Why I Still Have Hope In The American Dream That Failed Me

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Why I Still Have Hope In The American Dream That Failed Me

"Again and again, I have been made to feel not acceptable to the American Dream and expendable." (Photo: PBS News Hour/flickr/cc)

I am in a federal prison in Colorado. While here, I have read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ award-winning book Between the World and Me. Though my background is different from Coates’ (I did not grow up in the mean streets of a large city), I enjoyed reading Between the World and Me because I identify with so much of it. It is also those commonalities which make it rather difficult for me to read. Between the World and Me serves as a reminder and a warning. But most importantly Coates’ book forces us to think about the American Dream, and what hope we have in it. Coates’ book struck a chord with me particularly with his emphasis on the black body. “In America,” he tells his son, “It is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”

I have long known that physical violence to the black body is an ever present specter. My indoctrination came over 35 years ago, when one of my brothers was in a drug-induced stupor in the street in front of my childhood home in small-town Missouri. The police had been called and they showed up in force. My mother was in a fretful state, pleading for my brother to return to safety inside the house. Someone attempted to calm her down by saying that everything was going to be all right, that the police would help. Her answer was so emphatic. “No! They’ll kill him!” My brother was not hurt, but I cried that night. I don’t know if the tears were from the emotions of the night or from the lesson I learned that my body and my brother’s body, our bodies, were subject to “official” physical violence.

I would soon learn that official violence against black bodies comes in many guises. Even if not overtly physical, it is without question destructive. In my case, discrimination, arrest and imprisonment has robbed my black body of a sense and identity by disparate treatment, silencing, erasure, and exclusion from the American Dream. 

Lies of omission

For years, I served my country as a case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency. I was living my American Dream, until I was told that I was too big and too black to do the job. I was passed over for assignments, not provided the tools necessary to do my job, and excluded merely because of the color of my skin. My discrimination suit was dismissed as being a danger to national security and never saw the light of day. After my discrimination suit was eliminated, the very same dangers to the country were used to investigate, prosecute and convict me for allegedly leaking classified information, a crime I did not commit. The result is that I am now in prison, and like so many other black bodies, I have been systematically removed from the American collective. As I have learned, there can be no greater acquiescence to continue destructive practices or attitudes than when they are justified by the law and courts. As Coates points out, it becomes tradition. 

The American Dream has always been something real, honorable and obtainable to me. I didn’t expect it to be handed to me. I expected to be accepted into the American Dream based on my hard work, integrity, belief in and drive for the ideals of equality and inclusion promised to me. I fully bought into and believed in the American Dream. But too often, it is used to support political and nationalistic rhetoric that is necessarily exclusionary. Those not representative of the ideal become expendable. Such an American Dream has no place for the black body, which is treated as mere fodder to feed the anxieties and fears that keep the American Dream strong. Again and again, I have been made to feel not acceptable to the American Dream and expendable.

I believe in and grew up striving for a different, more substantial American Dream than this. Despite all of the destruction I have witnessed and endured, I still believe in America. 

The belief in my country and the promise of equality was all the impetus I needed to say “No!” to official aggression in the form of discrimination and my government’s false accusations against me. Is not standing up for one’s rights guaranteed by law a most precious feature of American democracy?

Coates understands the failures of the Dream that too many are peddling. As he puts it,

There is burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the dream is just, noble and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption, and smelling the sulfur.

But, I still have hope. Yes, the wrong dream for America perpetuates the tradition that destroys the black body. However, I can emphatically state that the sense of self and identity of me and my black body have not been destroyed. I may not be right for the traditional American Dream, but I dream still. The other dreamers who are right for America like the members of the Black Lives Matter movement and others who want to see America as more than a destroyer are saying ‘NO’ to this tradition. They are fighting to make America what it was always supposed to be. The impact of Between the World and Me and the promise it seeks to impart has been spoken of before. Langston Hughes wrote in his poem, “Let America Be America Again”:

...O, Yes

I say it plain

America was never America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!

Jeffrey Sterling

Jeffrey Sterling is a lawyer and former CIA case officer. On January 26, 2015, he was convicted on 9 counts under the Espionage Act for communicating with journalist James Risen. On May 11, 2015 he was sentenced to 42 months with 2 years probation. He is at the Federal Correctional Institution located in Englewood, CO.

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