A New American Narrative
In her book, A Brief History of Myth, Karen Armstrong discusses the prevalence of myth-making through time as a way that humans have reconciled certain realities and mysteries of life. She claims that humans are animals that rely on stories to explain the way things are. According to Armstrong, myths aren’t mere fairy tales or ancient legends that without modern significance, but myths are specific kinds of meaning-making stories. Armstrong is arguing for an understanding of the pervasiveness of myth. She makes the argument that myths guide our lives and descend from the fantastic to the mundane. She argues that stories, as mechanisms of meaning, tend to give human beings order and structure with which to define, process, explain, and project their real, current lives. They are more than pleasant tales. They actually work to guide our lives by providing a grand structure, order, and set of aspirations. Myths provide an external framework for our understanding of morality, but they also provide a framework for cultural expectations of origins, progress, success, and relationships.
Because myths tend to exist in the intangible realm of human thought and philosophy, they are most easily associated with formal religions or historical cultures. However, Armstrong makes the case that myths are everywhere and they are both an ancient and a modern phenomenon.
Sociologist and philosopher Christian Smith, in a similar way, claims that myths — or narratives, as he calls them — are an essential aspect of human life. He writes that, at bottom, we believe and understand all aspects of reality — history, science, religion, art, etc. — when these elements are “construed” by narrative. Smith writes, “narratives seek to convey the significance and meaning of actions in a single, interrelated account. Narratives, thus, always have a point, are always about the explanation and meaning of events and actions in human life”.
Smith claims that not only are we animals that compulsively make stories, but also we are “animals who are made by our stories. We tell and retell narratives that themselves come fundamentally to constitute and direct our lives.” The idea that stories not only help us understand the world, but that they actually determine aspects of our reality is a strong claim. This kind of narrative determinism which usurps power from any single teller of a story and gives that power to the story itself, makes the storyteller less of a creator or originator and more of a character or subject. Smith writes, “it is by finding ourselves placed within a particular drama that we come to know our role, our part, our line in life — how we are to act, why, and what meaning that has in a larger scheme of reality.” In this way, our personal stories describe the specific idiosyncratic ways that we either fit into or break away from the grand, cultural narratives and myths that are imposed upon us.
Smith’s idea that we are made by our stories and therefore, are essentially powerlessly subjected to their particular twists and turns is different than Armstrong’s notion that myths or narratives have power, but the agency remains within humans regarding the direction of these stories. Humans are still the story-tellers and myth-makers. For Armstrong, these myths/narratives are helpful guides and references, but we are not conscribed to them. Armstrong writes, “a myth does not impart practical information, but is primarily a guide to behavior.” In Armstrong’s model, myths, stories, or narratives merely work as a guide with which we can begin to understand the details and experiences of our lives. Myths are not a set of instructions. Armstrong continues, “a myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.” With this perspective in mind, myths, stories, or narratives aren’t necessarily true or vital for our experience because they speak to a certain truth; they are vital to our experience because we believe them. Their power is found in their ability to convince us that they are real and true.
This piece will argue that narratives are the way that humans “live, move, and have our being”, thus specific groups of humans have specific narratives that are meant to guide and provide a unified vision for how life ought to be. This can be true for groups as small as a nuclear family, as large as a nation or culture, or as diverse and dynamic as a religion. This paper will examine a common American narrative known as The American Dream. I will briefly explain the dream, illuminate a substantial problem with the Dream with help from Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin, and offer a possible solution with help from Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and critical race theory.
The American Dream
The American Dream is a concept that has deep roots in the socio-political and cultural climate of modern America. Though its ideas have seemed to exist since America’s inception as a collection of colonies, one of the earliest, formal definition comes from James Truslow Adams who wrote in 1931 that the American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunities for each according to ability or achievement.” Within this definition is a set of comparative statements: the assumption is that the land is better and richer and fuller than whatever land the colonists had come from. This is a dream that the early European colonists brought with them. It is not a native dream, it is, as Toni Morrison aptly named it, an “immigrant dream.” From the beginning of America as a collection of colonies, this dream announced the promises of prosperity and equal opportunity for all who stepped foot on this shore.
The American Dream is a myth, a narrative which promises prosperity and hope, the promise that hard work will always be rewarded appropriately, equivocally, and timely. In this paradigm, the American Dream has two clear antitheses: lack of opportunity and laziness. When colonists arrived, they dubbed America the “land of opportunity.” It was a land of potential, able to be farmed, cultivated, and tamed. The places in Europe where these colonists had come from were locked away from agricultural development and uninviting to social, political, and religious opportunity. Many of the early northern colonies were founded by groups like the Puritans who were escaping religious oppression in England. For these pilgrims, America was a land that promised religious freedom mostly because, to these settlers, America was a lawless and untamed land that seemed ripe for the taking.
