Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

A Tale of Two Stories

Meditations on the American Dream

Angel Adams Parham

40 Acres and a Mule (detail), illustration by Keith Henry Brown, courtesy of the artist.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | A Tale of Two Stories

They were in lines extending as far as the eye could see, stretching across the horizon and toward the Promised Land. Dutifully, though with growing impatience and anxiety, they were waiting their turn to enter the fabled American Dreamland, where all who worked hard would be assured well-paid jobs and comfortable homes where well-adjusted children would flourish, and smile their winning smiles.

Or such is the foundation of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the “deep story” in her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a journey into the heart of white working-class America. Doing much of her research in a rural Louisiana parish, where refineries and petrochemical plants provide plenty of jobs but befoul the air and water of this once-beautiful bayou country, Hochschild sought to understand the anger, frustration, and fear of its residents, particularly during the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. She describes the “deep story” as “the story feelings tell.”11xArlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York, NY: New Press, 2016), 135. Such stories emphasize emotions over facts, helping us to make sense of the world and our place in it. But they do much more than simply furnish our imaginations. They shape our politics.

According to the deep story community members related to Hochschild, it is immigrants and people of color who make it impossible for white working people to attain the American Dream. Those despoilers of the Dream have skipped the line by sneaking across borders, stealing jobs, and gaining unfair advantages through affirmative action and various social assistance programs. Those clinging to this narrative—in their minds, the line keepers—harbor a palpable sense of betrayal, believing that what was rightfully theirs—what they worked so hard to obtain—has been given over to the undeserving. And the fact that this story is laced with racial and ethnic animosities only contributes to the toxicity of our local and national politics. After all, the American Dream denied only galvanizes and directs hurt and anger, sometimes even leading the unrequited dreamer to violence.

How does one respond to such closely held narratives with facts and reasons when it is the nature of such stories precisely to appeal to feelings rather than facts? The reality that just 8 percent of white Americans are poor, while closer to 20 percent of black and Hispanic Americans live below the poverty line, might seem irrelevant to believers of the deep story.22xEmily A. Shrider et al., Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020 (Report No. P60-273), US Census Bureau, September 14, 2021, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2021/demo/p60-273.pdf. So too does the fact that the unemployment rate as of October 2021 was 4.7 percent for white Americans and 8.4 percent for black Americans.33x“Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 8, 2021, https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpsee_e16.htm.

While it is certainly necessary to our national political health that “the story feelings tell” be put into meaningful conversation with well-researched facts, doing so requires a delicate dance. The way to pull it off, I submit, is not by rejecting such stories out of hand, but by doing the more difficult work of listening for truth. I have in mind here two dimensions of the truth: the existential and the factual. When we listen for existential truth, we are listening for cries from the heart: cries for significance, for meaning, and for that elusive social esteem we all desire but may not receive. Attending to the existential truth of a person or group is an essential prelude to speaking with them about empirical truths they may have a hard time hearing.

First, we must acknowledge that white Americans who feel betrayed and dispossessed are responding to something real: It has become more difficult to attain the American Dream. The acceleration of globalization over the last thirty years, which proceeded with relentless deindustrialization, the offshoring of jobs, and other disruptions, has demolished the social and economic infrastructure that was so favorable to upward mobility in postwar America. Compounding the tragedy of this economic transformation was the gradual hollowing out of the middle class, which began just as the gains of the civil rights movement were being institutionalized through court decisions, legislation, and affirmative action programs. So white Americans were responding to a reality: that there were more people of color moving forward and upward in society. But it was not because such people were skipping the line, as the deep story led so many whites to believe, but because people of color were now allowed to compete for places that formerly had been closed not just to them but to most women. (And it is easy to forget that some of the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.44xExecutive Order 11246, issued in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, called for affirmative action in ending discrimination against both racial minorities and women. “Women” here includes white women. Nevertheless, in general, when people speak of “affirmative action,” the assumption is that the term applies only to people of color. See Executive Order 11246—Equal Employment Opportunity, US Department of Labor, accessed December 29, 2021, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ofccp/executive-order-11246/ca-11246.)

But, again, we must attend not only to the factual dimension of truth but also to its existential dimension—in particular, to how different perspectives lead to different understandings. Americans of color benefited far less than most whites from the postwar boom. As a result, in terms of relative deprivation, the precipitous economic decline that followed the boom was experienced less intensely by minorities than by white Americans. The fall is always hardest for those who were at or near the top. To them, it feels more like a betrayal than it does to those who were never flourishing. After all, if I never expected someone—or indeed, an entire political system—to be true to its word, I am unlikely to feel betrayed when that person—or that system—shows little concern for my well-being. Angry, maybe, but not betrayed.

