American Street follows Fabiola, a 16-year-old Haitian American girl. Just before the novel begins, Fabiola and her mother, Manman, passed through customs as they entered the United States—but while Fabiola is a U.S. citizen and was allowed through, Manman isn’t a citizen and so was detained. Over the course of the novel, as Fabiola settles in Detroit with her aunt and cousins, she tries very hard get Manman out of the detention facility, all the while learning about her family’s decades-long struggle to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place. As a book about immigrants, American Street focuses on the reasons why people try to immigrate to the U.S. While the novel makes it clear that people often immigrate in the hopes of finding dignity and pursuing their version of the American Dream, it suggests that the American Dream might not exist at all.
Fabiola arrives in the U.S. with big hopes for herself and for Manman—hopes that the novel suggests are normal and understandable but nevertheless misguided. Prior to arriving in the U.S., Fabiola believed that she and Manman would be able to integrate seamlessly into Matant Jo’s household. Fabiola expected that she’d be able to get a good education for free, and that Manman would be able to find honest work that would give her a sense of purpose and dignity—things that, for the most part, were inaccessible in Haiti. But because of the way that Fabiola’s family members in the U.S. talked about their lives, Fabiola had no way of knowing her dreams were unattainable. Through phone calls and her cousins’ Facebook feeds, Fabiola only saw lives that seemed better than her own: her cousins could afford food, clothing, and a good education thanks to Matant Jo’s job.
But as Fabiola settles in with Aunt Jo and her cousins Chantal, Pri, and Donna, she discovers that being in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee stability, economic success, or a quality education. Fabiola finds this out as she learns more about her family history. Her uncle, Phillip, was the first family member to immigrate to the United States. The narrator suggests that Phillip wasn’t so different from many immigrants: he came to seek the American Dream in Detroit, the car manufacturing capital of America. And like so many before him, he was enchanted when he discovered a house for sale on the corner of American Street and Joy Road—a house that he believed would offer him “American joy.” But, in Fabiola’s experience, living in the house at 8800 American Street offers her anything but “American joy.” Living here, she learns that Matant Jo doesn’t do the kind of honest work that Fabiola expected—Matant Jo is a loan shark. Chantal, who’s 19 and wildly intelligent, feels like her only choice given Matant Jo’s recent stroke is to attend the local community college while caring for her mother and sisters. And Pri and Donna are both unhappy in their own ways. Almost nothing Fabiola finds in the U.S. lives up to her expectations, and the simple fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains Manman makes it clear to Fabiola that her dreams may be just as unattainable in the U.S. as they were in Haiti. If Fabiola can’t have the person she loves the most with her, the American Dream seems less and less attainable.
As disappointed and disillusioned as Fabiola is with life in Detroit, her family members and community members are nevertheless seeking the American Dream in the only ways they can, given the circumstances. Because Fabiola’s family members are Black immigrants, they face a combination of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S., which affects their job opportunities. Phillip came to Detroit to work in auto factories, but he eventually turned to selling drugs on the side when he wasn’t making enough at his job—something he had to do to feed his growing family, but that also resulted in his murder about a decade before the novel begins. Similarly, Matant Jo’s job as a loan shark is something she took on because there was nothing else she could do in the aftermath of her husband’s death, when she found herself supporting three small children on her own. She took the dangerous and shady job out of necessity after losing all hope when Phillip died—and she sees her recent stroke as a physical manifestation of that hopelessness. The hopelessness that Fabiola notices in her aunt and cousins suggests that believing in the American Dream can only take a person so far, especially when a person loses everyone they hold dear to them. With this, the novel suggests that the pursuit of the American Dream most often results not in success but in hopelessness and the loss of loved ones. The hope, dignity, and happiness it promises are myth, not reality.
Dignity and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Dignity and the American Dream Quotes in American Street
And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where this good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
Ma named us Primadonna and Princess ‘cause she thought being born in America to a father with a good-paying job at a car factory and a house and a bright future meant that we would be royalty. But when our father got killed, that’s when shit fell apart.