In her essay, “romancing the shadow,” Toni Morrison writes of the origin of The American Dream, “the flight from the Old World to the New is generally seen to be a flight from oppression and limitation to freedom and possibility…With luck and endurance one could discover freedom; find a way to make God’s law manifest; or end up as rich as a prince.” According to Morrison, the move to the New World was motivated by the hope of freedom from oppression.
The colonial experience in the new world was not wholly ideal. When they came to America, many suffered greatly from fierce weather and savage, strange new diseases. For those who did survive, freedom from oppression, coupled with a certain pride in the ruggedness of harsh survival became the defining characteristic of life in the New World. An expectation of rugged individualism was added to the American ideal. All of these circumstances inspired the American Dream as it is commonly recognized today. The formation of America as a set of colonies embodied elements of this ideology in process — at least for these white colonists.
This abstract idea of The American Dream soon became the catalyst for actual, legitimate progress and success. The idea that anyone could come to America, and that if they worked hard enough, they could rise above any sort of physical or emotional poverty and achieve prosperity was powerfully inspirational and was realized in early American entrepreneur icons like William Randolph Hurst, John D Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer, and Andrew Carnegie (to name a few). Phrases like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” speak to the kind of self-starter, individual mentality, and self-motivation that would make it possible to rise from the working class to the middle class and from the middle class to the upper-middle class, and from the upper-middle class to the upper class. These are characteristics that still guide the majority, dominant American cultural narrative today.
The American Dream as a narrative promised the receipt of a reward equal to any given amount of work, but historically, this dream has not served anyone as well as it has promised, and it has not served non-white people worst of all. Consider the experience of the African in America: like the colonists, they arrived in America by boat, but did not chose to come, they were forced. Instead of escaping oppression in Europe, like the puritans, they were brought into oppression in America, into the evil of slavery. Instead of working to cultivate their own land, they were enlisted into forced labor to cultivate land for the white settlers. The economy of America was built on their backs, by their work, and they saw no benefit. They were, as Malcolm X once said, “not brought here to enjoy the constitutional gifts that they speak so beautifully about today.” This is a direct contradiction of the promises of The American Dream. These Africans who became African-Americans were denied the possibility of rising above their social status. Though all of the work was theirs, they were denied promises of The American Dream.
The American Dream has not only failed to deliver on its many bold and beautiful promises, but it has actually become the kind of oppressive force that it had once sought to remedy by being a false and impossible promise. Under this narrative, white colonists took ungodly license to enslave and control Africans and steal lands from indigenous peoples motivated by the idea of progress, under the banner of heaven, and in the audacious name of freedom. Africans were enslaved under this dream and even after emancipation, slavery and systemic oppression have only continued to exist under different names, by equally evil and oppressive measures from unequal law enforcement policy, to housing discrimination, to voter suppression, to countless other injustices.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Dream
In his book, Between The World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates exposes this false narrative of The American Dream or, as he calls it, simply, the Dream. For Coates, this supposed ideal contradicts his known reality. In the book, written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates speaks of the countless ways that he has been betrayed by the promises of the Dream. He cautions his son against naiveté, he cautions his son against optimism; he cautions his son against the Dream.
From Coates’ perspective (supported by ample evidence), even after emancipation and the abolition of slavery, the reality of relentless systemic oppression has constantly preyed upon the lives and the bodies of non-white people in America. From Jim Crow-era lynching to ’80s war on drugs, to contemporary islamophobia, the dream of a land that promises equality and freedom from oppression is constantly, at every turn, proved to be a limited and lying dream. Coates brings this reality to the forefront by dismantling the Dream which has historically not been able to be realized by those who were initially loaded in boats too small, held by chains too tight, and enslaved to work a land that presumed to stand as a symbol of freedom itself. The Dream is not an inherently American Dream, it is an imposed, immigrant, colonial dream. The problem is that the prosperity that white, colonial American saw was, in the vast majority of cases, not a result of their own work, but the result of unpaid labor at the hands of, generally, Africans. The ones who were doing the hard work were the ones who were never allowed to benefit from it. In practice, the scope and achievability of the Dream is limited to those people who are privileged enough to have the means to realize the dream which has been, historically, whites. Coates is bold enough to say that the Dream is only accessible to those who are white, or who “believe themselves to be white.”
