There is a common expression: “The American Dream.” Today, we've grown perhaps a little too accustomed to thinking of that dream as having only a financial or materialistic dimension. The actual American Dream has to do with having the right to decide what your own proper sphere is … without permitting anyone else to decide that all-important matter for you.
Obstacles and Opportunities
The Enlightenment, a movement in late eighteenth-century Western thought, emphasized rationality, progressive humanitarianism, and the logic of science. Thinkers within the movement saw the ideal state as a rational institution founded on natural law, embracing human freedom as a birthright of humanity. Such ideals did not, however, persuade one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, to liberate his own large contingent of enslaved Africans.
Ultimately, the real American Dream has nothing to do with upward mobility or household appliances or social status. The real American Dream is a good deal closer to the ideals set out by (and not, of course, lived up to) by some of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment—the founding fathers of our nation.
It is one of the tragedies of our imperfect republic that the inspiring dream of autonomy, of political awareness, of an inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, was initially meant to be turned into reality only for white males. It fell to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to demand compellingly that America recognize an obligation to live up to its dream—to demand for all citizens, not grudging concessions, but the fundamental right to empowered self-definition that is the bedrock of the ongoing American national experiment.
One of my favorite stories of self-definition is set in New York City and serves as a kind of counterpart to the gruesome events of the 1863 riots. The event took place nearly a century later, and is as small in scale as the tale of the epic slaughter in New York is incomprehensibly vast. But both events illuminate the same issue.
In 1952, a white woman walking the streets of Manhattan concluded for some reason that an African-American man was following her. She appealed to the white officers in a passing squad car for help in escaping this menacing figure. The officers dutifully pursued the man and called out, “Hey you!”
The man, who was not stalking the woman but simply making his way to a friend's house, informed the officers that he had a name.
Unimpressed by this fact, the officers reminded the pedestrian that he was dealing with police officers. The man smiled, removed his wallet, flashed a badge, and informed the officers that they were dealing with a superior officer. He was Billy Rowe, New York City's newest deputy police commissioner, and the first African-American in the nation to hold such a post. The officers withdrew sheepishly.
There are many, many angles meant to add up to a single portrait of an extraordinary people: a people committed to identifying their own sphere in life. The first image of that multi-layered portrait should be, I think, that of Billy Rowe striding purposefully past those bewildered white officers, walking (happily, one imagines) the path of his own choice.