Each day since we have returned I have a new memory of some of the simplest and most wonderful aspects of our trip, the records and album covers that adorned the walls of Jim Cullen’s school’s music room, Crumbs the cake shop, the marvellous fruit and vegies at Whole foods, the musicians in the subway stations late at night, the death star look of Washington’s metro station. Millions of glimpses at things that I have walked past, listened to and taken in without realising it as we went about our mission of unveiling the concept of the American Dream for ourselves. Before you think these minute memories are indicative of me having a seizure I’ll elaborate on the big picture ideologies now.
As Jim Cullen stated in his book on the American Dream: ‘For hundreds of years American readers and writers had tireless appetites for tales of poor boys (and later girls) who, with nothing but pluck and ingenuity created financial empires that towered over the national imagination… tales of transformation through education, or people with modest resources who triumphed in the Arts, sports or other realms of human aspiration. The power in this lay in a sense of collective ownership: anyone can get ahead…. if they implemented plans and surmounted challenges’. This is I guess what my major understanding of the Dream was prior to setting foot on the land of the free. That everyone had a chance, if they were wily, determined and hard working enough. But now I have a different understanding of the complexities of what the Dream entails and what it represents. That, as Cullen says, the realities of American life don’t always shape up to all aspects of the dream, the upward mobility dream, the equality dream, even the home owner dream. One dream that may be attainable for many is the improvement dream, that a step or two is taken forward by each generation in a better more fulfilling or satisfying or more fair direction that those taken by their ancestors. For me the Gay Pride Parade through Salem, and the overruling of the DOMA is indicative of this, this was one of those small steps for man that America is so good at making, with such marvellous ramifications for Man (& woman) kind.
From the things I have seen heard read and people I meet in the United States my impression is that ‘Upward mobility remains possible but the terms have a decisively racial cast.’ Here Cullen was referring to the past but I believe it but also applies to the present and sadly to the future. Cullen Stated ‘Upward mobility in American history was understood, even defined by a visible alternative of immobility.’ i.e. the Slaves could not become upwardly mobile as they didn’t have freedom, yet in many ways I feel that people’s circumstances and backgrounds are the ties that bind now, invisible historical barriers that are reinforced on a daily basis that prevent some people from really advancing whether they work as hard as they know how to or not. It’s hard for someone to work hard at something when they have never been equipped with the skills they need to do so. As Martin Luther King said ‘it is a cruel jest to tell a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps’.
‘Hard work was an instrument of fate itself a tool for self-realisation’, but what if people don’t have the tools and have no clue how to get them? I felt I saw much of this injustice, exacerbated by the Dream itself, that given it is understood that those who have succeeded have done so through sheer hard work, then the opposite side implied is that those who haven’t only have themselves to blame. I don’t agree with this implication. (Going back to the bootstraps idea). However I did feel that KIPP and the Teach for America programme were baby steps in addressing some of the imbalances. Like any thing great ideal, these programmes may have their flaws, but if the underlying intention is to make something slightly better for some people who wouldn’t have been able to do so well without it then the flaws need to be accepted until they can be ironed out.
However I did find America, especially New York. the place to go if you had a dream, and the tools and the stamina to go for something, there would the place to ‘make it happen’. I love how all these clichés are so meaningful to me now. I really believe what Frank said, ‘if you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere’. Hundreds of songs have so much more meaning to me now not least of all ‘take me out to the ball park’ and ‘all I wanna do is have a little fun before I die…’ (Sorry Asha, couldn’t resist). ‘Girls on the avenue’ ‘walk on the wild side’ and or course ‘breakfast at Tiffanies’, song, film and book!
The pursuit of happiness is the ‘phrase which more than any other defines the American Dream treating happiness as a concrete and realisable objective.’ Yet as Judge Reagan told us, kids in Africa don’t spend their time dreaming about happiness, it is not a concept for them as it is for us, they are spending their time looking for food and water and shelter, so is the idea that we can be pursuing happiness already an indication that we have reached some measure of success – that we no longer need to fill our days with the tasks of staying alive?
In a general sense I have a much better understanding and impression of American people, and what their values are. I expected them to be more crass, brash, obtuse and overstated than I actually found them to be. I expected it to be many many more chain stores and fast food stores, so was really quite surprised to see aside from Duncan Donuts in Boston, that there weren’t masses and masses of any one chain of anything. I think I saw four McDonalds through the whole trip. I can’t get to Melbourne from Point Lonsdale without seeing at least six!! So I have cast aside such stereotypes and the tyranny of expectation to get a clearer sense of what an ‘American’ is. Generally I found most people to be helpful, generous of their time, and friendly. Some of the more avoidable people in New York, the ones that were having rather loud chats to their invisible friends about how they’d fucked up their lives for them reminded me a little to much of Family Christmas’ so I’m not sure if they’d have been helpful if I needed them to be, but for the most part I felt grateful to be in receipt of peoples goodwill and generosity of spirit throughout the trip. This of course goes especially for all the people we met with and who offered us their insights, wisdom and time.
I guess making this realisation that America is much more than it’s trashier elements has helped me put pieces of a jigsaw back in the puzzle I didn’t realise were missing. I hadn’t realised how unreconciled I was about my perception of America. I have always understood it to be a power; politically, economically, culturally and intellectually, but I hadn’t actually realised that I had underestimated the importance of these roles it plays because the main images of it I had in my mind were about it’s trashiness, it’s pop culture that turned the American Dream on it’s head. As Cullen says where ‘fame and fortune were all the more compelling if achieved without obvious effort’. So I guess seeing what the Country has to offer culturally first hand had made me realise that all that I had wiped off with my impression of it as a throw away nation and from all the terrible ways it is misrepresented on TV: COPS, Housewives of wherever, (When are they going to do a ‘Housewives of Delaware’?), keeping up with the Hilton Kardashian Spears, all of that can be cleaned off with a disposable disinfectant wipe, and I can now see again that underlying all of that trash, in the foundations of the nation all of that are an incredibly rich, intelligent, determined, thoughtful inner life of America, scars and all.
Of course, the trip has helped me ask more questions than it answered, which is a good thing too. I want to know more about the things that have briefly come to light during our time there. The American Indian history and current situation in general is something I would like to look into more, and understanding the civil rights movement in terms of the pop culture it was backed up against is another area which I feel a greater understanding would enrich my conceptualisation of what the American Dream is striving for.
Thanks to everyone who made this a memorable experience and to everyone who shared a moment of their trip with me! It is an adventure that will stay with me for ever, and not just because of the credit card debt I have left from it!
All the best,