The American Dream: Alive, Dead, or One Foot in the Grave?

Florida and James Evans make a play on "American Gothic".

Florida and James Evans make a play on “American Gothic”.

In a time of increasing public debate on the matter, modern artistic interpretations of American life during the 1970s indicate that the common desire of achieving the American dream remains a viable aspiration for many, yet has become further complicated and cynical by urbanization and its social context.

The television show Good Times follows the lives of a working-class African American family living in the housing projects of inner-city Chicago from 1974 to 1979. Florida and James Evans raise their three teenage children through difficult circumstances, including unemployment, crime, addiction, and poverty, with an overarching tone of sitcom humor.   Each of the children contributes a unique quality to the show; Michael, the youngest, is known as the “militant midget” for his passionate activism, J.J. is a young artist, and Thelma takes on a strong female role as she grows into adulthood.

However, the show began to struggle when conflict arose over the handling of tough issues that proved controversial in a time when Americans were only just beginning to watch an urban-based black sitcom. J.J.’s comic popularity began to rise and with it, an emphasis on his failures and school and woman-chasing, leading some to criticize his performance to a minstrel show. Due to disagreements over the decrease of positive role models featured on the show, both Florida and James are written out of Good Times within the early seasons. The Evans’ only daughter, Thelma, takes the helm after both parents leave the show. She of all characters comes to most embody the realization of the American dream upon marrying a Chicago Bears football player, getting pregnant, and moving to a luxury apartment in upscale Chicago’s Gold Coast district.

Although this sitcom-based rendering of achievement appears to be palatable for any audience demographic in its simplicity, novelists exploring the issue at the same time greatly racialized the path to the American Dream. In John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion, the author suggests that many African Americans looked to members of their own race to contextualize classic notions of opportunity. Matt, “a true and firm believer in all the gods in whom we trust in the Great American Dream: ‘Be ambitious-Work hard-Success is just around the curve-Be prepared when opportunity knocks your door down’-or words to that effect, [he] had taken up the banner of his blackness and carried it all the way from Garvey to Malcolm” (Killens 31). Not only does the novel question the accessibility of achievement, but it exposes the extent to which its economic component may drive the motivations of the civic leaders who claim to champion it. In Matt’s local barbershop, a customer explains, “[t]he beautiful thing about Reverend King-he got all the rich white liberals in his bag. Right? And they like own all the liberal newspapers. […] Public opinion, baby. […] He got them rich white Jews on his side too, Jim” (Killens 31). Thus, Killens problematizes the ability to achieve success based on socioeconomic class much more so than Good Times.

Despite similarities in setting and racial context, Good Times and The Cotillion offer divergent perspectives on the accessibility of the American Dream for urban African Americans, a perspective that is not only informed by their respective creators, but by history and contemporary audiences.

Sources:

Image: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_me7zqvurbA1qzvflgo1_400.jpg

“About Good Times.” TV Land. TV Land, n.d. Web. 20 March 2013. http://www.tvland.com/shows/good-times.

Killens, James Oliver. The Cotillion or One Good Bull Is Half The Herd. St. Paul, MN: Coffee House Press, 1971. Print.

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