All semester, we’ve been talking about this idea of the American Dream. Who built it, who benefits from it, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, etc. Of course, most of that speaks to its dominant narrative – white immigrant comes from humble beginnings, finds success, loves America – and erases the experience of those that the dream forgot.
I recently watched Detropia, a documentary film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (the duo behind Jesus Camp). The description begins thus: “Detroit’s story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century – the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American Dream; and now…the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos.” See what we’ve erased?
Here’s the thing – I’m not from Detroit, but my family is. My grandparents, first-generation Polish immigrants, have lived there the entirety of their lives in the States. Theirs would be the story typically embodied by our American Dream. My grandfather worked in manufacturing for decades after he returned from the war, my grandmother stayed home with the children, my mother was the first to go to college.
Shortly after the white European immigrant boom in Detroit, in the midst of World War II, another 350,000 people flocked to the city from the South, enamored with the prospect of higher-wage manufacturing jobs. This wave included that “Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow,” roughly 50,000 people total. The only problem was that Jim Crow came with them. Fighting over jobs and housing came to a head with the June 1943 Race Riot, which lasted for three days and resulted in 34 deaths and 433 injuries. The white working class of Detroit viewed the influx of working class African Americans, which was one-seventh the size of the influx of white Southerners, as the bigger threat to their security and stability.
“No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver – no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of the American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.“
But then you have Motown, and you have Elvis down in Memphis turning to traditionally black icons and styles of music for inspiration. You have the cultural co-option while black Americans still have no rights, still have to fight for jobs and housing, still feel unsafe wherever they go.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bullets and bombs on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?“
Detroit in the past few years has been reduced to cultural shorthand for ruin, decline, decay. Automobile bailouts. Unemployment. Crime. So much so, in fact, that we had to come up with a name for all of the New York Times articles about white flight and photographs of abandoned buildings – “ruin porn.” Again, the stories of those who go to photograph the decay or who abandoned it in the first place are the ones that we privilege. We applaud the young white artist-types who are now flocking to Detroit’s downtown and scooping up real estate while it’s cheap. We say that they are “pushing [Detroit’s] economic recovery” when they open coffee shops and galleries that only serve their insular community.
Detropia doesn’t pay much lip service to this crowd; instead, it focuses on the people who have stayed in Detroit through its ups and downs – largely people of color, whose stories so often get erased from the historical conversation. It makes me wonder again what America really is, what it means. If we can learn more from its silences than its professions, its outsiders more than its champions.
It’s the end of the semester, and I still don’t know what to think about the American Dream.
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