This undergraduate level paper is an examination of the history of the African American’s American Dream. It looks at the history of independence-minded thinking in W.E.B. Du Bois and follows through the civil rights movement and the contrasting style and messages of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Malcolm X. It concludes that the American Dream for the African American has not fundamentally improved over the past one hundred years and seems almost more limited now than it was before the civil rights movement.
The American Dream has long been that an industrious and dedicated person can achieve anything that they want to within this American system. The problem with this dream, is that it was dreamt by white men who have always had the ability to carve their preferred lives out of the wood of America. But, that dream has generally excluded many of the other people that live in the United States. For African Americans, the dream was to purchase their freedom so that they could perhaps build a farm and raise a family. By comparison, the white dream included every possible outcome one could imagine. In many ways, since emancipation and the civil rights movement, the African American version of the great American Dream has remained just as limited. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the core of the African American’s American Dream.
When W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, in 1903, he initiated a new voice of individuation among the African American community that stood up against the enormously popular Booker T. Washington’s ideology. Du Bois’ work helped the black people of America to gain a better understanding of the effects of slavery upon theirs and what would be the future generations. The popular thought of the time was founded in the ideas of Washington who had promoted segregation, acceptance of second-class citizenship and the denial of their voting rights, and the pursuance of vocational training instead of college education among blacks. In his mind, the institutions of the United States would be best accommodated through this form of assimilation.
W.E.B. DuBois, however, felt quite differently. Though he agreed that the black Americans should be independent and find lives for themselves, he asserted that slavery’s legacy was an emasculated black culture which could only survive by looking past enslavement and working to achieve an equal place in the nation with the whites. This book is a collection of pieces that emphasize that the very souls of the black people could not be subjugated to the institutions of racism and segregation which Washington promoted. Emancipation, to Du Bois, was much more than a physical release from captivity. It is from these two men that the foundation of modern black intellectual thought is derived. From the words and thoughts of Du Bois can be found the seeds of the civil rights movement. This paper will discuss the African American’s perception of the American Dream as it relates to history and to the present.
The primary problem facing African Americans from the point of emancipation was one of freeing themselves from the emotional, spiritual, financial, social, and personal yokes of slavery. When analyzing the racial history of the United States, the textbooks and histories make one thing perfectly clear: the U.S. was founded, explored, conquered, and tamed by white men. Blacks, on the other hand, were forced here against their will, not allowed to be adventurous or to contribute to the greater good, and were, for several centuries, denied basic human rights. These events, for both whites and blacks, created the archetypal memories that we all deal with on a day to day basis. There is no African American person in the United States who is unaware of the fact that less than a century and a half ago, they would have been owned by a white man, unable to vote, unable to attend school, and unable to travel freely throughout the nation. This is a history of humiliation, degradation, and of shackles that have yet to be fully shed. Our country has had a longer history of slavery than it has without. Whites, on the other hand, have the luxury of knowing that their forefathers made this nation theirs, beating out invaders and the natives to force this land under their heel. Whites own the nation in their spirits – blacks are rejected by that same land.
While many authors, spiritualists, and leaders have taken up the reigns of the black independence movement, the true intellectual founder was W.E.B. Du Bois. His book, The Souls of Black Folk, is a treatise on the spiritual destruction that slavery left and the opportunities for advancement beyond it. In Chapter 9, Du Bois observes that the imperialism of Europe did not make blacks less than whites, it simply asserted an evil and an unjust subjugation which should be shed as if it never existed and never mattered. “Indeed, the characteristic of our age is the contact of European civilization with the world’s undeveloped peoples. Whatever we may say of the results of such contact in the past, it certainly forms a chapter in human action not pleasant to look back upon. War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery,—this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law. Nor does it altogether satisfy the conscience of the modern world to be told complacently that all this has been right and proper, the fated triumph of strength over weakness, of righteousness over evil, of superiors over inferiors (DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 9, paragraph 1).” Unlike Booker T. Washington who had led the philosophical front of assimilation through acceptance, Du Bois told the African Americans that they had no reason to simply accept a fate of second-class status and limited rights.
From this work, it became clear that in order for African Americans to achieve any kind of self-determination, they must fight for it. This was so because white America, even in the North, was in no way ready to accept a challenge to their seat of power – particularly from a mass of people they had so sorely mistreated. Fears of violent retribution were at the fore of every white person’s mind. The possibility of such violence reoccurred six decades later when the civil rights movement came into full swing.
That time period in-between was marked by striking regional differences. Few blacks went to college. Fewer still achieved positions of power. Most found themselves living in poverty, working menial jobs, and being able to develop very little hope for the future. The American Dream had left the forty acres and a mule for the possibility of being able to get a union job with a pension. But, as the majority of African Americans had very few opportunities for improving their status or position in life, many simply didn’t try. For blacks, the American Dream became one that simply included a place to raise their children and a job to support them. Political participation was not a concern as many states continued to deny blacks the right to vote. The military did not desegregate, even during World War II, and the lives of the African Americans were clearly defined by limitations, the exact opposite of the lives of the white Americans.
Though out of slavery, black Americans had few real rights in the nation, particularly in the South, that could be possibly interpreted as being freedoms. For nearly a century after the end of the Civil War, African Americans continued to languish under an oppressive yoke of racism that was rampant throughout the nation. Author James Cone, in his book Martin Malcolm and America, observed that when the civil rights movement worked itself into full swing, the same dynamic and duality of vision was at work in the 1960’s at it had been in the 1890’s. He observed that Martin Luther King had taken up in spirit the arguments of Booker T. Washington as he argued for a peaceful equality and a blending of the white and black societies. He also observed the Malcolm X had taken up the role of Du Bois in his call for outright revolution against the institutions that continued to enslave the blacks. It was during this time that the American Dream for African Americans began to shift again. King’s concept of the American Dream was that it had gone unfulfilled. Malcolm X perceived that the dream had become a nightmare in reality. In contrasts as sharp as those dividing Washington and DuBois, King and Malcolm X called for integration and separation, for love and hate, for nonviolence and selfdefense, and the significance of the continued involvement with European Christianity vs. the native African faiths. It was within this final explosion of action that the modern vision of the American Dream for the African American was forged.
Between these two men, we find the spark of a fire which continues to rage. Yes, African Americans can vote without restriction. Yes, in many states affirmative action laws have increased the black presence in businesses, government contracts, higher education, and employment. But, the true success stories among the black community have changed from the spiritual and literary leaders like Du Bois, King, and Malcolm X, to rappers and athletes. The American Dream for the African American has really not improved significantly over the past century and a half. In fact, the kind of fatalism that had characterized the black community up until the civil rights movement seems to have returned full force. Instead of trying to break into and secure a niche in society, the black community upholds athletes and singers as their primary hope for a good future. This is truly no real American Dream.
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