Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms Posters 

Last post, I shared with you a syllabus I constructed entitled “The City in American Literature.” Coinciding with that previous post, I want to take the time to write briefly about David Kamp’s 2009 Vanity Fair article entitled “Rethinking the American Dream” and Lecrae’s “Welcome to America.” Both the article and song deal with our perceptions of the American Dream and whether or not those perceptions hold true when faced with the realities of life in America.

Kamp’s article traces the history of the American Dram back to 1931 when James Truslow Adams coined the term in The Epic of America. There, Adams referenced “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank” (qtd. in Kamp 308). Kamp points out the movement of the American Dream from the terms origins during the Great Depression through the first part of the twenty-first century. He discusses the construction of Levittowns after World War II, the introduction of the television into households–taking time to examine the influence of shows like Ozzie and Harriet and The Brady Bunch–and moves towards the increase of debt due to easily available credit in the latter part of the twentieth century. Ultimately, Kamp concludes that “[t]he American Dream is not fundamentally about stardom or extreme success; in recalibrating our expectations of it, we need to appreciate that it is not an all-or-nothing deal–that it is not, as in hip-hop narratives and in Donald Trump’s brain, a stark choice between the penthouse and the streets” (314). Instead, the Dream exists as a place where individuals can live without worrying about shelter, food, or necessities. It exists as a place where people can love in freedom without the fear of having to exist in abject poverty. That does not mean that individuals will become filthy rich; it means they will live life.
In many ways, Lecrae’s “Welcome to America” echoes Kamp’s arguments. Lecrae’s song provides three different voices and their specific experiences with the realities of life in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Between the verses, the listener can hear an African chant linking the three distinct narratives together. This chant, while linking Lecrae’s first verse where he describes his ancestors being brought to America from Africa during the slave trade, also displays a unifying link that accentuates the different ethnicities in America and John Hector St. John de Crévecoeur’s “melting pot.”
Opening the first verse with, “I was made in America/ land of the free, home of the brave,”  Lecrae lays out his story with his Americaness through birth and the opportunities that many believe the nation provides. However, he immediately undercuts this proclamation by delving in to the underbelly of America’s supposed meritocracy, rapping about the continual allure of money, wealth, and fame. He intersperses these images of sex trafficking, drug dealing, and porn films with lines that highlight the chances that America contains, to those with the means to take advantage of them. He raps, “I probably could have been some kinda doctor/ instead of holding guns and crack.” The verse concludes by commenting on the government looking for its payout, whether the payee earns the money legally or not.
The second verse chronicles the story of a veteran returning home from a military tour oversees. He notes that those who fight for our opportunity to pursue the American Dream return home to people who do not care about what happened during the war: “Got back and ain’t nobody give a jack in America/ I could lost my life, boy, I lost my wife/ I can’t even get right in my homeland.” Lecrae makes a point to highlight the fact that the individual who America rejects keeps its citizens safe. He says, “Whe y’all free here saying you don’t wanna be here/ Boy, you probably couldn’t breathe here/ if I didn’t load a couple of magazines here.” While the first verse speaks of the lack of opportunities to the poverty stricken in our society, the second verse focuses not on the acquisition of wealth and fame but on the protection of the ability for individuals in America to chase that American Dream.
In the final verse, Lecrae takes on the voice of an immigrant who seeks to make a new life in America. The immigrant hears that “everybody [is] rich” in America, and to make it here all one has to “do is run, jump, kick” and make it in sports or through education. Even with these promises, the narrator voices a concern that many in America do not know anything about him or the land he comes from even though he works all day “at a sweatshop making these shirts” for the listener. Ultimately, the traveler says goodbye to the land of his birth and his culture to make a better life for himself in America, but the verse ends with the country of hopes and dreams rejecting him before he can even begin his journey: “But I couldn’t get approval to stay so they sent me away from America.”
The above is only a synopsis of Lecare’s song, but thinking about it in the context of the syllabus and Kamp’s article, it provides a good entry point for students when discussing the recalibration, as Kamp calls it, of the American Dream. The song, and the essay, remind me of Stephen Colbert in front of Congress arguing for the rights of migrant workers, of Stanley Kowlwaski proclaiming his Americanness when Blanche calls him a pollack, of Richard Rodriguez’s “Gaines and Losses,” and numerous other items.

I’m going to conclude this post the video for Lecare’s “Welcome to America.” I’m interested to know what you think about the video in relation to the discussion above. I am intrigued by the juxtapositions of births and birthdays with war and hunger. I did not mention the pilot’s speech at the beginning of the song, but I am curious to know what you think of this too. As usual, leave me a comment below to let me know what other texts you use when teaching about the American Dream in your own classrooms.

Kamp, David. “Rethinking the American Dream.” The Reader. Ed. James C. McDonald. 2nd. ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 306-315. Print.


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