A lot has changed in the United States since Canadian photographer Ian Brown started an ambitious project in 2006: His plan was to photograph regular Americans in every state and talk to them about what the American Dream meant to them. He was witness to some seminal moments: He was in Chicago on election night in 2008 when hometown boy Barack Obama won the presidency, and he was in East Liverpool, Ohio, when Donald Trump was elected eight years later.
Mr. Brown finished the project last year (the book was supposed to make its debut this past spring but was delayed because of COVID-19). What struck him most over those 13 years of photographing Americans was the profound divisiveness of the phrase “the American Dream.”
James Truslow Adams coined it in a 1931 book, The Epic of America, and since then, it has been used by countless corporations and politicians to sell products and win votes. But, as Mr. Brown found, what it actually means to the average American differs depending on what state – and even what county – you’re in.
“As a Canadian, I’ve always been curious about the American identity. And the more I travelled there, the more I realized that most Americans don’t have one idea about their identity,” Mr. Brown says. “And so what’s happened with COVID doesn’t surprise me at all. COVID revealed that it’s not the United States. In fact, Americans are very different and very regional.”
Mr. Brown attributes that regionality to the seasons. “Here in Canada, we all prepare for spring the same way. We all experience winter and are grateful for summer. But in the U.S., someone in Florida has no idea what someone in Minnesota goes through in the winter, and so in many ways we are way more united here than Americans are – someone in B.C. understands someone in Ontario.” In the U.S., that’s just not the case. “They exist in regions,” he says. “And in red states, the American Dream is the freedom to do something – whether it’s carrying a gun or not wearing a mask. In blue states, it’s the freedom from oppression or racism or gun violence.”
This month, Mr. Brown went back to ask some of his subjects who were photographed earlier if their dreams had changed. For some, their hopes for the future have shifted, while for others, the pandemic has only intensified those first ideas of what they imagine the American Dream to be.
Nicole Hockley, Newtown, Conn.
My American Dream in 2019: After living in England, I moved back to the U.S. so my sons could live the American Dream. Instead, less than two years later, they were both in school on 12/14/12 at Sandy Hook Elementary when a disturbed young man broke into the school and brutally murdered my beautiful baby boy Dylan – shot to death in his 1st Grade classroom. Now, my dream for America, is to be a country where no child ever experiences the devastation of school shootings. My mission is to make that dream a reality.
My dream today: I continue to shed light on gun violence and bring awareness to all the issues around it.
Soo Chun, New York, N.Y.
My American Dream in 2008: I’ve searched my whole life trying to discover the meaning of being American. I emigrated to the U.S. when I was 2, with my non-English-speaking, factory-working, welfare-receiving, traditional Korean parents. I have vivid memories of my broken home – tantrums of my alcoholic father and sadness of my mother and baby sister. Education was a way to escape from my childhood. I joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa, then pursued a graduate degree in public policy. My American dream is to build the home I never had.
My dream today: In many ways, I am definitely living my American Dream. I have a successful career, I have a beautiful family, and am financially, emotionally and mentally stable. But, 2020 has turned out to be such a unique year, with its own challenges. My children are half-Black, half-Asian – how will the world see them? The pandemic and racial strife is so stressful, but it’s made me so thankful. I feel blessed as my husband and I have secure jobs, our family is healthy and we have been able to shelter from home. My American Dream is now that we don’t forget where we come from, we don’t forget to help each other and that we continue to be kind to one another.
Vicky Chavez, Salt Lake City, Utah
My American Dream in 2019: I am from Honduras. I came to the United States in 2014, when my daughter was two years old. I left Honduras to escape the terrible violence. My American Dream is for my daughters to live in a country where they are safe from violence and abuse. My American Dream is to demonstrate to my daughters that they can have a future of opportunity. My American Dream is to be able to stay together with all my family, the members of the church and all the community that support us so far.
My dream today: It is the same and I’m more determined than ever to make it true.
Megan Crane, Flint, Mich.
My American Dream in 2016: For my boyfried, Zach, and me, the American Dream has always centred around one thing – community roots. We both grew up in northern Michigan, children of the working poor. We found each other in Flint, and when we discovered that home ownership was a mutual dream, it made sense to look for a home here, so we could put down roots. We drank the water, bathed and brushed our teeth in it, we gave it to our cats and put it in our humidifier. By the time they finally told us about the [water] contamination, our cats had lost half their fur. Zach had been hospitalized for double pneumonia, cause unknown. I’d lost 60 pounds due to intense stomach pains. We’ve both been plagued by rashes and burning skin. They gave us poison and lied to us about it. My dream has evolved. Flint’s water crisis isn’t just Flint. Towns across the country have been dealing with the same contamination issues for years. Clean tap water is a human right and I will continue to fight until everyone has access to it.
My dream today: Zach passed away about three years ago. He actually overdosed. He’d had an opiate addiction for decades and just remained functional. He caught pneumonia and it compromised his lung function and he passed away 12/27/17. I’m still on the south side of Flint, only now I’m the cook at a bar on the east side called AJ Racers. I’ve been the only cook up till recently. It has been a hard year.
Toni Holt Kramer, Palm Beach, Fla.
