artwork for the American Dream exhibition at the British Museam

Event Highlights: “Unresolved histories: whose American Dream?” at the British Museum

This event was a conversation between two American-born intellectuals: playwright and novelist Bonnie Greer, and literature scholar Sarah Churchwell. Relying on their overlapping but divergent backgrounds (they went to the same school in Chicago, only Churchwell attended as a local resident in the 80s, while Greer was bused there as part of a de-segregation effort in the 60s), they discussed historical and current racial divisions in the United States. The talk took place on 24th March. Below are my highlights, loosely organised by theme.

 American Dream(s)

  • Americans are dreamers. There is a bold license to dream in America; it is not just allowed, it’s encouraged. We could even say that American has institutionalised dreaming.
  • At its best, (in Greer’s words, “on a good day”), the US aspires to be a perfected version of the UK, simply because the Dream originated with a group of British people emigrating and wanting to create a perfect country.
  • The phrase “American Dream” appeared in print for the first time in 1914. newspaper clipping on the 1927 KKK rallyHistorically, in goes in tandem with another phrase: “America First”.
  • Donald Trump’s triumph, to this extent, is the triumph of an arc of history that began in 1914. He is the other side of the American Dream; his election is the biggest backlash in world history.
  • There are different American Dreams, however. People often don’t realise, for example, that Martin Luther King riffed on his own American Dream with his “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • The Republicans too have a dream: to do away with government. Not only has Trump taken them over without really subscribing to their ideals, but he’s also brought in more government than even Obama did. It might be their American Dream that puts an end to Trump’s presidency as they claw their way back (as the defeat of the healthcare bill seems to indicate).

When asked whether the term “segregation” was too anodyne and should be replaced with “apartheid” in the American context, the two women had very different answers. Churchwell said that yes, absolutely- calling it “segregation” means whitewashing the truth. Greer, on the other hand, insisted on retaining “segregation”. Apartheid, she explained, implies the rigidity of keeping people outside; segregation, by contrast, is the activity of keeping people alongside. The American brand of racial separation let people see what they were kept away  from every day; it entailed pledging allegiance to a flag that didn’t include you. Only the word “segregation” can express the humiliation and disempowerment inherent to this practice.

American culture and current politics

  • The speakers warned the audience about the phrase “the American people”. It paints the country as a monolithic block, and for this reason it is Trump’s mantra. As Greer put it: “don’t drink the American people kool-aid”.
  • Greer described having an African-American in the White House as “a visual, emotional earthquake”, that caused deep trauma to a lot of Americans.
  • Descending from the people who came on the Mayflower is the closest thing to being aristocracy in the US.
  • We’d do well to remember that the KKK was never just a southern problem. As just one example, there was a KKK riot in New York City in 1927 with American blackshirts (during which, incidentally, Donald Trump’s father Fred was arrested).

Churchwell underlined the great danger of popular culture mythologizing the past. For example, in Baz Luhrman’s film adapation of The Great Gatsby, the speakeasy scene is racially mixed, as if racism was something that only happened in polite society. The reality of 1922 New York, however, was very different: in November of that year, the New York Times reported that a young black man had been attacked by a lynching mob for kissing a white woman. We also know that places like the famous Harlem Jazz club Cotton Club, which opened in 1923, denied entry to black patrons (while hiring black staff). Luhrman’s rosy representation comes to erase this reality.

Two significant anecdotes

  • Greer shared a memory from her childhood: in 1964, as she was in school, other black kids pointed to lorry tracks in the road as very useful in the winter- they were less slippery than the rest of the snowy ground, and would therefore enable her to run faster when white kids chased her. She remembers the white kids made their snowballs with rocks.
  • Because both speakers have studied Marilyn Monroe, they related the actress marilyn monroe and singer ella fitzgerald sitting side by sidefollowing story: Marilyn Monroe was a stutterer, and looked up to Ella Fitzgerald for her diction and enunciation. In 1955, during an engagement at the Los Angeles club Mocambo, she lobbied management to hire Fitzgerald. In exchange for Fitzgerald’s booking, she promised to correct her compulsive lateness and be on time every night of her run. She kept her word, and Fitzgerald gave a performance that proved instrumental to her own career.

Greer noted people often feel the need to check the veracity of this anecdote. It somehow contradicts Monroe’s embodiment of the beauty and tragedy of the American Dream, so people are reluctant to believe it.

This talk is part of the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present, which runs until 18th June at the British Museum. Information and tickets here.

Bonnie Greer, OBE, is a writer and critic who moved to the UK in 1986. She is the author of several novels, plays, musicals, operas, films, and radio plays. She serves as Chancellor of Kingston University. You can find her books here, or read some of her writing on the website of The New Statesman

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of London. Her books are here, and her documentary “The Origins of the American Dream” will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday 28/03 at 8pm. Watch it here.

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