The man at the heart of Arc of Justice, Ossian Sweet, was born in Florida to parents who were only one generation removed from slavery. Nevertheless, through hard work and luck, they eventually bought a small farm and made sure that their children received the best educations available to them. From this foundation, with no small amount of his own hard work, Ossian became a doctor and built a thriving practice in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. In many ways, then, he exemplifies the American Dream, the idea that, in America, anyone with enough focus and work ethic can pull themselves singlehandedly into success. The house that Ossian buys for his wife Gladys and daughter Iva represents his successful achievement of the American Dream, since it sits in a safe, predominantly white neighborhood a few blocks outside the lines of the rapidly formalizing Black neighborhood.
But Ossian’s story ultimately suggests that the American Dream isn’t accessible to everyone, particularly those who are poor or nonwhite. The very fact that Ossian stands trial at all highlights how his race keeps him from fully achieving the American Dream. Ossian’s academic and professional success doesn’t protect him from the threats and violence of the neighborhood’s white residents; if anything, his superiority in wealth, education, and status seems to enflame their hatred even more. Moreover, his own social elevation depends on some degree of luck in addition to his hard work: his poor eyesight keeps him ineligible for military service in World War I and likely guarantees his admittance to a medical school that would have been too exclusive if many of his competitors weren’t enlisting. And ultimately, the status and wealth that Ossian longed for and worked for don’t bring him the security they promised. They cannot prevent his wife, daughter, or brother Henry from dying prematurely; cannot stop the insidious reach of the color line from creeping ever deeper into Detroit society; cannot help him achieve political success or further the cause of the Black race he believed he represented as a member of its talented tenth. Through Ossian’s story, Arc of Justice shows how a person’s race can prevent them from truly achieving the American Dream.
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The American Dream Quotes in Arc of Justice
No matter how many advantages families along Garland Avenue enjoyed, though, it was always a struggle to hold on. Housing prices had spiraled upward so fearfully the only way a lot of folks could buy a flat or a house was to take on a crippling burden of debt. The massive weight of double mortgages or usurious land contracts threatened to crack family budgets. Men feared the unexpected assault on incomes that at their best barely covered monthly payments […] And now they faced this terrible turn of events: Negroes were moving onto the street, breaking into white man’s territory. News of their arrival meant so many things. A man felt his pride knotted and twisted. Parents feared for the safety of their daughters […] And everyone knew that when the color line was breached, housing values would collapse, spinning downward until Garland Avenue was swallowed into the ghetto and everything was lost.
It took him twelve more years to fulfill his parents’ instructions, a dozen long, hard years of schooling to master the material that would make him an educated man and earn the pride that was expected of the race’s best men, all the while working as a serving boy for white people […] Ossian never excelled, but he got an education, as fine an education as almost any man in America, colored or white, could claim. By age twenty-five, he had earned his bachelor of science degree […] and his medical degree from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, the jewel in the crown of Negro colleges.
So the revolution had come. Eight years earlier, the DeVaughn brothers had been pieces of property. Now they were men who demanded respect: missionaries of the Word, spreading the gospel to their fellow freedmen; aspiring farmers, working to earn a share of the American dream. They were still poor, still landless, still struggling to be equal to whites in fact as well as in name. But they had come so very far, there was every reason to be hopeful […] What must have run through Gilla’s mind as she cradled her granddaughter in her leathery arms? This child wouldn’t be like her babies, who had been born into a world now dead and gone. This child would have a future all her own.
A life in medicine would give Ossian the status he dreamed of—and the money he craved: a doctor could easily take home fifteen hundred dollars a year, an almost unimaginable amount to a young man whose father probably earned a fifth of that figure. If Ossian should rise in the profession, as he intended to do, his income could go even higher […] But it wasn’t the money alone that mattered. A high income would give him the outward signs of success: the dapper clothes he had never had a chance to wear, the fashionable home so different from the farmhouse his father had built. But to be called doctor—Doctor Ossian H. Sweet—that would be the greatest mark of respect he could imagine.
He could demand a new status. Rather than driving his old Model T […] he bought a brand-new Buick touring car, an automobile to match the fine machines of his senior colleagues parked outside Dunbar Memorial. There wasn’t any question that, after his time away, he’d rebuild his practice in Black Bottom. But instead of moving back to Palace Drugs, he rented a space a few blocks north of the pharmacy. It was just a storefront, right next door to a funeral home, hardly a reassuring sight for sick folk making their way to his waiting room, but for the first time in his career, Ossian had an office of his own, an indulgence perhaps, but also a sure sign of upward mobility.
Ossian didn’t have to testify. No one could have objected to his refusing, so great was the responsibility: if he said the wrong word, put the wrong inflection in his voice, sat in a way that struck the jurors as too casual or too confident, grew rattled under cross-examination, succumbed to a single flash of anger, whatever sympathy Darrow and Hays had won for the defendants could be lost, the entire defense destroyed. But Ossian didn’t refuse. Undoubtedly he agreed out of pride—the intoxicating sense that in the past few weeks he had become the representative of his race and the champion of its rights—and, as always, out of obligation. He would do what his lawyers wanted him to do, what his wife and brothers and friends needed him to do, what his colleagues surely expected him to do. He had no choice, really, but to take the stand.
Ossian’s sense of himself soared with all the acclaim. When the Harlem rally was finished, Walter White dispatched the Sweets on a six-day tour of NAACP branches. The association wanted the couple simply to appear at each venue, say a few words of thanks, and stand by quietly while the association’s director of branches […] appealed for contributions. But whenever Ossian saw the people waiting for him […] he began to hold forth like the luminary everyone said he was […] Although he claimed to be no orator, Ossian “thundered” at his audiences, according to the Chicago Defender, trying to impress them with a mix of exaggeration, self-righteousness, and more than a touch of arrogance.