Coates considers the evil of the Dream to not just be the fact that it is inaccessible; he considers part of the evil of the dream to be the very fact that this insidious “disinvitation” is hidden from the supposed dreamers. Coates is so jaded by the Dream, that he refuses to even believe in the possibility of dreams. He writes, “My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream, but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.” Coates considers not only The American Dream to be a false construct, but any dream to be a false construct — visions of the future are of no use to Coates because they are not based on an observed or evidenced reality. They are inaccessible. They are not useful myths. Coates seems to believe that if the Dream could have its way, it would complete its eradication of black bodies from the fabric of America.
James Baldwin and the problem of racial categories
Now, consider James Baldwin. Writing in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin has an equally sharp criticism for America, but he maintains a level of optimism not found in Coates’ writing. While Coates is bold to denounce the Dream as a construct, Baldwin takes a different approach, denouncing what could be considered an entailment of The Dream: the idea of race-based labels and the system of value based on the stratification of race. Baldwin essentially claims that the construction of pejorative categories is a perpetuation of the same kind of injustice as slavery, though it may not a physical injustice. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin attempts to explain the reality of aspiration for a black person in America. He writes that America’s fate is terminal without a correction of race-relations. It is a fate that is perpetuated by the very existence of racial barriers and all barriers based on binary categories.
When Baldwin refers to the idea of the dream, he calls it “the American Pattern,” or the “American Ideal.” Baldwin explains that the main problem facing people of color in America is the formation of social categories: the formation of the idea of race, the title and idea of being “negro” is something Baldwin finds unnecessary and dangerous.
Baldwin writes that the category “negro” is not a biological category, it is a social category that serves to separate white America from non-white America. He writes, “the Negro in America does not really exist…he is a social and not a personal or human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence.” This is a harsh and terrible reality, but Baldwin is steadfast in his critique. Dream or no Dream, Baldwin claims that as resident citizens, black Americans will outlast and outshine any sort of bigotry or hatred.
Baldwin has some strong words for white America, but he doesn’t burn the American Dream in the same way as Coates. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin writes,
“you were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity, wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry.”
In this passionate and frustrated explanation, Baldwin has, essentially, explained the danger and injustice that come to those who cannot access the Dream.
Baldwin, at times, writes optimistically and at other times writes quite cynically. It is helpful to consider some of his more biting and cynical rhetoric, as it explains the perspective and experience of being a “negro” in America in a way congruent with Coates.
Baldwin doesn’t critique the idea of the Dream, but he critiques elements of the narrative — specifically the idea of black versus white. Baldwin explains that the problem is not the “negro” himself; the problem is the white idea of the negro. The Dream has not been withheld from people of color by any fault of their own, not because they are lazy or because they have not capitalized on opportunities they should have seized. The Dream has been withheld from people of color by a government and cultural system design to reward and celebrate whiteness or the idea of whiteness. Baldwin highlights this hypocrisy. He writes, “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny.”
The “negro problem” lies in the false definition and construction and in the false, incomplete, and barbaric narrative imposed upon the negro; the exploration and understanding of black experience in America has not been given equal representation, discourse, or value in The American Dream paradigm. In the modern understanding of the Dream, Coates is right when he claims “The Dream thrives on generalizations, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers.” The Dream is not interested in nuance of experience.
Fixing The Dream
Baldwin seems to argue, not that we reject dreams as storytelling mechanisms, but that those excluded from the Dream learn to better harness and take control of that mechanism, take control of the dreaming process and tell their own stories. Toni Morrison writes, “the subject of the dream is the dreamer.” If this is true, then it is the duty of the dreamer to reject any dream in which she does not find herself to be the main character and agent, or that dream which does not hold the potential for her flourishing.
One development in the academic conversation about race is known as critical race theory. Critical race theory is the idea of “studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power…unlike traditional civil rights, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” Like Baldwin, critical race theory questions the idea of race, suggesting that it is a social construct: “objective, inherent, or fixed, [racial categories] correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.” Race-based labels like black and white are barriers to flourishing.
One of the core elements of critical race theory is an understanding of how particular people gain an understanding of themselves and their identities, especially racial identities. The primary way that critical race theory has identified as a powerful tool of self-understanding is the sharing of personal narrative and experience through storytelling — specifically auto-biographical narrative. According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic,
“Stories also have a valid destructive function. Society constructs the social world through a series of tacit agreements mediated by images, pictures, tales, blog postings, and other scripts. Much of what we believe is ridiculous, self-serving, or cruel but it is not perceived to be so at the time. Attacking embedded preconceptions that marginalize others or conceal their humanity is a legitimate function of all fiction.”
