What both the Edwards and Jonga families have in common is a mutual need to feel a sense of belonging, as well as their reliance on family to foster that sensibility. The Jongas remain anchored in an unfamiliar land by remaining closely connected to friends and family from Cameroon, particularly Jende’s cousin, Winston. Conversely, Cindy Edwards exhibits increasingly erratic and unstable behavior as her family drifts apart, starting with her eldest son, Vince’s decision to leave for India, and culminating in her discovery of her husband Clark’s infidelities with prostitutes. In Behold the Dreamers, family is key in facilitating some feeling of security among the Jongas, even when they are at their lowest points, while the absence of family ties results in unease, and even destruction, among the privileged Edwards family.
Cindy Edwards’s obsession with keeping her family together arises from her need to create and sustain the family she never had. Cindy was born as a result of rape; knowing that she was the result of her mother’s trauma, which included being forced to carry Cindy to term, Cindy tried, unsuccessfully, to get her mother to love and accept her. Instead, her mother projected her anger and hurt onto Cindy, who, resembling her mother’s rapist, became an easy target for her wrath. Cindy’s fruitless attempts to forge bonds with her mother and her half-sister, who was born as a result of their mother’s marriage, reveal the need to have a sense of family, even in circumstances in which once ostracism has been predetermined.
Cindy’s inability to repair the fault of her birth results in her trying to create the life and the family that she always wanted. She lifts herself out of poverty by marrying Clark and legitimizes her existence by dedicating herself to marriage and the rearing of children. When Vince leaves and Clark commits infidelity, she regards their actions as signs of her own failure to create a meaningful life. She is once again relegated to feeling as though her efforts to create a new family were just as futile as her initial efforts to love her mother and sister. Cindy’s death is a direct result of drug and alcohol abuse, but it is an indirect result of feeling powerless to generate the life that she wants.
Cindy’s pain reverberates to her son, Mighty, who finds the love and care that he needs among the Jongas. During the Edwards’s summer vacation in the Hamptons, Neni Jonga serves as Mighty’s nanny and, as a result, becomes a surrogate maternal figure for the ten-year-old boy. It’s at the Hamptons house where Neni overhears Cindy and Clark arguing about Clark’s seeming indifference toward his family. It is also where Neni first notices that Cindy abuses substances to cope with her feelings of alienation. Cindy insists that she’s been “a perfectly good mother,” though, ironically, it is Neni who spends the most time with Mighty in the Hamptons—“playing video games with him, and tucking him in bed.”
Neni and Jende not only provide Mighty with emotional succor but introduce him to their culture through cuisine. Neni makes puff-puff, or fried dough, for him that summer and later, in the city, when Mighty visits the Jonga’s home for Vince’s farewell dinner, he forges a friendship with Liomi. In the Jonga household, food is a source of connection, while, for the Edwardses, it’s another marker of social status. Mighty’s ability to form a kind of informal brotherhood with Liomi, a boy his own age, offers him companionship which, along with Neni and Jende’s care, help him to feel less neglected.
The novel shows that, despite the Edwardses ability to purchase every necessity and privilege, the need for a strong familial bond still eludes Cindy. It isn’t until her death—which could be regarded as a sacrifice, due to its ability to refocus Clark’s energy on his sons and to discourage Vince’s urge to distance himself from his living parent—that her husband recognizes the importance of family and pursues closer relationships with his children. For the Jongas, their pursuit of the kind of life that they imagine that the Edwards live, nearly causes their family to unravel. The travails of both families become exemplary of the ways in which materialism and status-seeking can cause people to lose sight of the relationships and markers of identity that are most important.
Family and Belonging ThemeTracker
Family and Belonging Quotes in Behold the Dreamers
She was noticing something for the first time […] On both sides of the street […] she saw people walking with their kind: a white man holding hands with a white woman; a black teenager giggling with other black (or Latino) teenagers; a white mother pushing a stroller alongside another white mother; a black woman chatting with a black woman […] Even in New York City […] men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest. And why shouldn't they? It was far easier to do so than to spend one’s limited energy trying to blend into a world one was never meant to be a part of […] She had her world in Harlem and never again would she try to wriggle her way into a world in midtown, not even for just an hour.
In his first days in America, it was here he came every night to take in the city. It was here he often sat to call her when he got so lonely and homesick that the only balm that worked was the sound of her voice. During those calls, he would ask her how Liomi was doing, what she was wearing, what her plans for the weekend were, and she would tell him everything, leaving him even more wistful for the beauty of her smile, the hearth in his mother’s kitchen, the light breeze at Down Beach, the tightness of Liomi's hug, the coarse jokes and laughter of his friends as they drank Guinness at a drinking spot; leaving him craving everything he wished he hadn’t left behind. During those times, he told her, he often wondered if leaving home in search of something as fleeting as fortune was ever worthwhile.
“First it was my father…he thought he had the right, you know?” Cindy said.
“Drag my mother into that abandoned house…force her… do it to her by force…don’t give a shit about…not care for a second about what would happen to the child…”
She sniffled, took another sip of wine, and wept.
“And the government…our government,” she moaned, slurring, tears running down her cheeks, snot running down her nose. “They had the right, too. Force my mother to carry the child of a stranger. Force her to give birth to the child because…because…I don’t know why!”
“At his age, all I wanted was the life that I have right now. This exact life, this was what I wanted.”
“It is a good life, sir. A very good life.”
“Sometimes. But I can understand why Vince doesn’t want it. Because these days I don’t want it, either. All this shit going on at Lehman, all this stuff we would never have done twenty years ago because we stood for something more, and now really dirty shit is becoming the norm. All over the Street. But try to show good sense, talk of consequences, have a far-long-term outlook, and they look at you as if you've lost your marbles […]”
“And I know Vince has got a point, but the problem is not some system. It is us. Each of us. We've got to fix ourselves before we can fix a whole damn country […]”