While the “American Dream” remains a stereotyped ideal of success in the back of all Americans’ minds, in reality it takes on a varied definition for each individual. I always imagine the American Dream consisting of immigrants, rags-to-riches and achieving success through hard work. In reality though, that is not how the American Dream has manifested itself in my family.
On my mom’s side, I am the first-born American, as her family is from Canada. My grandfather grew up on a farm and a single mother raised my grandmother. They live comfortably now and came from backgrounds where they had to work hard for what they earned.
My dad’s side is where it gets slightly more interesting. I am 3rd generation American. My great grandfather immigrated to America from Poland in the early 1900s. He came with a suitcase and little to no English speaking skills. By the time my grandmother was born in 1928, he owned a candy factory and was to become the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He went on to own the radio station WDAS where my grandfather worked as general manager. The station worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the advancement of civil rights.
My grandmother eventually owned a jewelry magazine; my aunt and uncle own a contracting company; my parents own a small community newspaper. With such great achievements in my personal history, it is ingrained in me that the American Dream is to be independent in business and life. Success is found through owning one’s own business and striving to do good for the community.
My version of the American Dream differs greatly from that of the Migrant Mother’s. As Florence Thompson was struggling during the Great Depression, the main goal was to keep her family fed and alive. When her children achieved enough success to buy her a house, she refused because she, “need[s] to have wheels” under her.
Thompson’s American Dream differs from the norm and mine as she actually refused to own a house. Ownership is a huge part of what makes up America and being American. From the beginning, explores came to America to obtain land and power. When pioneers ventured out West, they hoped to own land and obtain new wealth. In the 1950’s when suburbs were exploding, people dreamed of owning homes, cars and innovative appliances to make their lives better. The American Dream of ownership can take any shape or form, but remains constant throughout history.
Thompson’s refusal of the typical American Dream represents an entire segment of Americans who cannot find success through traditional means. Thompson worked hard her entire life and barely had anything to show for it at the end, besides of course the survival of her family. The problem that many impoverished Americans face is the endless cycle of never receiving the chance to break free from poverty, a problem that the archetypical American Dream simply cannot solve.
(Photograph from family records. My grandfather Bob Klein is second from the right, to the right of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. along with other important members of the community. Early 1960s.)