University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor(s): Scott Boehnen
The Lie of the American Dreams
The Lie of the American Dreams
There is no "American Dream". Rather, there exists two clashing American Dreams, two ideas that are seemingly contradictory and incompatible with each other. The embodiment of one is the Captain of Industry, the man who was able to pull himself up by his bootstraps and found himself surrounded by innumerable riches. This is the idea that with a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of hard work, anyone can make it in America. But in his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about a different dream, a "most gorgeous dream". "It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake" (Coates, 11). This dream is comfort and contentment, raising a family with values in a middle-class suburb and not wanting nor needing anything you don't have. It is the promise of a home. The contrast between the two dreams is as clear as competition and contentment and can be seen in the examination of two fictional American families. In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman rejects the promise of a home in fanatical pursuit of material success, while in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee Younger, persuaded by his family, pursues the dream of a home.
In Death of a Salesman, we can see that Willy had once achieved the dream of a home. His memory of Biff and Happy's adolescent years is pure bliss and satisfaction. Willy reminisces on a time when he came home from a sales trip and was greeted by a loving wife, exuberant boys, and a friendly neighbor. His eldest son was the pride of his life, a confident and capable boy who was very popular among his peers and had a bright future in front of him.
WILLY: You and Hap and I, and I'll show you all the towns.
America is full of beautiful towns and fine, upstanding people. And they know me, boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there'll be open sesame for all of us, 'cause one thing, boys: I have friends. I can park my car in any street in New England, and the cops protect it like their own. This summer, heh?
BIFF AND HAPPY (together): Yeah! You bet!
WILLY: We'll take our bathing suits.
HAPPY: We'll carry your bags, Pop!
WILLY: Oh, won't that be something! Me comin' into the Boston stores with you boys carryin' my bags. What a sensation!
(Biff is prancing around, practicing passing the ball.)
WILLY: You nervous, Biff, about the game?
BIFF: Not if you're gonna be there.
WILLY: What do they say about you in school, now that they made you captain?
HAPPY: There's a crowd of girls behind him everytime the classes change.
BIFF (taking Willy's hand): This Saturday, Pop, this Saturday — just for you, I'm going to break through for a touchdown. HAPPY: You're supposed to pass.
BIFF: I'm takin' one play for Pop. You watch me, Pop, and when I
take off my helmet, that means I'm breakin' out. Then you
watch me crash through that line!
WILLY (kisses Biff): Oh, wait'll I tell this in Boston! (Miller, 31-32)
Willy was jubilant not only at the idea of having his sons come with him to work and follow him around, but also at the notion that his son is outgoing and popular and a sports star going to make a play for his dear father. Willy had achieved the dream of a home, the dream of Cub Scouts as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it. Cub Scouts are model boy; they are outdoorsy and outgoing; they represent the family values that the middle-class dream, the dream of the home, stands for. Biff at that time embodied the spirit of the Cub Scout to Willy. But the tranquility of the home does not last. Willy is transfixed upon a single mantra said by his brother Ben: "'Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich'" (Miller, 48). Following this mantra, and the dream of riches, inherently comes into conflict with the dream of a home for two reasons. First, entering a jungle means leaving wherever you were previously. In the case of Willy, he increasingly spent less and less time at home as he sought to recoup as much profit as possible from selling stockings. No home is complete without the head of the family present. Secondly, entering a jungle and leaving rich necessitates the abandonment of the family values that make up a home. Whether it be exploiting indigenous peoples in a literal jungle or bedazzling the way up the corporate ladder in the hyper-competitive and cut-throat market, lying, cheating, and stealing is required; this is what Willy attempts to do and is what he pushes Biff to do as well. He is complicit in Biff's thievery and cheating in school. He violates the sanctity of family and marriage by having an affair. He destroys the Cub Scout in Biff and the family values it represents. In the end, in his pursuit of material success, he lets the dream of a home slip away.
Walter Lee Younger is similarly ambitious in A Raisin in the Sun. He is tired of his life, tired of being someone else's chauffeur. He dreams of joining the corporate world, with fancy cars and high stakes business deals, and he pins his dreams on owning a liquor store.
WALTER: I want so many things that they are driving me kind of crazy ... Mama—look at me.
MAMA: I'm looking at you. You a good-looking boy. You got a job, a nice wife, a fine boy and—
WALTER: A job. (Looks at her) Mama, a job? I open and close car doors all day long. I drive a man around in his limousine and I say, "Yes, sir; no, sir; very good, sir; shall I take the Drive, sir?" Mama, that ain't no kind of job ... that ain't nothing at all. (Very quietly) Mama, I don't know if I can make you understand.