And this is where those who hold to the line-keeper tale can learn from another people’s story. A counterstory of sorts, it belongs to African American people who, having experienced so many broken promises, developed both the personal and cultural resources to enable them to endure and triumph even in the face of unimaginably unjust circumstances. While there are many such counterstories, one of the more poignant comes from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, in the personal history Macon Dead II recounts to his son Milkman, the novel’s protagonist:

“[My father] called our farm Lincoln’s Heaven. It was a little bit a place. But it looked big to me then…. Must of been a fortune in oak and pine; maybe that’s what they wanted—the lumber, the oak and pine. We had a pond that was four acres. And a stream, full of fish. Right down in the heart of a valley. Prettiest mountain you ever saw…. And all around in the mountains was deer and wild turkey. You ain’t tasted nothing till you taste wild turkey the way Papa cooked it….” Macon paused and let the smile come on… Every detail of that land was clear in his mind: the well, the apple orchard, President Lincoln; her foal, Mary Todd; Ulysses S. Grant, their cow; General Lee, their hog…. [Macon] even liked General Lee, for one spring they slaughtered him and ate the best pork outside Virginia, “from the butt to the smoked ham to the ribs to the sausage to the jowl to the feet to the tail to the head cheese”—for eight months. And there was cracklin in November.55xToni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday, 2007), 51–52. First published 1999.

Lincoln’s Heaven is a kind of post-Emancipation paradise, a vision of what might have been had the promise of “forty acres and a mule” come through for the formerly enslaved. A deep desire for land fired freed people’s dreams. They wanted to feel—in their own hands, in a new way—the soil they had long toiled over, to experience it as irrevocably their own. This was to have been their land of milk and honey, in recompense for the innumerable ways in which they had been wronged, generation after generation. This land was their birthright, their American Dream.

In his recollection, Macon offers a history lesson with his eponymously named farm animals, spinning a morality tale of the triumph of good over evil. But that victory was never fully secured for Macon’s father. He met his tragic fate—a premature and violent death—at the end of the barrel of a white man’s shotgun. To African Americans, this has too often been the story: of dreams on the cusp of being realized, only to be denied; of progress made, only to be taken away.

These two stories—the line keepers’ deep story of righteous white Americans denied the American Dream, and that of Lincoln’s Heaven and its theft—would seem to be irreconcilable. But it is possible for these stories to speak to each other in a constructive way that addresses the line keepers’ existential anguish while possibly making it easier for them to admit certain inconvenient facts into their view of the world.

As the loss of Lincoln’s Heaven shows, African Americans were born into the pervasive realities of disappointment and injustice. The American Dream has never been the default they could expect to achieve. That doesn’t mean that none have achieved it, just that none could expect to achieve it as a matter of course. While white Americans were acquiring homes and building their wealth with the assistance of Federal Housing Authority–backed mortgages, black Americans were shut out of the FHA program, subjected to redlining and predatory housing contracts that all but guaranteed the impossibility of fully owning what they had rightfully paid for.66xSee the story of the Contract Buyers League, including a video, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s well-researched article “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/. While such injustice can understandably lead to prolonged bitterness and anger, black Americans have more profitably translated their hurt and anger into powerful art and constructive protest. From the roots of their pathos have sprung great music, art, dance, and literature that are known and emulated around the world. And out of their suffering, they have founded political movements that push all Americans to live up to their nation’s highest ideals. New Orleans visual artist and studio owner BMike calls black people “alchemists of oppression,”77xBMike is quoted in the documentary film Monumental Crossroads: The Fight for Southern Heritage, Gander Yonder Pictures, 2021, https://monumentalcrossroads.com/. and many a black intellectual has become what Cornel West calls himself, a “bluesman in the life of the mind.”88xCornel West with David Ritz, Brother West Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir (New York, NY: SmileyBooks, 2009), 40. It is precisely such alchemy and blues that Morrison masterfully spins into existence in Song of Solomon and other works of fiction. Were it not for this creative, constructive impulse to live and triumph in spite of injustice and exploitation, the fire next time would have burned this country down many times over.

While this tale of two stories is not a cure for what ails us, it suggests a path forward in the face of our seemingly intractable differences. For line keepers invested in a largely self-centered account of hurt and betrayal, African Americans’ story of creative resistance, civic engagement, and political hope provides a model for how to address the reality of deep hurt. The alternative is that line keepers’ anger and sense of betrayal are likely to devolve further into a destructive bitterness that lashes out in revenge against perceived enemies—black and brown communities, immigrants, and others who are marked as interlopers. Such a course is destined to end badly. Our task, therefore, is not to deny or ridicule the line keepers’ hurt, but to mourn with them as they mourn, and to channel potentially destructive anguish into constructive change that benefits us all.