Whenever I teach an American literature survey course, the topic of the American Dream inevitably comes up. Typically, I ask students to define this mythological term and they reply with the standard answer, “The American Dream means happiness and success.” I elaborate upon this response by pointing them back, first to the Declaration of Independence, then to other texts. The Declaration states that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are American’s “unalienable rights.” How do we achieve these things? This is were the American Dream enters. After Jefferson, we look at John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer which posits that anyone can make something of “himself” in the new country. This, along with Benjamin Franklin, Puritan writers, and others, forms the “up from your bootstraps” mentality that claims that anyone, and everyone, has the opportunity to succeed in America, usually in regards to financial gain.
On the surface, the idea of equal opportunity to success and happiness is something we should strive to achieve; however, not everyone has the same opportunities or chances to succeed and reach that elusive American Dream. The individuals mentioned above all laid the groundwork for Horatio Alger’s coining of the term American Dream, and while they presented it as achievable to everyone, that everyone was limited chiefly to Anglo-American men. That does not mean that women, African Americans, Native Americans, and others did obtain or attempt to obtain the benefits of the American Dream. The majority, try as they might, failed to reach the precipice, staring up at those who climbed that crystal stair.
Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about constructing a course around the American Dream in African American literature. Today, I want to look at a few of the texts I’ve thought about in regards to this topic and also share with you some of the suggestions I received from people on Twitter. (These will be in parentheses next to the entries below.) This list will in no ways be exhaustive, but I think it will provide a good starting point for any interested in reading and/or teaching this topic.
Early on, it became quite apparent that this course could move into various directions even under the umbrella of the American Dream. It could go into liberty, freedom, housing, financial success, respectability, uplift, etc. Another direction would be to break the course up into two separate sections: one pre-1900 and one post-1900. The dates could be moved, but I started to recognize that there are numerous African American texts from the nineteenth century that could, and should, be examined in relation to the American Dream.
At the beginning of the course, I would probably have students read texts or excerpts from the authors mentioned above. These would include
- Jonathan Winthrop A Modell of Christian Charity
- Thomas Jefferson The Declaration of Independence
- John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur Letters from an American Farmer
- Benjamin Franklin Autobiography
- Horatio Alger Ragged Dick
- Max Weber The Protestant Work Ethic
These texts would lay the foundation for defining the American Dream in an historical context and also as a space where this idea becomes interrogated for its lack of inclusivity. For this section, I would probably use excerpts and have students discuss them the first one or two days of the course.
19th Century Course
For a course looking exclusively at the 19th century, the desire for freedom plays a major role in the ways we interrogate and examine the American Dream. As such, a course focusing on this century has to contain slave narratives and abolitionist texts. It also, after the Civil War, has to contain texts that discuss the potential for upward mobility.
- David Walker An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World
- Maria Stewart “Why Sit Ye Here and Die?”
- Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Greg Specter)
- Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?“
- Harriett Jacobs Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl (Anne Brinton)
- Harriett Wilson Our Nig (John Miles)
- Solomon Northup Twelve Years a Slave
- Charles Chesnutt “The Wife of His Youth”
- Paul Laurence Dunbar “Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance“
- Pauline Hopkins Of One Blood
There is a big jump here in time, I know. If you have any suggestions for 1865-1890, please let me know in the comments below. I would also think about using periodicals such as the Freedom’s Journal and the North Star here as well.
20th-21st Century Course
When I taught “The City in American Literature” the American Dream became a running theme throughout the course as we looked at twentieth century texts set in Chicago, New Orleans, and New York. During this course, we would focus on the ways that authors interrogate the availability of social mobility in regard to uplift, respectability, literacy, and even financial gain and stability. These are some of the texts I would possibly teach for this iteration.
- Paul Beatty The Sellout (Mark Sussman)
- Cyrus Colter’s short fiction (Mark Sussman)
- Angela Flournoy The Turner House (Leigh Anne Focareta)
- Lorraine Hansberry A Raisin in the Sun (Leigh Anne Focareta)
- Nella Larsen Passing (David Kieran)
- Nella Larsen Quicksand
- James Baldwin The Fire Next Time (David Kieran)
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah (David Kieran)
- Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God (Ben Railton)
- Toni Morrison Sula (Ben Railton)
- Colson Whithead John Henry Days (John Miles)
- Nat Love The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (John Miles)
- Iceberg Slim Pimp: The Story of My Life
- August Wilson Jitney (Leigh Anne Focareta)
- August Wilson The Piano Lesson (Anthony Boynton)
- Anything by August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle
- Alice Dunbar-Nelson Mine Eyes Have Seen
- Gloira Naylor Linden Hills
- William Melvin Kelley Dancers on the Shore
- Dinaw Mengestu The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears
- Mitchell S. Jackson The Residue Years
- Attica Locke The Cutting Season
- Jesmyn Ward Salvage the Bones
- John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell March vols. 1-3
- Ernest J. Gaines Of Love and Dust
- Edward P. Jones The Known World
- Jacqueline Woodson Brown Girl Dreaming
- Kiese Laymon How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
As I started to work on this list, I realized that this list could become quite lengthy. All of the texts listed above deal with multiple facets of the American Dream, as I mention earlier. When constructing a course, I would focus on one or two of these facets (freedom, property, financial stability, upward mobility, uplift, education, etc.) when constructing the course.
I would love to hear your suggestions of texts to add to this list. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.