MAMA: Understand what, baby?
WALTER: (Quietly) Sometimes it's like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don't have to be. (Pause. Kneeling beside het chair) Mama—sometimes when I'm downtown and I pass them cool, quiet-looking restaurants where them white boys are sitting back and talking 'bout things ... sitting there turning deals worth millions of dollars ... sometimes I see guys don't look much older than me—
MAMA: Son—how come you talk so much 'bout money?
WALTER: (With immense passion) Because it is life, Mama.
MAMA: (Quietly) Oh—(Very quietly) So now it's life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it's money. I guess the world really do change ...
WALTER: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn't know about it.
MAMA: No ... something has changed. (She looks at him) You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too ... Now here come you and Beneatha— talking 'bout things we ain't never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don't have to ride to work on the back of nobody's streetcar— You my children—but how different we done become. (Hansberry, 813-814)
While Walter Lee is desperate to break out of his financial situation and use his father's life insurance money to invest into a liquor store, Mama resists; she cannot understand his obsession with money and material objects. Mama believes that spending her husband's legacy on a liquor store directly undermines her dream of a safe home and whole family. She believes that by prioritizing money, Walter Lee implies that his family and home is not enough. In addition, selling liquor goes against the family values of her home, which are also her Christian values. This can also be seen when Walter Lee refuses to support Ruth's pregnancy and discourage her from getting an abortion, which goes against Mama's Christian values and the values of her home. In the end, confronted by his family and son, Walter Lee gives in and stands firm with the decision to move into a white neighborhood, despite the white population offering a significant sum of money not to. He realizes that the goal of material success should not come at the cost of his dignity and his family.
There remains one question, however. If Mama is so insistent that what they have is enough, that their family is enough, then why is she and others like Ruth so desperate to move into a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood? The answer is that what they have is not enough. Their family is not enough. The dream that Coates describes in his book is physical, it's tangible. While the spirit of that dream is one of a home, a home cannot exist with only a family; there needs to be a physical space as well, one that allows the family to flourish and grow, one that allows for the family to hold barbecues and for the kids to climb in treehouses. However, for many, this physical aspect has been historically denied. Coates writes, "And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our [Black] backs, the bedding made from our bodies" (Coates, 11). In Death of Salesman, the white Lomans are, for a time, able to achieve the dream of a home and lived a spacious house that allows the boys to run around and grow. In A Raisin in the Sun, the Black Youngers are sick of their cramped living conditions and are unable to create a true home. While they eventually move and appear to achieve the dream of having a home, the threat of a bombing still looms large in the background.
While in the plays the two American Dreams come at the cost of one another, for African Americans and other marginalized groups, neither dream is achievable. The spirit of a dream is just that: a spirit. The dream of a home requires not just a family and its values, but also a tangible aspect that provides the physical space and security to allow that family to flourish and prosper. The idea of an American Dream is so appealing because it is accessible to everyone. It is what makes the United States such a unique nation. In fact, Ralph Ellison writes that the most obvious test of the perfection of our democracy and country is the "inclusion — not assimilation — of the black man" (Ellison). Selling the spirit of the American Dream, but not providing the actual substance is equivalent to selling a facade, a sham. Doing so and letting people in on the essence of a dream; selling them what they may already have in family and strong values; excluding them from the actual substance in a house, security, and a home forces them to be content with what they have instead of what they equally deserve as everyone else. That is not inclusion, but rather assimilation.
Piracy in America: Liberty or Death
Piracy in America: Liberty or Death
Pirates have long been a popular subject of media and pop culture. From Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean to the legendary persona of Blackbeard, pirates have been depicted as bloodthirsty, amoral, and cruel bandits who have no guiding principles or values. While people associate many things with pirates, but one thing that doesn't often come to mind is the connection between pirates and the United States. Yet Pirates have been intertwined with the history of America from before it's establishment as an independent nation. Pirates thrived in the developing and unruly colonies, and their influence on the economy and trade was pivotal in the growth of the colonies. As the autonomy of the colonies aligned with their own personal liberty and interests, pirates fought to protect freedom on the side of America. While pirates interacted with America often, they also reflected many of its ideals of equality, liberty, opportunity, and democracy, oftentimes to an extreme. In fact, in some ways pirates embodied America's values better than it did itself. In the end, as the country's values and priorities changed, so did its tolerance for pirates, and they were hunted down to near extinction.
