LITR 5731: Seminar in American Minority Literature
University of Houston-Clear Lake, 1999
Sample Student Midterm

Kurt Bouillion
February 27, 1999
Dr. Craig White
Mid-Term LITR 5731

Reconnecting the African-American to the American Dream

            The American Dream began as a vision for the men who framed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. These two documents provided the foundation upon which the American Dream was built. The reality of the American Dream translated into a nightmare for the African-Americans who had to overcome slavery in order to achieve the ideal that all men are created equally. Their dream did not become a reality with the signing of the Declaration of Independence; in fact, even after slavery was abolished, there was no concrete date established that mandated that whites and African-Americans were equal. The law said the slaves were free; however, society did not consider them equals. The African-American writers utilize the American Dream in their works, but they seem to use it in an interesting manner: connecting to the past in order to realize their future. The slave narratives outline dreams of freedom and often provide insight into the horrors of slavery, while more contemporary writers use the dream to connect to their characters’ past and the horrors in their lives in order to realize their future.

The founding fathers of the United States of America crystalized this country with a "dream". Their dream was a vision of the things they wanted in life and for their country, which was memorialized in the form of the Declaration of Independence. The architects that built this country dreamed that all men would be considered equals and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Jefferson, 729). The original version of this dream, found in Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, states that the representatives in the United States were offended that a "cruel war" had been waged against human rights by the British and that this war violated the "sacred rights of life and liberty"(731). The original document argues against the commerce, which supported removing people from distant lands and "carrying them into slavery" (731). The representatives called slavery an "assemblage of horrors", yet they managed to strike the nightmare from their blueprint (732). By removing this definition, the Declaration simply states that all men are created equal: thus begins the American Dream with a contradiction that would last for years.

            The Declaration of Independence established an ideal of equality that African-Americans would have to work to overcome for many years, even after slavery was abolished. After their independence, theoretically, all men were considered equal in the United States by law; yet it would take a century and a civil rights movement to achieve equality. The African-American portion of the American Dream seems to reconnect to the American Dream of the past as African-Americans search to build their own future and attain their own American Dream. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he plainly stated his reconnection to the American Dream:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

He continues to say that America defaulted on this promissory note, but that he has "a dream" that is "deeply rooted in the American Dream". King’s speech reconnects to the Declaration of Independence and then projects into the future. By reconnecting the African –American dream to the past, he attempted to position his dream as part of the original and then build a new dream for the future. That dream is that the country will rise up and recognize the very ideal under which it was founded in order that in the future, all men will be created equal.

The dream is a theme seen in many different forms of African-American literature. For example, the slaves, whose narratives we still read today, related dreams or visions to their audiences, which usually linked their slave and free lives. Olaudah Equiano recounts his past in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and describes several dreams he had about future events in his life. He states that his mind was filled with "inventions" and "thoughts" of being freed (86-87). Though this is not a "dream," it is a vision that he creates regarding his liberation from his oppressors, much like the founding fathers had in their dream of independence. Likewise, Frederick Douglass reveals his visions of images representing the horrors associated with slavery in the autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass explains that he spent his Sundays in a "beast-like stupor" moving in and out of sleep under a large tree overlooking Chesapeake Bay. He explains that while in this stupor, "flashes of energetic freedom would dart through his soul accompanied by a faint beam of hope" (293). These images came and went and when he reflects upon them, as he writes the story of his past conditions, he realizes that his sufferings on the plantation seemed more "like a dream rather than a stern reality" (293). He also remembers sitting under that large tree on the Sabbath while contemplating the ships coming in and out of the bay with their pure white sails:

Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. (293)

Knowing that he spent his Sundays in and out of sleep, and daydreaming of the imagery of the ship’s sails appearing as ghosts, suggests that Douglass is having a "day-mare" rather than a simple daydream. Images of ghosts are usually associated with night and thus related to nightmares. Regardless, Douglass converts the image to his dream of freedom and relating it to its antithesis, which is his reality: the nightmare of slavery.

Linda Brent, in her autobiographical work, Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl, has a similar vision of real life things, only her demons do come at night. She recounts one evening, after the family had retired to bed, where she sits in her usual place under a window and listens to the activities outside. She concentrates on people singing in the streets while thinking of her children:

I listened until the sounds did not sound like music, but like the moaning of children. It seemed as if my heart would burst. I rose from my sitting posture, and knelt. A streak of moonlight was on the floor before me, and in the midst of it appeared the forms of my two children. They vanished, but I had seen them distinctly. (432)

She continues, acknowledging that some would call it "a dream" or "a vision" and she does not know how to account for it. However, she claims it made an impression on her. The reader is not certain if either Douglass or Brent is asleep or not. Certainly, given the tranquility of each of their moments, the peacefulness of the countryside, and the music, either could have easily gone to sleep, providing a logical explanation for their visions: they were dreams.

            African-American authors also utilize the dream in their works of fiction also. The dreams, similar to those in Dr. King’s speech and the slave narratives, reconnect to something in the characters’ past as they search to realize their future. Toni Morrison’s character, Milkman, in Song of Solomon, upon meeting an old woman, recalls a dream from his childhood:

He had had dreams as a child, dreams every child had had, of the witch who chased him down dark alleys, between lawn trees, and finally into rooms from which he could not escape. Witches in black dresses and red underskirts; witches with pink eyes and green lips, tiny witches… witches that ran, and some that merely glided on the ground. (239)

We see the character reconnecting to his youth and the images he encountered in dreams. David Bradley’s character, John, in The Chaneysville Incident, has many occasions similar to those of Douglass and Brent, where he moves in and out of consciousness, either by natural or alcohol induced means, where he sees images. However, it is unclear if he is awake or not. On one such occasion, he has been drinking and the room begins to spin; an image comes to him:     

And suddenly I heard his voice, calling to me through the darkness, above the wind. No. Not calling, like a ghost. Just…talking. And I recognized the words, knew where they came from. For once upon a time we had stood on a hill, looking down at the river shining in the setting sun… ( 392)

Here, Bradley, like the others, creates a reconnection to the past, while the reader, like in Douglass and Brent, is uncertain if the character is sleeping or not. Both Morrison and Bradley are utilizing the ghost images in the dream in the same manner as both Douglass and Brent.

            African –American writers seem to reconnect to the past through these dreams. Martin Luther King, in his "I Have a Dream…" speech reconnects his dream to the Declaration of Independence so that the civil rights movement could progress and African-Americans would be treated equally and achieve their portion of the dream. Slaves, such as Douglass, Brent, and Equiano, connected to their past by relating memories of their dreams of future freedom, or nightmares of slavery to their audiences. Then, fiction writers such as Morrison and Bradley write dream sequences that relate to their characters’ own pasts, while using images similar to those used in the slave narratives. The reality is that they are seeking their portion of the American Dream. Only the framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence left the slave out of the equation, by stating that "all men are created equal," then allowing slavery to continue for years after they signed the document, which made this declaration. The American Dream is a real part of our culture and the dream seems to be a strong theme in the African-American literary canon.



Works Cited

Bradley, David. The Chaneysville Incident. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. "I Have a Dream." Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. 28 August 1963.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: The Penguin Group, 1977.