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Behind the Headlines American Dream focus of Pre-election Discussion

30 October 2020 - As millions of Americans take to the polls just days before the US election, the latest Behind the Headlines discussion by the Trinity Long Room Hub asked if, for many voters, the so-called “American Dream” still exists?

“What’s on their minds as they go to the polls?” asked Professor Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, of the US citizens just days away from the November election. “Are they hoping for a renewal of those promises of equality, opportunity, freedom? Or are they bereft and disillusioned at an American Dream that seems to have turned sour.”

The popular Behind the Headlines discussion brought together Trinity experts, Nicholas Johnson and Bernice Murphy, who were also joined by Larycia Hawkins of the University of Virginia (UVA) and Ed Pavlić of the University of Georgia, Athens (GA).

Nicholas Johnson, Associate Professor of Drama in Trinity’s School of Creative Arts and co-founder of the new Trinity Centre for Beckett Studies spoke of American historian and writer James Truslow Adams who is said to have coined the phrase “American Dream” back in the 1930s as “an articulation of hope” when he described it as a “dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.”

Watch the video here.

The earlier origins of the California dream and its focus on wealth and ‘striking gold’ at the frontier are usually tales of decline in drama and film, he noted. But in the more recent popular articulation of the dream as a comparison between the wealth and health outcomes of baby boomers and Millennials, Professor Johnson suggested a new hope: “Instead of making “America Great Again,” we might propose we make America habitable in the future.”

Professor Larycia Hawkins is a scholar, professor of political science, and activist who teaches and researches at the University of Virginia (UVA), where she is jointly appointed in the departments of Politics and Religious Studies.  Describing the American dream as a “mythos”, which is “woven into the fabric of our culture”, she argued that the “American Dream is personified as whiteness.”

Highlighting Malcolm X’s assessment of the American dream as a “nightmare”, Professor Hawkins said that race, and the politics of welfare are essential to thinking about why the American dream is a “pipe dream” built on the “perpetuation of capitalism on the back of black enslaved Americans” and that this pervades “the ways that we continue to think about the American dream in the US today.”

Bernice Murphy is Associate Professor at Trinity’s School of English where she lectures in popular literature and specialises  in American horror and gothic narratives, narratives which she said highlight the powerful anxieties about the historical, racial and cultural underpinnings of the so-called ‘American Dream’.

Opening with a look at the plot of the 1882 film ‘Poltergeist’, Professor Murphy explored how it “vividly captured the ways in which the concept of the American Dream has been unpacked within a certain kind of horror and Gothic narrative”, revealing how an American Dream, based around domestic stability and material comfort, “is inevitably and violently disrupted.”

Ed Pavlić is Distinguished Research Professor of English and African American Studies and affiliated faculty in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens (GA). A scholar of the life and work of James Baldwin, Professor Pavlić outlined stories of immigrants, laborers and people of colour in America and Canada, through the readings of Baldwin, Ondaatje, and in his own family’s immigration story – that of his grandfather Ivan Pavlić.

Concluding his talk, he said maybe “it’s best for Ivan Pavlić’s grandson to address the American dream with a version of English I learned in the 1980s from a rapper named Rakim. How did he put it? Released six months after Baldwin’s death, in a 1988 song titled “To the Listeners,” Rakim said, “I ain’t cheap but don’t sell me a dream I don’t sleep.”

The Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series draws on the expertise of distinguished panel contributors to explore contemporary issues in the broad contexts of Arts and Humanities research. Introduced in 2015, the series provides a forum for public understanding and creates a valuable space for informed and respectful public discourse. View all our previoius discussions here.

The Trinity Long Room Hub Behind the Headlines series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.

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