Piracy in the New World rose to prominence for two reasons, both relating back to policy decisions by England. First, in the 17th century, the English utilized privateers extensively to plunder Spanish ships carrying precious cargo back from the Americas. Once the wars between England and Spain ended, these privateers remained and turned to piracy, indiscriminately plundering ships regardless of nationality. In addition, as England encouraged "turbulent elements" to emigrate from the country, many citizens with a propensity for criminal activities flocked to the New World to continue their activities with little interruption. These pirates found havens in South Carolina due to its location, geography, and abundant natural resources and had much activity there and in port cities along the colonies. The activity of pirates in these areas had a tremendous effect on the colonies. In the early days of South Carolina, much of its currency was based off gold and silver that was provided by pirates. In addition, the enactment of the Navigation Acts in the 17th and 18th centuries required trade in and out of the colonies to go through English ports first where they could be taxed, and prices would inevitably be raised. This disproportionately hurt merchants and Southern plantation owners economically. As a result, manufactured goods became more expensive to obtain and commerce suffered. Pirates helped to rectify this and propped up the fledgling colonial economies by providing cheap goods, transforming port cities into thriving economic and trade capitals. This led to them being welcomed by both local merchants and colonial governors. Merchants were appreciative of an outlet to trade goods, while governors were cognizant of the steady stream of income that pirates provided. Governor William Markham of Pennsylvania refused to arrest pirates, saying that "if seamen brought good solid income to Pennsylvania it was not his affair to ask how they got it." Governor Benjamin Fletcher went so far as to be partners with pirate Thomas Tew, providing material support and conducting business with him. Pirates were also able to integrate into society and gain respectability and social standing. For example, Henry Every's second mate secured the marriage of Governor Markham's own daughter. However, the friendly relations that the colonies had with pirates went in direct defiance of Great Britain's stance. With pirates disrupting global trade, undermining the Navigation Acts, and hurting the pockets of merchants in London, parliament took several measures to crack down on piracy. Due to the discordance regarding the treatment of pirates, divisions began to develop between the colonies and Great Britain regarding the legal system. The legal code regarding piracy was very confusing, and there were two different definitions of piracy for many years. Colonists also felt frustration with this legal code as Great Britain was thousands of miles away and had different interests as them regarding piracy and other matters. Thomas Paine, a former privateer himself, expressed these concerns in his popular pamphlet Common Sense. Due to these issues, colonies started to fashion their own legal system independent of Great Britain and this, combined with their frustrations with their mother country, paved the way for American independence and the Revolutionary War.
Besides cooperating with the colonies in business dealings and indirectly pushing the cause of independence, pirates also directly supported the cause of America. In the American Revolution, without a strong navy available Congress relied on privateers to counteract the British's dominance of the sea. During the siege of Boston at the outset of the Revolutionary War, the British looked to either buy or forcefully take supplies from farmers in the area. Due to the limited amounted of supplies that these efforts produced, the British were then forced to rely on long and tenuous supply lines to Nova Scotia and the West Indies. Recognizing this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety actively encouraged anyone with able ships to privateer and placed no limit on the Letters of Marque (government authorization for pirates to act as privateers) that could be given out. These privateers seized British vessels carrying needed provisions such as food, medical supplies, and coal; arms such as muskets and artillery; and ammunition into Boston with great success and were constantly a thorn in the British's side. One example of this is when the Lee, privateered by Captain John Manly of Marblehead captured the British Nancy. Not only did they seize, according to the Essex Gazette, "three hundred and fifty caldrons of coal" and "a quantity of bale goods", but the Nancy itself was an almost new military ordnance ship with 2000 muskets, 31 tons of musket shot, 30,000 round shot of different sizes, 100,000 musket flints, 11 mortar beds, and a 2,700-pound 13-inch mortar. These efforts by privateers not only made it difficult for the British to provision their soldiers and extend their stay in Boston, but it also supplied the Continental Army and allowed them the possibility of launching a land assault on the city themselves. Recognizing the effectiveness of privateers, a week after the evacuation of Boston the Continental Congress passed the Privateer Act of 1776, expanding privateer operations across the Colonies and authorizing them to attack and capture any and all British ships and the cargo they carried. By the end of the war, nearly 800 commissioned privateer ships had captured or destroyed 600 British vessels causing a damage of $18 million, or $302 million in today's currency.
