When I was a little girl I always thought that All-American or the Girl Next Door equaled White. It never occurred to me that it could be me. Growing up in the 70s, there were very few Black images that represented American culture. There were Black images that I didn’t relate to and that the media wouldn’t categorize as living the American dream.
I saw images of Good Times, a family living in the projects, and struggling financially. I happened to have loved the show, because the family had two Black parents, just like I did. But because they were depicted as over-exaggerated characters, it was just entertainment to me. I never equated those images with the American dream. James and Florida, working together doing the best that they could to provide for their children, just like my parents, wasn’t what I perceived the American dream to be. To be fair, I was a child, and I thought like a child. My rationale, at the time was colored by a White lens. I lived in a little country town in Minnesota. All my friends were White. All my neighbors were White. Most of T.V. was White. White perspectives were superimposed into my brain. American meant White. So, the dream was also White.
Now let me be clear, I never, ever wanted to be White. I liked my skin. I always liked being different. I remember in the 3rd grade wearing a big puffy pink skirt to school, just on a random non-important day. This little chocolate girl, who stood out anyway, was the focus of so many more comments that day. My mother gave me that confidence, she always made sure I wore the best outfits. They weren’t expensive but they looked good. AND, she would let me wear whatever I wanted. She told me “you are going to be different anyway, might as well look good!” I loved expressing myself with clothes. This is because my hair wasn’t like their hair. My nose wasn’t like their noses. My lips weren’t like their lips. My clothes could be like theirs, but I didn’t want them to be. Since I couldn’t be All-American or the Girl Next Door, I was going to be me, to the 10th power.
At some point, I started watching Mary Tyler Moore, and I started thinking differently. Mary Tyler Moore was classified as an All-American girl next door, that broke barriers by staying single, living on her own in an apartment, and working full-time. She spoke her mind. At times she put her boss in his place. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore. Ironically, I desperately wanted to live an apartment, (something that I still have never done). I wanted the American dream that I saw on screen, created by a White woman. She wasn’t a housewife. She didn’t bake cookies. She didn’t have a husband. She had a career.
Now, 30 years later, with a much clearer lens. Living in Milwaukee, with Black people making up more than 42% of the population, I see the American dream differently. While, it may have taken a White woman to get me to see that I could be apart of the American dream, it was my Black parents that brought me back to Milwaukee for it to be fulfilled. I now see that James and Florida were the epitome of the American dream as well. The American dream isn’t about color. Or circumstance. The American dream simply is the freedom to create a life for yourself and your children, even if it is already good. James and Florida did that.
There wasn’t anything extravagant about Mary Tyler Moore’s life either. It wasn’t about that. It was about freedom. It was about living outside of barriers. I am not a journalist working in Minneapolis. I don’t live in an apartment. But I am the girl next door. A brown girl, in Milwaukee. Living with her kids, and her grand kids. Working on finding her next career move. Freely, expressing herself. Living beyond the barriers. I am the American dream.