of what their country means to them, and Chinese ideas (or dreams) of America.
Class Discussion one: What is America to you?
First though, let’s have a quick discussion. What do you think when you think of America? What does America represent to you? How would you describe America and American people/s?
Founding myths: the American Dream
In American mythology, the U.S. is, as the national anthem puts it, “the land of the free / And the home of the brave!””
It’s a land in which in which all citizens are thought of as being equal and free. As Thomas Jefferson wrote
We hold these truths to be self-evident: 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. (Declaration of Independence, 1776).
The American dream is encapsulated in the idea that every individual American should have an equal right right to become her or his best self. Citizen’s have the right to try to realize their hopes.
In a common sense (or everyday) kind of understanding, the American dream involves the idea that if an individual puts in the effort then they should be able to achieve the success they deserve. Individual responsibility is a key idea: if someone suceeds, it is attributed to their individual efforts, they are regarded as having made the best of their talents (whatever their talents are). Conversely, if someone fails, then it is their fault (they didn’t work hard enough to realise their dream).
This idea is sometimes referred to as meritocracy (society is ruled by the principle that people get what they deserve). The idea of meritocracy is sometimes applied to whole groups, such as racial and ethnic groups.
Meritocracy goes along with the United States long-held and exceptional tolerance of income inequality, explained by its high levels of social mobility. This combination underpins the American dream – … conceived of by Thomas Jefferson as each citizen’s right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson believed an “aristocracy of talent and virtue” was replacing the aristocracy of birth, the old world order where aristocrats inherited power and wealth.
This dream is not about guaranteed outcomes, … but the pursuit of opportunities.
The dream [was popularized] in the fictional characters of the 19th-century writer Horatio Alger Jr – like the New York shoeshine “Ragged Dick [1867/8]” [who went] from rags to riches … in part due to entrepreneurial spirit and hard work (Carol Graham, “Is the American Dream Really Dead?” The Guardian, 2017/06/20).
Historically, a key element of the American myth of a land of hope and freedom is the idea that America gave welcome to the world’s migrants. For many foreigners, the idea of American freedom has been a magnet attracting them to migrate to the United States.
One expression of the immigrants’ dream is the song I want to live in America from the 1960s musical, West Side Story. [ see above video]
New York’s Statue of Liberty is a famous icon that represented welcome to the 19th century immigrants who later became American citizens.
For generations, America has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those outside her borders, and as a land of limitless opportunity for those risking everything to seek a better life. (U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus).
Some would argue that the Congressman’s story of American welcome is a myth.
Myth and history are not always the best of friends. for example, just as America was welcoming masses of European migrants in the 19th century, it designed measures to exclude Chinese migrants, including most famously the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). So the idea that all men were created equal didn’t include Chinese people (until 1943).
Just as the Statue of Liberty is an icon of the myth of welcome to the land of the free, San Fransisco’s Angel island immigration prison is a historical symbol of one of the gaps in American equality.
The American Dream in sport and advertising
Let’s move into the present. We’ll use some contemporary sports advertising and film as discussion texts to think about the American dream in some of its current forms.
We’ll start by watching a little of American football.
OK, so that’s Colin Kaepernick doing what he did so well as Quarterback for the San Fransisco 49ers.
Good quarterbacks have to be strong, fast, brave and smart. Kaepernick has all of those attributes, and is also articulate and charming. Those qualities are some of the reasons that Nike have chosen him as the face of their Just Do It advertising campaign.
Have a look at this recent Nike commercial starring the footballer.
Class discussion two
Let’s talk about what the commercial, part of Nike’s Just Do It campaign represents in relation to the American dream.
- Describe the representations in the commercial: what happens?
- Who are the actors? What do they do?
- What are the messages being communicated? How do they relate to the American dream?
The Hate U Give and the American Dream
Actually, Nike’s commerical is deliberately controversial in its choice of Colin Kaepernick, as he is famous not just for being a great footballer, but for the being one of the leaders of the bend the knee campaign in American football, which is strongly linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign. We;re going to talk about how these three things, the American Dream, bend the knee and black lives matter are related by looking at some representations of the latter in the film The Hate U Give.
First a quick movie synopsis: Starr Carter, a teenage girl living with her parents and two brothers in the tough (fictional) neighbourhood of Garden Heights. Her father Maverick is a former gang member turned community leader keen to impress on his children both the importance of black pride and the dangers of being a person of colour in an institutionally racist nation. Starr is a high-performing student at an elite and mostly white high school [one of her friends is the blonde girl Hailey]. When she becomes involved in a police shooting she learns how difficult it is to negotitate her way through the different worlds of Garden Heights and the elite school.
Let’s watch some scenes from the movie, pausing for a brief discussion after each of them.
Scene 1: Maverick gives his children “the talk” (to be played in class)
Class discussion three.
Scene 2: Starr and Khalil get stopped by a policeman.
Class discussion four.
Scene 3: Starr’s uncle (a policeman) explains how police think when stopping black and white suspects.
Class discussion five.
Scene 4: Starr and her friend Hailey fall out.
Class discussion six.
Black Lives Matter and the Bend the Knee Campaign: confronting racial inequality and police brutality
Let’s watch a short video giving a little about social context. . What is “bending a knee”? Why are Colin Kaepernick (and many others) doing it?
What are the links between bend the knee and black lives matter?
Well the black lives matter campaign is all about police brutality (including shootings) of black people in the US, as shown in the second scene from the movie The Hate U Give.
- Black Lives Matters = campaign against police brutality (against Black Americans)
- Bend the Knee = sporting protest; sportswomen and spectators stand for the national anthem at sports events; the campaigners kneel down instead to protest against discrimination against Black Americans (especially police brutality).
Kaepernick, in the interview above, goes on to say that ‘cops are getting paid leave for killing people… that’s not right by anyone’s standards’.
Let’s watch one more video to help us think about the relationships between the American dream, Nike’s Just Do It advertising campaign and the two anti-racist campaigns. This one discusses some of the reaction to Nike’s decision to use the spokesman of the Bend the Knee campaign as the face of its Just Do It campaign.
Fact check: meritocracy, racial inequality and discrimination?
- Black Americans are far more likely than white people to be stopped, frisked, arrested, jailed, shot and executed by the state, while the racial gaps in unemployment are the same as 40 years ago, the racial disparity in wealth and income is worse than 50 years ago. They have the right to eat in any restaurant they wish; the trouble is, many can’t afford what’s on the menu
(Gary Younge, “Remember this about Donald Trump. He knows the depths of American bigotry”, The Guardian, 2017/09/26).
Class Discussion seven (in your small groups then together)
- What do you think?
- Is Colin Kaepernick right to bend the knee? Or, is his protest unpatriotic?
- Is the character Hailey (the schoolgirl in The Hate U Give) right to argue that “Police Lives Matter” just as much as “Black Lives Matter”?
- Is the meritocratic American Dream (of equal opportunity for all) damaged by racism, or are criminalized Black Americans responsible for their own situation? Could they succeed through hard work and talent?
- Do you have any other critical reflections on the American Dream, race/racism and protest in America?