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American Dream Essay

The American Struggle
Artists often use their work as a form of expression. Whether it is through music or
literature, there is meaning to the work. Furthermore, the time period from which the work
comes can impact the meaning behind an artist's work. One topic of interest to many artists over
the years includes the American Dream. The notion of the American Dream has existed in
society for many years, although the interpretation of what the American Dream entails has
evolved with society. Generally, the American Dream can be defined as the belief that anyone,
regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own
version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone (Barone). In
America, there is an abundance of diversity as the country was built by immigrants. Due to the
level of diversity and the well known history of racial inequality and segregation in America,
many individuals have faced barriers in achieving the American Dream. The struggles faced in
American society have not created an equal opportunity for all. Works by Walt Whitman,
Langston Hughes, Joyce Carol Oates, Childish Gambino and Rihanna all reflect on the meaning
of the American Dream throughout the years ranging from 1860 until 2018.
In the 1860’s, Walt Whitman published the original poem “I Hear America Singing”.
During this time period, the Civil War was a prominent event where America became a divided
country. Despite the fact that Walt Whitman wrote the poem during a time of division among the
country, Whitman writes of America being a peaceful place. Whitman uses the symbolism of
singing to convey the idea of harmony and a sense of joy. Whitman envisions life in America
through his writing, and includes people of all different fields of work. Mechanics, carpenters,
masons, shoemakers, the boatman, the wood-cutter, the mother and the young wife all represent
different groups from society. Males, females and those from different classes are included in
Whitman's interpretation of America. Although all the people included in the poem are doing
different things in their life, they all have one thing in common, which is that they are singing.
Singing represents the joy and pride each individual takes in how they are actively taking part in
society. When Whitman states, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else”, he
emphasizes individuality and how all Americans can find a sense of belonging through their
work (9). In Walt Whitman’s interpretation of the American Dream, all individuals are in a
different line of work and doing something different, yet singing together while seeking their
own goals.
All members of society are seen as being equally important in their duties by Whitman.
Each individual is also described as working hard in their endeavors. Whitman conveys the idea
that each American is hard working through his choice of words. Whitman uses action verbs to
describe each individual is actively doing something. Since Whitman uses action verbs, the
reader can better picture each individual as being motivated in their work. When the carpenter
“measures his plank or beam” (2) or the girl who is “sewing and washing” (8), Whitman uses his
choice of words to show that Americans are not lazy in their work. Not only are the individuals
motivated, but they are enjoying their work which is shown by the fact that they are all singing.
The individuals in Whitman's poem all are depicted as working hard towards the American
Dream, together in song yet separately in their endeavors.
Similar in title to Walt Whitman's poem “I Hear America Singing” is Langston Hughes
“I, Too, Sing America” from 1925. Immediately, the poem can be recognized as a response to
Walt Whitman's poem of an earlier time. Whitman and Hughes have different notions of the
American Dream due to the racial inequality faced by Hughes, and not by Whitman. Though it is
unknown if it was an intentional omission, Whitman failed to mention African Americans in his
poem. Hughes identifies himself as the “darker brother” (2). Despite the challenges faced by
Hughes due to his race, he shows his resilience. Hughes refuses to let obstacles get in his way of
being an American, “But I laugh / and eat well / and grow strong” (5-7). The tone Hughes chose
to use brings a sense of hardship and challenge, as opposed to Whitman's melodic and optimistic
Langston Hughes notion of the American Dream revolves around race and inequality.
Hughes emphasizes the challenges African Americans face based on race in America, as opposed
to working a job to attain the American Dream. Without equality, it is much harder for African
Americans to attain the American Dream. The American Dream during this time period can be
thought of as to be attainable by only White men. Despite Hughes being an African American, he
considers himself as being as much of an American as a White man. Hughes also sings like the
White men, although he is treated much differently. The poem is a very personal poem, as
Hughes chose to use the pronoun “I” in the poem, signifying that he is the speaker. Hughes also
uses the pronoun “they” to refer to the majority of White men in America, who view him as an
outsider for being a Black man. “They send me to eat in the kitchen” Hughes states (3). “They'll
see how beautiful I am”, Hughes expresses his beauty although he is different from the majority
(16). The resilience and determination by Langston Hughes is apparent throughout the poem
because of his tone and word choice.
Joyce Carol Oates poem “Dreaming America” from 1975 analyzes the American Dream
as something that has failed. Oates presents America as a place that lost its beauty, and
destruction has taken over. The evolution of America is apparent in Oates poem. The opening of
Oates poem, “When the two-lane highway was widened / the animals retreated” (2) uses the
symbolism of the highway as the American Dream evolves, pushing out the inhabiting life. The
connection between the earth around us and the American Dream is important. The country has
changed, and Oates sees this as a negative. The urbanization of America does not support the
dream. Fields are being destroyed and there is little regard for other life forms that are hurting
from the selfishness of humanity. “When the cornfields were bulldozed / the farmhouses at their
edges turned into shanties” (14-15) Oates emphasizes the devastation of the demolition. The
industrialization and development of America creates a society that focuses on material items,
losing sight of what once was important to preserve. When Oates states, “Where did the country
go? - cry the travelers, soaring / past. Where did the country go? - ask the strangers. / The
teenager never ask” (31-33) she makes the point that teenagers cannot see what has happened as
this is the life they are born into. The teenagers will grow up with no regards to or appreciation
for nature. Teenagers and the youth of America will learn to follow a materialistic dream. The
direction in which America is headed is seen as a failure in the American Dream, because of the
destruction of nature while chasing an urban dream.
Joyce Carol Oates uses her tone and symbolism to effectively convey her notion of the
American Dream. Oates' tone remains solemn throughout the poem. There is no sense of
enthusiasm or delight in her writing. There is a sense of disappointment given through the tone.