What Delgado and Stegancic seem to be describing is the power of counter-storytelling to deconstruct harmful myths or narratives like The American Dream.
Later, Delgado and Stegancic write about the power of storytelling to give voice to the myriad experiences of minority communities and people of color — those groups traditionally marginalized and excluded from The American Dream:
“Stories can name a type of discrimination; once named, it can be combated. If race is not real or objective, but constructed, racism and prejudice should be capable of deconstruction; the pernicious beliefs and categories are, after all, our own. Powerfully written stories and narratives may begin a process of correction in our system of beliefs and categories by calling attention to neglected evidence and reminding readers of our own common humanity.”
The way stories are told, and the kinds of people that are allowed to tell their stories, the kinds of stories considered worthy or even deemed “popular” have the power to shape the way people understand, remember, and internalize certain historical and modern scenarios and events. Because of the various ways that black narratives have been silenced through the years, their stories are not told and retold, their experiences are not quickly or properly validated, understood, or believed. Their dreams are not considered legitimate. This is a grave injustice.
The problem with the American Dream, according to Coates is that he is not in charge of the dream — not in charge of its premises, not in charge of its promises, and not in charge of the means to bring it about. And the problem is expounded by the real fact that this dream has so heavily infiltrated real societal practice. By Coates’ understanding, he is living in a culture made by a dream that is inherently against him.
I think that a more developed understanding of the narrative power of dreams could allow Coates to realize his place in a heritage of dreamers. With the publication of Between the World and Me, he has created a place for himself in a heritage of personal storytellers, among such pillars as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Barack Obama, and many others. Coates’ non-journalistic writings are part of a rich tradition of self-narrative and generational passing-down. His example and the examples he writes about are not false dreams, but true stories and their telling provides examples for readers to understand that their dreams are realistic, their narratives are valid. There is no single dream, but an abundance of counter-narratives giving nuance to the Dream of being an American.
Between The World and Me, is a realistic narrative. It is a way for Coates to supplement his son’s expectations with the truth of Coates experience. In this way, he offers his experience as a potential path for his son to take — an optional life; a potential dream.
The answer to The American Dream shouldn’t be a rejection of the idea of dreams, but only a rejection of the dreams in which the dreamer has no control or influence. The answer to the insidiousness of these dreams should be two-fold: a rejection of these dreams and an embrace of a new dream of which the dreamer is in control.
An expansion of dreams
If Morrison is right when she claims that the dreamer is the subject the dream, then Coates is right to push back against the embrace of any dream which does not include all sorts of Americans in its practice. But I believe he takes his criticism too far. The solution to an out-of-control dream isn’t to stop dreaming altogether, but rather, the solution should be a new dream, one of which the dreamer is in control.
Here, it may be good to shift terms from dreams back to narratives. The answer to this false, American Dream narrative is a new kind of narrative. If critical race theory is to be trusted, the kind of narratives that will be the most rewarding and useful are self-narratives: personal stories. And not just one narrative meant to represent an ideal, but an over-abundance, a proliferation of narratives to represent myriad experiences and voices. A tapestry of narratives. Self-narratives, especially when collected, studied, and believed give validity and voice to reality.
Perhaps what this self-narrative tradition can provide, is not an ideology, not a set of things to hope for, but a record of reality, a voice, a permission. Just like how tales of the ruggedness of the first colonists and the experience of freedom that they encountered in the New World helped to shape the early American ideal, new and varied accounts of the experiences of Americans from every stripe and origin can help inform the New American Narrative.
The American Narrative has the power and ability to graft all kinds of people and experiences and outcomes into its dream. If Coates made his understanding broader, he might realize that he is, currently a kind of dreamer, and that he is in a long tradition of dreamers. It seems as though Coates is against stories, narratives, or myths, but because of their power and guidance, I don’t believe rejection of these things is either right or good.
Coates should recognize the importance of his position in the process of cultural myth-making, and the position of his writing in the construction of the American narrative. As a strong, loud, and precise voice, he has the power and influence to help mold and shift the narrative. He should harness his influence to acknowledge and improve the Dream. I believe this is possible through a paradigm shift that Coates has already started: from hope to struggle. Coates could move toward an understanding that the answer to struggle is a reliance on narratives of truth through experience.
