What is the Dream?
Obviously, Coates is saying something about what we call "the American Dream." The idyllic, iconic, suburban Norman Rockwell dream of green lawns, cookouts and white picket fences. But in Coates's hands the emphasis is on the word dream, as in illusory and unreal.
Specifically, the Dream--as in the American Dream--is an illusion, a lie, a deception. The Dream is hiding something. And the Dreamers are those who are committed to this lie.
What is the deception of the Dream?
The Dream, as we noted in the last post, is an apparatus of innocence.
Early in Between the World and Me Coates describes growing up in West Baltimore and being exposed to the visions of the Dream (p. 20):
Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television resting in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world...That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens.The young Ta-Nehisi Coates noticed the gap between that other world--the Dream--and his own, and as he grew he began to reckon with an invisible force that kept the worlds stubbornly separate and resistant to any attempts to bring them closer together (p. 21):
I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relation between that world and me. I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.What force created these two worlds? And what "inscrutable energy" kept them separated?
The answer to the first question is a history of plunder. And the answer to the second question is the Dream, the apparatus of innocence.
If you've read Coates's essay "The Case for Reparations" you know that he uses the word plunder to describe, as we noted in the previous post, the exploitation of black bodies as America used slavery to secure and expand her empire. Plunder is an apt word as it highlights economic enrichment.
In the early years of the colonies slavery secured the existence of America through tobacco farming. And during the Industrial Revolution slavery made the US an international power through cotton farming. Prior to the Civil War the US produced 60%-70% of the world's cotton, the commodity at the heart of the textile industry, the engine of the Industrial Revolution. Almost all of this cotton picked and processed by slaves.
In short, America's star didn't rise among the nations because of capitalism. American became great because of slavery. America was no Garden of Eden for capitalism. Our "free markets" were erected upon a foundation of slavery.
The history and legacy of this plunder is what created the two worlds described by Coates, the ghettos of his childhood and the suburban heavens he glimpsed on TV.
And the Dream steps in here as the "apparatus of innocence" that forgets the history of this plunder and denies the ongoing legacy of this plunder.
The Dream is the lie that the legacy of enrichment is "behind us," that it's "in the past." The Civil War was won and the slaves set free, right? Slavery is matter of sadness and regret, to be sure, but a matter of history.
The Dream is a denial of an economic legacy.
Coates writes (p. 98):
This is the foundation of the Dream--its adherents must not just believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgement of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered vision of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.There are many techniques used to support the Dream, but the most common one is the simplest, forgetting. Coates again (p. 143):
The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world...To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.This connection between forgetting and fallibility allows us to conclude with some theological connections.
Specifically, with our robust doctrine of sin and the Fall no Christian should ever defend a mythology of personal or national innocence.
Regarding a mythology pf personal innocence Coates obseves that (p. 97) "There are no racists in America" because the Dreams makes us "obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration."
Regarding national innocence, America is not God's handiwork. As Coates writes (p. 12), "America is the work of men." America is "an empire of humans."
Which means that America is saturated with sin. Saturated.
America is the work of men. America is an empire built and sustained by men. Which means we are, everywhere, then and now, dripping and soaked with sin.
This is Christian Doctrine 101.
Sin created the two worlds--the ghetto and the suburb. And sin keeps the worlds separated.
But the Dream--the apparatus of innocence--keeps us from seeing it.