Academic journal article English Journal

Beyond the Dream, the Journey: American Novels That Track the Path from Slavery to Freedom

Academic journal article English Journal

Beyond the Dream, the Journey: American Novels That Track the Path from Slavery to Freedom

Article excerpt

Ta-Nehisi Coates begins Between the World and Me by directly addressing his son, just as Ben Franklin begins his Autobiography, published more than 200 years earlier. Beginning his memoir with "Son," Coates was perhaps thinking of James Baldwin's letter to his nephew and namesake, which begins The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's classic 1963 depiction of the condition in which black Americans found themselves 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But the idea of writing to the next generation about your struggles to overcome poverty, discrimination, and repression dates back more than 200 years in American history: in his Autobiography, Franklin describes being a runaway apprentice when he entered Philadelphia at age 17 with a few cents in his pocket and a loaf of bread in his hand.

Franklin explains, "Having emerg'd from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a State of Affluence," I want to share "the means by which I achieved success" (43). By contrast, in Between the World and Me, Coates identifies one of his purposes as to show how "white America's progress . . . was built on looting and violence" (6), specifically on the slavery and racism that Franklin and his fellow political leaders ignored and, in fact, approved in the US Constitution, which made slavery legal and counted slaves as a fraction of a person. The dream of success for a poor but hopeful young white man of the Revolutionary Era is not a dream very many young Americans-black, Hispanic, American Indian, and others, including many poor white kids-dare to dream today.

As teachers of American literature, we have many options about what perspectives we and our students can bring to the conversation about classic American texts. I would like to offer another metaphor to consider alongside "the Dream" as basic to Americans' self-perceptions and worldviews. It is an ancient but entirely fitting metaphor for the American experience: the journey. Ben Franklin viewed his experience from the time of his escape from the Boston apprenticeship as a journey, and many 19th-century slave narratives focus on the literal and psychological journeys slaves made from enslavement to freedom. By considering the origins of "the American Dream" metaphor and then reflecting on how the journey metaphor has also been used to convey America's psychological, social, and political history, teachers of American literature can facilitate both their students' reading of some of the major journey-to-freedom texts and their thinking about how we can continue the journey toward greater opportunity for all Americans.

Warning his son, "You must never look away from the sociology, the history, the economics" of America that have landed "with great violence, upon the body" of black Americans, Coates asserts that "the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies" (Between 10-11). Born in 1975, Coates shares with most Americans born in the 20th century a common vision of the American Dream; what he does not share with some of them is a belief that the Dream can become reality. In fact, an increasingly larger number of Americans, including many young people, a majority of poor Americans, and an increasing number of those in the shrinking middle class, share Coates's view of "the known world," which is clearly at war with "the Dream" (11). Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2015 for Between the World and Me, a measured but intense reflection on the frustration he shares with the many Americans whose experience and worldview put them at war with the Dream.

The Privilege of Dreaming

It wasn't always so: for much of the 20 th century, most middle-class white Americans, and even many skeptical black and poor Americans, envisioned the Dream. In his 1931 history of the country, The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams first defined the "American Dream" as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunities for each according to ability or achievement" (xii). …

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