[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to take part in a number of interesting AmericanStudies conversations, each hosted by a unique and significant organization or space. So this week I wanted to follow up those events with some further thoughts and reflections, leading up to a weekend post looking ahead to the NeMLA Convention later this month!]
On what I tried to bring to a vital conversation, and what I took away from it.
In mid-February, I had the chance to moderate a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Leominster (MA) Public Library (particularly Special Services Librarian Ann Finch) and the Fitchburg State University Community Read program (a program directed by my colleague and friend Joe Moser). Our Community Read book for the 2016-17 year has been Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (leading up to an April event where Putnam himself will visit campus and speak on these themes), and the subject of this panel discussion—building on a high school essay contest that the library had sponsored—was a pair of interconnected and crucial questions: What is the American Dream? And, is it achievable for all Americans (the original question’s wording was “still achievable,” but I asked them to consider also whether it ever had been)? The panel featured four voices across four distinct generations and sets of experiences, from the winner of the high school essay contest up to a retired teacher (and frequent student in my Adult Learning courses!), as well as a recent college graduate (now working as a school committee member in the area) and a man who had fled genocide and oppression in Africa, become an asylee in the U.S., and recently graduated with his law degree.
Besides providing some framing questions and getting the great discussion going (and then staying out of the way), my job was to offer a few brief introductory comments on the histories and images of the Dream. As with so much I’m thinking about these days, I connected those questions to the duality between more inclusive and more exclusionary narratives of American identity and community. So, for example, I noted that the phrase “the American Dream” was first used in historian James Truslow Adams’ The Epic of America (1931), a book published at the heart of the Great Depression and thus in a period where Adams’ vision of opportunity and equality for all seemed far removed from reality for many Americans and communities. I noted one origin point for the Dream’s images of mobility, opportunity, and success, Ben Franklin’s Autobiography—and added that both the Boston from which Franklin ran away as a teenager and the Philadelphia in which he made his fortune and fame were, as were all of the colonies in that early 18th century moment (and through the Revolution), slave societies. Fifty years later, Andrew Jackson came to exemplify a new addition to the Dream’s images, the “self-made man”—yet Jackson also embodied attitudes and policies that entirely excluded Native Americans from American narratives or identity. Remembering the American Dream, that is, means remembering both some of our most cherished and shared ideals and some of our darkest, most contrasting histories and realities.
So that’s a bit of what I tried to add to this complex and crucial conversation. While unfortunately I had to leave before the ensuing discussion concluded (parenting duties called), I was nonetheless deeply impressed with the nuanced and thoughtful voices and contributions of all four panelists, as well as many audience members. They certainly engaged with some of our darkest current realities, from the rising and deepening economic inequalities that are a central subject of Putnam’s book to the anti-refugee and –immigrant policies that seek overtly to deny the American Dream—to deny America itself—to communities who in many ways embody our history. They also continued to advocate for the possibility of the Dream and what it can still mean, most especially through inspiring individuals both personal (such as the high school contest winner’s father, himself an African immigrant) and public (such as Barack Obama). But (to my mind) most inspiringly still, the panelists and the audience and discussion all modeled a willingness to think critically and actively about these national narratives and ideals, to consider both their limits and their value, and to work together to better articulate such ideas and to actively pursue questions of both how they affect our own lives and how we can respond to and strengthen them in our communities. In a terrifying moment such as this one, civic dialogue might seem entirely insufficient—but while it’s not the only mode of resistance and activism, it remains a vital and hopeful one, and I felt that throughout this excellent event.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this conversation? Conversations or events you’d share?
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