Just as the cause of true American independence was not won until the War of 1812, privateers would not stop fighting on the side of America at the close of the Revolutionary War. The most famous and widely celebrated partnership between the US and pirates was at the Battle of New Orleans during the end of the War of 1812. Jean Lafitte, with the help of his two older brothers, was the leader of a band of pirates/privateers, numbering over a thousand, who ran their lucrative smuggling business out of Barataria Bay near New Orleans. These men were known as the Baratarians and smuggled goods for citizens of New Orleans who had been hurt by both the Embargo Acts and a British blockade. Prior to the outbreak of the Battle of New Orleans, British Col. Edward Nicholls had approached Lafitte to enlist the Baratarians' help in assaulting the city. In exchange for their assistance, the Baratarians would become British citizens with full pardons, receive land in America, and Lafitte himself would get a bribe of 30,000 British ($2 million today). Despite this, Lafitte sent word to the American authorities of the British' plan and offered his services to assist in the defense of New Orleans. When Andrew Jackson arrived from Mobile, Alabama, he accepted Lafitte's offer. The Baratarians not only provided invaluable ammunition and artillery, but also served as expert cannoneers and scouts and participated in the battle itself. When the battle was won by the Americans, Lafitte and his crew were hailed as heroes by the public and granted full pardons by President James Madison.
While pirates have had an extensive history of furthering the cause of America, either indirectly by pirating or directly as privateers, pirates themselves embodied the cause of America. They represented the ideals of liberty, opportunity, equality, and democracy, oftentimes more so than the United States itself did at the time. The first piece of evidence for this is the motivations that people had for becoming pirates. In the strict social hierarchy of Europe, peasants and the working class not only lived in overcrowded and appalling conditions but had no chance of making a better life of themselves. Piracy provided an avenue for these people to make a fortune and take control of their lives. Many pirates were also former sailors for naval or merchant ships. Conditions on these ships were abominable; sailors were underpaid, under the command of tyrannical officers, and often were pressed into service against their own will by navy "press gangs". In contrast, pirate ships were run democratically by the crew. This was because while merchant ships had outside owners who expected a return on their investment, the crew of a pirate ship were all collective stakeholders themselves in whatever stolen vessel they were sailing on. Pirate ships still had strict discipline and a captain to ensure efficiency and order, but there was a system of checks and balances to keep the captain from being tyrannical as they often were in merchant and naval ships. This came through the position of quartermaster, who oversaw the affairs of the ship and administration. While the captain still had absolute authority in times of battle, they required the cooperation of the quartermaster, the representative of the crew, in other matters. In addition, the position of captain itself was democratically elected and the current captain could be ousted by a majority or consensus of the crew. To ensure that the quartermaster also didn't abuse their position and that there were no scenarios in which their liberty would be infringed upon, pirate crews not only had the position of quartermaster be democratically elected but also created their own constitutions, or articles of agreement. These unanimously consented constitutions had rules regarding things such as a democratic form of government in which crew members had an equal say in affairs, fair and equal distribution of booty amongst the crew and officers, and compensation for injuries sustained in battle. These democratic governments on pirate ships had existed long before the US Constitution was ratified in 1787 and had strong hints of the same republican values that the Founding Fathers were obsessed with. The very nature and foundation of piracy itself — the freedom and ability to do whatever it takes to make a profit on the high seas — also draws parallels with an open and free capitalistic market. Ironically, through what Peter T. Leeson of George Mason University calls "the invisible hook" (a take on Adam Smith's invisible hand metaphor), pirates became social pioneers when out of self-interest they took Black sailors into their crews as equal members, with up to thirty percent of an average pirate crew being Black during the height of the Golden Age of piracy (1715-1726). This is a remarkable development considering slavery was still extremely prevalent in the American colonies at that time, and free Blacks would not obtain equal rights until well over a century later.
In conclusion, as smugglers on the open market trying to make a profit, or as privateers fighting for American independence and autonomy, pirates helped further the cause of America and the ideals it stood for: liberty, equality, opportunity, and democracy. Pirates themselves also championed these values and did so in many of the same ways that the United States would years later. At the same time, pirates pursued these ideals to an extreme and in some ways even surpassed the US. Nonetheless a shift in the immediate values of the country in the 19th century also led to the phasing out and elimination of piracy in America. With the War of 1812 won, and the immediate safety of the country secured, the nation began looking towards its long-term prosperity and security. Marauding pirates that disrupted trade routes would no longer do for a country that had no need for smuggling goods and had a strong navy to enforce its will. With the US placing several naval ships in the Caribbean along with cooperating with countries such as Great Britain, piracy began to die down by the 1830s, and the old liberty-obsessed pirates made way for a new, more order-oriented society that had no place for them any longer.
 Privateers are pirates who have legal authorization from a country to attack and plunder ships from a nation that is at war with that country. The line between piracy and privateering was often blurry, and privateers would often turn on their commissioning country.
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