The myth of the American Dream is a tenacious thing. It’s something I see college students encouraged to analyze and deconstruct, and I think there are very good reasons behind that approach, which I may go into in another post. But what gets me about it is the contradictions. In the course I teach in prison, class comes up regularly. I’m told I ping as decidedly middle class; that, to at least one of my students, my attire and demeanor and manner of speech say “money.” I don’t dispute the attribution, but my jeans and boots come from Goodwill, my underwear and undershirt were gifts from my mother and grandmother, the overshirt was, I think, stolen from an ex-boyfriend, and the bra was the only thing I bought new (from Ross Dress-for-Less).
Part of why the American Dream myth has held such fascination for me is because I’ve seen it in action. Though I may present as middle-class, and though that attribution seems valid in light of the fact that my parents own their own home, own and rent a second house, and can afford to take vacations, my earliest memories are not middle-class.
I remember living in a tiny garden house behind some people rich enough to own a home with a garden house; I remember a tiny, crappy apartment where my mother despaired because I wasn’t interested in taking naps and there was no place for me to go outside and play; I remember living in a trailer behind my grandparents’ house. I remember bringing my parents my piggy-bank full of pennies because they were so worried about money. I remember that we ate a lot of canned soups, that my brother and I mostly ate ramen and cup noodles when we were home alone for an afternoon, that most of the meat we ate came from deer or elk that I helped butcher ever since I was old enough to hold a butterknife and be thrilled to be included, that our seafood was all either stuff my father caught or shrimp he bought and cooked special for my mom on Valentine’s Day and their anniversary. I remember the complete run-down mess that was the first house they bought, and my mom struggling at the store with sticking to budgets and that she felt kind of guilty when she bought me a stuffed horse that went clippity-clop for me on a day when I had two doctor’s appointments and a wart removed, because we didn’t buy toys when we went grocery shopping. Toys were something for birthdays and Christmas, usually, especially when I was very little.
And I remember my dad trying to go back to school to become an engineer and giving up because he couldn’t work 40+ hours a week and wrap his head around theoretical math after years away from a classroom. And I remember my mom going to work after my little brother was in school, and how I wasn’t supposed to tell people we delivered phone books every year for Christmas money. And I remember how, when my mom went back to school (while still working) and managed to finish the community college program to be a pharmacy tech, my dad was so proud he cried, totally unashamed. And I remember how proud we all were when, after more than twenty years at the same company, they played with job requirements and titles so he could have a position he was eminently qualified for in every practical way, except that he lacked an engineering degree. And I remember how nervous and unsure he was about that position, and how he worked sixty and seventy hour weeks trying to prove that they hadn’t made a mistake promoting him, and I remember standing in the garage with him when I visited from college, giving him advice on public speaking so he could give presentations without wanting to throw up.
The American Dream is a myth. But it’s one that speaks to what I’ve seen my parents accomplish. And so, when I talk to students whose families were locked in a cycle of poverty they couldn’t break, and I hear about what they’ve been through and that struggle and the resentment of, not just the rich, but also the middle class, I feel it. Myths become myths because they’re powerful, because they speak to our desires and our fears.
I know what it’s like to fear homelessness in an immediate way, to wonder what will happen next, to fear the news that you can’t stay where you are. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had friends and family that I could fall back on, and I am eternally grateful. But I also recognize that I’ve been very lucky, and because I know that, and how tenuous that luck can be, I can feel empathy for people who haven’t been so fortunate. Why are there mentally ill people on the streets? Why can’t they avail themselves of the social safety net? Because they don’t qualify; because their bodies are illegible to our systems of control; because they don’t know how to use the available services; because using the available services means judgment and dismissal and rejection and being told over and over again in ways both subtle and overt, that they don’t matter. Because various forms of anxiety and fear and paranoia and terror and confusion hold them back.
So yes, I present as middle-class. But I know how shaky that is. I know how thin that line is, and I know that people who aren’t middle-class are no less human, no less hard-working, no less deserving than those who are. There are middle-class people who are middle class almost entirely because of accidents of birth and good fortune. There are impoverished or working-class people who are impoverished or working class because that’s where they started, and because climbing up the socio-economic ladder is extraordinarily difficult in the US.
I don’t really explicitly identify as a socialist or as a Marxist. But I think class struggle is very real in the US today, despite our efforts to hide and dismiss and discourage it, and I think class is and will be absolutely essential to any sort of social, economic, cultural revolution. Because when all the material conditions of our lives are removed, at the end, we are all human. When we have nothing else, we have that. And seeing that may be the first step in doing something about the problems that keep us where we are, that make the American Dream only a myth for most people.