Coates’ new dream could be a kind of vision based, not on a set of ideals, but on the stories and experiences of those who have come before him. Why else would he consider it important to pass on his experience to his son, if it were not to give his son an understanding of the world and a kind of expectation for the future he may live into?
An abundance of black narratives will give voice to a fuller picture of the American experience and will not negate the possibility of an American Dream, but will develop the perceived possibilities of that Dream, to allow more nuanced, varied, complex, and just. understandings of what the Dream could be. It will expand the reality and power of dreams.
At one point in Between The World and Me, Coates describes the experience of attending Howard University as a student. He describes it as mecca — as if to say finally, a place where black thought and black experience are praised and can be explored. He says of time he spent doing research in the library, in particular, that his reading began the process of dismantling the Dream. This dismantling was possible through education, through the process of learning from the stories of the heritage of black people in America and elsewhere that he had not heard before. For Coates, the unified Dream began to dissolve when he realized it was incomplete, when he began to realize that if a single story could never define one person, how much more feeble is a single story to define a people.
In those moments, whether he would explicitly admit it or not, Coates experienced the power and importance of written narrative history to destroy the Dream. If history is recorded memory, then Coates realized a truth described by T.S. Eliot in his poem, Little Gidding: “This is the use of memory: / For liberation — not less of love but expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation / From the future as well as the past.”
Abundance of narratives, the equality of different voices, has the power to give fullness to accounts of history; to supplement and help complete our understanding of culture; to provide evidence by experience for the expectations of our dreams.
Eliot continues, “History may be servitude, / History may be freedom.” I think Coates is right: a reliance on the Dream makes history into servitude. An embrace and amplification of diverse narratives, however, can begin to make history a kind of freedom.
_ _ _
 Smith, 64
 Smith, 65
 The title of Smith’s book is Moral, Believing Animals, and he refers to humans as animals throughout the work.
 Smith, 64
 Smith, 78
 Armstrong, 22
 ibid., 10
 For simplicity, from here following, I will try to refer to the idea of myths/stories/narratives as simply narratives, though they are, admittedly, idiosyncratic
 Smith, 92
 Though, it should be mentioned that it is not common for a nation to have one, single, unifying myth, dream, or narrative: Kamp (web)
 Adams, xii
 Kamp (web)
 Coates, 32
 Coates, 11
 X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”
Coates, “The Case for Reparations”
 Coates, 10
 Coates, 56
 “My understanding of the universe was physical and its moral arc bent toward chaos and ended in a box”: Coates, 28
 Coates, 103
 such as the very name “negro”
 “If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question”: Baldwin, 45
 ibid., 676
 ibid., 19
 ibid., 293
 Coates, 42
 Baldwin, 32
 Coates, 50
 Morrison, 17
 Delgado and Stefancic, 3
 ibid., 8
 ibid., 48
 ibid., 49–50
 Coates, 46
 ibid., 47–49
 ibid., 47
 Eliot, 55
 ibid., 55
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America, Little Brown, Boston, 1931.
Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh, Canongate, 2006.
Baldwin, James. “Autobiographical Notes.” Collected Essays, Literary Classics of the United States, New York, 1998, pp. 5–9.
Baldwin, James. “Many Thousands Gone.” Collected Essays, Literary Classics of the United States, New York, 1998, pp. 19–34.
Baldwin, James. “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew.” Collected Essays, Literary Classics of the United States, New York, 1998, pp. 291–295.
Baldwin, James. “Color.” Collected Essays, Literary Classics of the United States, New York, 1998, pp. 673–677.
Baldwin, James. “Kenneth B Clark/1963.” Conversations with James Baldwin, Univ. of Mississippi, Jackson, Miss., 1996, p. 45.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York, Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 Sept. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory An Introduction, Second Edition. NYU Press, 2014.
Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets, Harcourt, San Diego, 2001, pp. 49–59.
Kamp, David. “Rethinking the American Dream.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 31 Jan. 2015, www.vanityfair.com/culture/2009/04/american-dream200904. Accessed 4 May 2017.
King, Martin Luther. “Our God Is Marching On!” Our God Is Marching On! | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 25 Mar. 1968, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching. Accessed 6 May 2017.
Morrison, Toni. “black matters.” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Vintage Books, New York, 1993, pp. 1–28.
Morrison, Toni. “romancing the shadow.” Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Vintage Books, New York, 1993, pp. 31–59.
Smith, Christian. Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York, Oxford University Press, 2010.
X., Malcolm, and George Breitman. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1990, pp. 23–44.