This is your home now, Fabiola. This is Phillip’s house—the house he bought with the last bit of money he had from Haiti. He had dreams, you know. That’s why when he saw this house for sale, on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, he insisted on buying it with the cash from his ransacked and burned-to-the-ground car dealership in Port-au-Prince. He thought he was buying American Joy.
I look all around the restaurant. “But this is your job,” I say.
She inhales and looks around, too. “Yes, it is. But our work is not without the help of good American citizens like yourself. You are an American citizen, right?”
“But I ain’t no kingpin, know what I’m saying? So it’s just favors here and there. Shit you do for fam.”
A cold chill travels up my spine. Shit you do for fam. The way he says it, it’s like he would do anything for his family, like for love and respect. I say it out loud. “Shit you do for fam.” I turn to him.
“Shit you do for fam,” he repeats.
“On American Street, I will live with my aunt Jo and my cousins, and go to school, and have a cute boyfriend, and keep my mouth shut because in Haiti I learned not to shake hands with the devil. But on Joy Road, I will tell the truth. The truth will lead to my happiness, and I will drive long and far without anything in my way, like the path to New Jersey, to my mother, to her freedom, to my joy. Which road should I take, Papa Legba?”
Creole and Haiti stick to my insides like glue—it’s like my bones and muscles. But America is my skin, my eyes, and my breath. According to my papers, I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m not a citizen. I’m a “resident alien.” The borders don’t care if we’re all human and my heart pumps blood the same as everyone else’s.
But I don’t want to look like a church lady. I still want to look...good. So I take off my mother’s church dress and put on a plain sweatshirt that belongs to Chantal and a pair of new jeans. I wear the Air Jordans that Pri picked out for me, but I keep my hairstyle. Now I don’t look so...Haitian. So immigrant.
“You did well in Haiti with my money. You think I was going to let my sister rot in the countryside with a new baby in her hands?”
“We prayed for you. When I was a young girl and I couldn’t even understand anything, I knew that it was my job to pray for my aunt and cousins because it was the only reason my papers said that I am American. We were grateful for that, not just for the money.”
“Catholic school for all three of us out here was just pennies. But your ass over there in Haiti cost her like twenty Gs every year. Your school, money for your mom, your clothes. Hell, all this time, Ma thought y’all were building a mansion near the beach and she swore she’d go back down there to retire.
“But she’s getting sick. We don’t want her to do this loan-sharking shit anymore. Money was running out. We still gotta live, Fab. We still gotta breathe. Money’s just room to breathe, that’s all.”
I used to stare at that address whenever those white envelopes with the blue-and-red-striped edges would make their way to our little house in Port-au-Prince. I’d copy the address over and over again, 8800 American Street, because this house was my very first home. But for three short months only. This house is where I became American. This house is the one my mother and I prayed for every night, every morning, and during every ceremony: 8800 American Street.
So in 2000, Jean-Phillip François, the Haitian immigrant and the first occupant to actually land a job at a car factory—the Chrysler plant—paid the city three thousand dollars in cash for that little house on American Street.
And maybe because the little house had been revived with the sounds of babies and the scent of warm meals and love and hopes and dreams, Death woke from its long sleep to claim the life of Haitian immigrant and father of three Jean-Phillip François with a single bullet to the head outside the Chrysler plant.
Death parked itself on the corner of American and Joy, some days as still as stone, other days singing cautionary songs and delivering telltale riddles, waiting for the day when one girl would ask to open the gates to the other side.
How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or a neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points at the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.
I want to say sorry to Chantal. I want to ask her why, with all that money, they never bought a house here. I want to ask her why, with all her brains, is she selling drugs.
It’s war out here, son. If my pops and his pops before him been fighting all their lives to just fucking breathe, then what’s there for a little nigga to contemplate when somebody puts a gun in his hands?
We are all in white. Even Pri has shed her dark clothes and now wears a white turtleneck and pants. I had wrapped my cousins and aunt in white sheets after making a healing bath of herbs and Florida water for each one, and let them curl into themselves and cry and cry. This is what Manman had done for our neighbors who survived the big earthquake. The bath is like a baptism, and if black is the color of mourning, then white is the color of rebirth and new beginnings.