In “Dreaming America” Joyce Carol Oates compares the gas station signs to eyeballs on stalks:
The Sunoco and Texaco and Gulf signs competed
on hundred-foot stilts
like eyeballs on stalks
white optic-nerves. (19-22)
Her comparison takes the new, illuminated signs comparing them to what used to stand in its
place. Prior to the development of the gas stations and their signs, there were stalks in the field,
which used to be of great value to society. The stalks of a plant with an eyeball on top would
resemble the life form of what used to exist in place of the gas station. The gas station has
ultimately taken the place of the life that used to inhabit the land. Furthermore, gas stations
represent harm being done to the environment. Oates uses her creative language and comparison
to present the changes in society that have harmed the environment, which Americans used to
In more recent years, song lyrics by artists Childish Gambino and Rihanna have
highlighted the modern interpretation of the American Dream. Music videos for the songs “This
Is America” by Childish Gambino and “American Oxygen” by Rhianna also visually represent
modern interpretations of the American Dream. Both artists show the harsh reality of the
challenges that come with chasing the American Dream. Although according to the American
Dream upward mobility is supposed to be possible for all regardless of race, class or immigration
status, this idea falsely leads one to believe there has always been equality. Certain groups, such
as minorities in America, have had to fight relentlessly to keep their freedom and promote
Childish Gambino released his hit song and music video “This Is America” in 2018. The
song opens up with a gospel choir, without any special meaning to the lyrics. However, the
gospel choir symbolizes Blacks in America as it originated in Black churches in the Southern
United States. Following the introduction of the gospel choir, Gambino starts the song off with
the lyrics:
We just wanna party
Party just for you
We just want the money
Money just for you
These lyrics highlight some of the basic American desires, including socializing and making
money. When Gambino says “we” he is referring to the Black population, and when he says
“you”, he may be referring to the White population. The White population historically had more
than Blacks due to segregation and racism. Gambino highlights the differences between Blacks
and Whites, and how Blacks were denied these basic freedoms to socialization and money
historically. Later on in the song, the gospel choir returns and sings the lyrics “Grandma told me
Get your money, black man”. Gambino is emphasizing the motivation and drive for Black men
to be financially successful and attain a living. Although he is inspired to make money and be
successful, Gambino emphasizes his status in America regardless of his success with the lyrics
“You just a black man in this world, You just a barcode, ayy, You just a black man in this world”.
Race and inequality is apparent in America. Historically, and even in today's society
racial inequalities persist. In addition to Gambinos lyrics, the music video that accompanies the
song represents America as a place of inequality and injustice. At the end of Gambinos music
video, Gambino is shown running from the police, after he was seen smoking a joint. This
symbolizes the injustice faced by Black men in America for a seemingly small crime. Gambinos
tone is sad and dark, highlighting gun violence as one of the main themes. Gun violence is well
known to have plagued the Black community, especially at the hands of the police. “This is
America, Guns in my area” Gambino emphasizes. America is not glorified as the land of the
free. Overall, Childish Gambino presents the American Dream as an obstacle for Black
Americans due to gun violence, racism and police brutality.
In 2015, Rihanna released her song “American Oxygen”. In contrast to Childish
Gambino's “This Is America”, Rihanna maintains a mellow tone which conveys a less harsh
message. Rihanna’s tone remains empathetic and somber in “American Oxygen”. Throughout
her music video, multiple videos are put together to accurately portray the true diversity in
America. Rihanna does not solely focus on race as a theme, as she includes videos of homeless
Americans and events such as 9/11, American soldiers and American astronauts. The overall
notion of the American Dream in Rihanna’s “American Oxygen” is concerned with the fight for
freedom and equality. Barack Obama being sworn into office and Martin Luther King’s life and
funeral are important to the history of America, which positively shaped the country, and were
included in her video. Rihanna highlights the struggles of achieving the American dream, when
she sings “"Every breath I breathe / Chasin' this American Dream / We sweat for a nickel and a
dime". One must work hard to achieve their American Dream, which we are all chasing.
Throughout the years, although there has been inequality and a lack of freedom for minorities,
Rihanna conveys the message that we must keep our freedom and equality that we worked hard
to achieve. “This is the new America / We are the new America” Rihanna proudly sings at the
end of the song. In the music video, as she sings the prior lyrics, Whites and Blacks are shown to
be helping one another in times of need. Black and White children are also shown playing
together. Rihanna effectively emphasizes that we have worked hard for our freedoms as a nation,
and must continue to keep fighting racism and for civil rights.
Throughout the years, it is clear that the American Dream has evolved. Each artist
interprets the American Dream through their own eyes and experiences as well, providing unique
and diverse points of view on the American Dream. The differences in how each artist presents
the notion of the American Dream also impacts the meaning of the work, by changing the tone,
using words selectively, and through the use of symbolism. Despite all the obstacles chasing the
American Dream, America is still a desirable country, and many people attempt to immigrate to
the country. Living in America is not as easy as the definition of the American Dream makes it
out to be. The artists make it clear that one must work hard to achieve their dreams. Challenges
with racial disparities still exist in society, although we have come a long way over the past
Works Cited
Barone, Adam. “What Is the American Dream?” Investopedia, Investopedia, 30 Dec. 2021,
ChildishGambinoVEVO. “Childish Gambino - This Is America (Official Video).” YouTube,
YouTube, 5 May 2018,
Hughes, Langston. “I, Too, Sing America” 1925.
Mamo, Heran. “Here Are the Lyrics to Childish Gambino's 'This Is America'.” Billboard, 6 June
Oates, Carol J. “Dreaming America” 1975.
RihannaVEVO. “Rihanna - American Oxygen.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Apr. 2015,
Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing” 1900.