In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the American Dream: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block association, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” However, he contends that the American Dream and all that pertains to it doesn’t apply to everyone. For non-white people, buying into the Dream is dangerous because the Dream “rests on [their] backs, the bedding made from [their] bodies.” In her debut novel, American Street, author Ibi Zoboi investigates the validity of the American Dream. Is it attainable for some, or only for all?
American Street, nominated for a National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction, tells the immigration story of one family, detailing both the Dream and the reality of this experience. Our protagonist, Fabiola Touissant, emigrates from Haiti with her mother in pursuit of the Dream, but when they arrive at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Fabiola is permitted to continue on to Detroit, their final destination, while her mother is detained. Customs detains her mother because she had previously overstayed her visa, (sixteen years prior so that her daughter would be born an American citizen). She broke the law so that her daughter could one day attain the elusive Dream.
Since 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood proudly in New York Harbor, a physical manifestation of the American Dream. We know the words, “give me your tired, your poor” but what about the rest? Those hallowed words are merely an excerpt of a poem entitled “The New Colossus” written by Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In, Lazarus’s poem, the way to the American Dream is through a golden door. Liberty beckons wanderers towards it with her torch. But in the years since she was built, time and weather have altered the Statue of Liberty’s appearance and we must now consider how the meaning of Lazarus’s poem has also been altered.
In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses America and asks that she “be true to what you said on paper.” Part of his dream was that America be true to what has been said in declarations and constitutions and in songs and in poems affixed to symbols of liberty and freedom. In January, President Trump asked during a briefing on the bipartisan compromise to protect DACA participants, “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” Shithole countries referring to El Salvador, Haiti and the fifty-four countries in the continent of Africa. When referring to Haiti specifically, he said “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” It is clear that Trump’s version of the American Dream, does not include everyone. Fabiola’s dreams are shattered the moment she steps foot in New York
In Detroit, Fabiola goes to live with her mother’s sister and her three daughters who all struggle to live the Dream. They live in a house at the intersection of American Street and Joy Road. Her uncle thought he was buying American joy when he bought the house. Fabiola stands beneath the signs of American Street and Joy Road and muses “Joy and American. A crossroads. Intersecting.” She tries to go on with her life, but part of her is tethered to her mother who remains in a detention center. Fabiola learns that joy can “either mean endless possibilities or dark, empty hope.” Fabiola continues, “I know so many people back in Haiti, so many families who would kiss the ground and thank Jesus for a street like this, especially one named American.” She struggles to reconcile her dream with the reality, and the discrepancy between the two becomes a specter that hangs over what should be a joyful time spent in the company of her family.
There is a ghost haunting 880 American Street, not unlike the baby ghost haunting the house on 124 Bluestone Road in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The haunting on American Street is the unrealized Dream and the people who died looking for it. Fabiola realizes that “maybe this corner of American and Joy is collapsing under the weight of all that troubles me.” Her troubles stem from a dichotomy known to every person who has immigrated. “I am American by birth and Haitian by blood, bones, and tears,” Fabiola says. “Familiar and strange.”
Fabiola’s lesson is not that she should not believe in the American Dream but rather that she should not stop believing in herself. In some ways, overcoming impossibilities is the Dream. It is realizing “that everyone is climbing their own mountain here in America” and that despite the efforts of those that would disenfranchise the huddled masses, possibilities persist. Fabiola comes to the conclusion that “ I am not a pebble in the valley. I am a mountain.”