My American Dream in 2017: Since Election Day, I am happy, enthusiastic and more relaxed. I believe there are so many people across the entire USA that feel the same way. My American Dream is to see our country thriving again. The things that matter to me, and still do, include a country like the one I grew up in where I felt safe going to a movie theatre or a mall. The incredible barbaric behaviour of the past years without ever labelling it correctly is not acceptable to me. Consequently, the Trumpettes USA was born Sept. 19, 2015, with three like-minded best friends. We were determined to get him behind the desk at the Oval Office. Mission accomplished! We now have a new wave of young college students taking an interest.
My dream today: COVID has hurt or destroyed the lives and businesses of so many. Especially after the President had worked so hard to bring the economy to the best it had been in 50 years. But, what is certainly up there in major disasters is to witness the demise of law and order! A country without that cannot survive the uninformed fools who are trying to destroy America.
Chase LaCoste (left), Kentwood, La.
My American Dream in 2018: In my opinion, I think the American Dream is that all people should be equal. No matter if you’re Black or white. During slavery and Jim Crow, whites controlled African-Americans. The whites had better schools, homes and rights. African-Americans hated that whites controlled and owned us as slaves. African-American people wanted to put an end to it. As an African-American young boy in America, I see other African-American males getting shot and killed by white police. I just hope I can live to be a Black man. Two main things you should always have is freedom and liberty.
My American Dream today: To grow up to be a Black man.
Justin Lansford, Tampa, Fla.
My American Dream in 2016: I served two tours overseas with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. On my second deployment, I was severely injured in combat. I proudly served our country and willingly poured sweat and blood defending and protecting a single idea, “the American Dream.” It’s funny because until now I’ve never actually thought about what exactly that dream means to me. I’ve seen places in the world where people don’t have the luxury of dreams. Places where an individual’s sole purpose is to stay alive, and where even that is done in constant fear of those around them. Here in America, we have the ability to live for something much greater, and the best part – we can choose what that something is. In the United States, we truly are free. Free to set our own goals, free to succeed, free to fail. The opportunity in this country is such that the only obstacle between us and our goals is ourselves.
Jordyn Taylor, Cleveland, Ohio
My American Dream in 2016: I am Black. I am a woman. Those are the only two things that I absolutely cannot change about myself. As a Black woman, my dream is to have a dream worth dreaming. My dream is to have a dream that is valid in the eyes of each and every individual that bears witness to it. Right now, in the current state of America, everything about who I am is under attack. I don’t want to protest for my right to exist. My dream is that instead of saying, “This is who I hate,” we can ask, “What can I find to love about this person?” My dream is that the citizens of this country will wake up every single day, disarm themselves of disgust and ask, “Whose shoes can I walk in today?” When we can do that, when we can seek understanding, when we can do things from a place of love, when we can realize that kindness has no prerequisites ... maybe I will have time for bigger dreams.
My dream today: My dream is still the same and sadly even more relevant today than back in 2016.
Ben Baker, Ashburn, Georgia
My American Dream in 2015: What is the American Dream? Success? A house to own? Freedom? Happiness? How about instead of an adverb or a noun, a verb. Try. The American Dream is try. Try to be happy. Try to be successful. Try to buy a house. Try to preserve freedom. Try to do a try is the American Dream. This great nation allows everyone to try. Try a new food. Try a book. Try to change the oppressive system. Try to keep the status quo. Try embodies effort, opportunity and even chance. The U.S. is the #1 nation in the world for immigration. People know they can try in the U.S.
My dream today: My goal has not changed. I still try. I am on a food bank board in town and every Thursday we have a huge food giveaway. We were making small purchases from the regional food bank warehouse when one of the guys asked if we could take several pallets of fresh foods, free. He said if we did not take it, it’d get tossed. The stuff would not last the weekend in the warehouse. We said yes. Now, every Thursday morning, we head to Tifton to the warehouse with pickups and long trailers and we bring back literally tons of food. Last week was 5,500 pounds.
How does this fit with my American Dream? We tried to help people in dire need of food. Because of our efforts, we got rewarded with the opportunity to do so much more. We tried. As COVID-19 runs rampant, nothing has changed for me, except the damned disease killed my momma in May. Now, I try to help people in her memory as well.
Jan Morgan, Hot Springs, Arkansas
My American Dream in 2017: Most people might describe the American Dream in terms of career success, monetary wealth or accumulation of “things.” For me, it is not that simple. My American Dream is to wake up one day to discover I no longer have to fight. My dream is a victorious end to the constant attacks on our Constitution and Bill of Rights by our own citizens and an out-of-control government. Our founders envisioned this internal war that many citizens today fail to see or refuse to fight. As he was leaving the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a group of citizens what sort of government our delegates had created. His response was, “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Though our founders succeeded in establishing a constitutional republic, Franklin knew, keeping it would be an ongoing challenge, dependent on active and informed involvement of the people. Too many Americans are not active, informed, or involved in vigilant oversight of our government, which has become a cesspool of corruption. My battle zone is the Second Amendment.
Michael Singleton and Toya Graham, Baltimore
My American Dream in 2015: (Toya Graham) My American Dream is to own a beautiful luxury house and still be working until I am 65 years old, see all my children have success in life and watch my grand-baby grow up to be a beautiful young lady.
My American Dream in 2015: (Michael Singleton) My American Dream is to finish school, own a luxury house, a happy family with enough money to take care of my family and I want to be able to give back to my community.
These profiles have been edited and condensed from American Dreams: Portraits & Stories of a Country by Ian Brown (Penguin Random House Canada).
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