Behold the Dreamers takes a critical look at the American Dream—that is, the idea that anyone who is willing to work hard can become prosperous in the United States. For each of the novel’s characters, prosperity means something different. For Jende Jonga, it means earning a good living and eventually moving his family out of their roach-infested Harlem apartment and into a comfortable home. For his wife, Neni, it means fulfilling her dream of becoming a pharmacist. However, for those who are already financially prosperous, such as the Jonga’s employers, money and career status still don’t bring happiness. Cindy Edwards’s dream is centered on having a close-knit, loving family, while her husband Clark’s dream becomes a quest for integrity and satisfaction in a profession that has become increasingly unethical. By exploring the hunger and unfulfillment that fester in her main characters’ lives, Imbolo Mbue illustrates how the aspirational concept of the American Dream, which is often rooted in materialism, is misleading and elusive, leaving people grasping toward a happiness that always remains just out of reach.
Like many foreigners from less advantaged countries, Cameroonian immigrants Jende and Neni regard the United States as a promised land. This feeling of promise comes undone, however, when they realize that class and race are major barriers standing in the way of their dreams of success. Neni’s achievement in gaining entry to the Phi Theta Kappa society becomes bittersweet when she realizes that Dean Flipkins will not nominate her for a scholarship and expresses skepticism toward her ambition of becoming a pharmacist. He hides his bias in a pretense of sympathy, arguing that he tries to be steer “students like [Neni]” toward more “realistic” goals. Though she resists the dean’s assumptions by reasserting her ambition, she realizes that she doesn’t live in a country in which everyone is regarded as equally capable or worthy of success.
Similarly, Jende, as the Edwards’s chauffer, learns how unreliable his good fortune is when Cindy arranges for him to be fired for not informing her about Clark’s infidelities. Jende realizes that his good work and loyalty to the family, including his reservations about betraying Clark’s confidence and the non-disclosure agreement that he signed, cannot protect him from upper class whims. Cindy regards Jende as a dispensable servant whose financial concerns, including the expenses related to the impending birth of Jende and Neni’s daughter, Timba, matter less than the fulfillment of Cindy’s immediate needs. When Jende is forced to take on work as a restaurant dishwasher as a result of his firing, working constantly for little money, his American Dream evaporates in response to experiencing how easily people like Cindy can determine the outcome of his life, for better or worse. Despite its promise of equal opportunity, then, the American Dream is shown to be rooted in classist and racist hierarchies.
Jende’s friends, fellow Cameroonian immigrants Arkamo and Sapeur, initially appear to have figured out how to make it in America. Each man attains the key marker of American success: property. However, when the subprime mortgage industry devastates the American economy, Jende hears about how their dreams and those of other Cameroonian immigrants also evaporate amidst the crisis.
Jende looks at pictures of his friends’ “spacious houses and gargantuan SUVs” and envies them. All have incomes similar to his but live in “three-bedroom ranch-style houses” and “four-bedroom townhouses with backyards.” He figures that those among his friends who have green cards will cope with “the high-interest loans that would take thirty or more years to pay off.” Mbue uses these anecdotes to illustrate how unsuspecting newcomers were seduced into embracing an illusion of prosperity in the U.S. They overlooked the fact that they would probably never be able to pay off the mortgages for their houses and would likely pass on their debts to their children. These details illustrate how financers preyed on those who had blind faith in the American Dream, and how that dream became unsustainable due to unchecked greed.
Arkamo lives in Phoenix, Arizona, one of several American cities that quickly expanded as a result of the property boom. Arkamo regales Jende with stories about how he lives in a four-bedroom “mini-mansion” in a gated community and was able to attain the property with “a zero-down payment mortgage.” To Jende this sounds like a dream come true, epitomizing his initial belief that anyone can become prosperous in the United States. Due to his naïveté, the offer of property to someone with no credit history who works as a stockroom associate at a department store never strikes him as strange until Arkamo loses his property and ends up living with his family in his sister’s basement. Arkamo’s story fosters Jende’s disillusionment with his new country. It’s a story in which good fortune is quickly gained and then reversed, like a cruel hat-trick; it also serves as further proof for Jende that material gains in America are short-lived.
The Jonga family realizes that its ideas about the United States were largely constructed from lies and myths. But while this truth is disappointing, it does not destroy them. The family ultimately returns home with far more money than they would have gained had they stayed in Cameroon, which indicates that the U.S. does offer some unique financial opportunities. Yet the pursuit of those opportunities, the story suggests, shouldn’t outweigh the importance of family or personal integrity. The Edwardses also come to this realization after Cindy’s death. Both families realize that the single-minded pursuit of material wealth cannot bring happiness. Furthermore, the cost of this pursuit, which is endless and can only bring satisfaction in the short-term, can sometimes outweigh the benefits. The American Dream is thus only sustainable when it’s rooted in non-materialistic values.
The Sustainability of the American Dream ThemeTracker
The Sustainability of the American Dream Quotes in Behold the Dreamers
“Listen to me,” Bubakar said, somewhat impatiently. “As far as Immigration is concerned, there are many things that are illegal and many that are gray, and by ‘gray’ I mean the things that are illegal but which the government doesn’t want to spend time worrying about. You understand me, abi? My advice to someone like you is to always stay close to the gray area and keep yourself and your family safe. Stay away from any place where you can run into police—that’s the advice I give to you and to all young black men in this country. The police is for the protection of white people, my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh?”
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.
“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 […]”
By all accounts, no one in Limbe had ever given money to a money doubler and gotten the money doubled […] And yet people continued to give to them, falling into the trap of crafty young men who walked up to them on the street and visited them in their homes, promising quick and high returns on their money through incomprehensible means. One woman at Sapa Road had been so enraptured by the two charming men in suits who visited her at home that she’d given them all of her life's savings for double the money in three months’ time. Her hope, the story around Limbe went, was that she would use the doubled money to buy a ticket for her only son to move to America. But the doublers did not return on the appointed day. Or the day after. Or the month after. Destroyed, the woman had eaten rat poison and died, leaving the son to bury her.
Many would be convinced that the plague that had descended on the homes of former Lehman employees was only a few blocks from theirs. Restaurateurs, artists, private tutors, magazine publishers, foundation directors, limousine drivers, nannies, housekeepers, employment agencies, virtually everyone who stood along the path where money flowed to and from the Street fretted and panicked that day. For some, the fears were justified: Their bread and wine would indeed disappear, along with the billions of dollars that vanished the day Lehman died.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Cindy […] Sean has to constantly remind me, too. He says I have to stop checking our portfolios twenty times a day, but I can't help it. I woke up every morning in Florence panicking about losing everything [....]”
Cindy did not immediately respond; she seemed lost in a maze of a hundred thoughts. “I wish I had Sean's calmness,” she finally said. “Nothing ever seems to unravel him.”
“Yeah, but you won’t believe what he suggested to me yesterday,” Cheri said […]
“He thinks maybe we should get rid of Rosa for a few months, to save” […]
“Yeah, that's exactly what we need now, right?” Cindy said. “To be cooking and cleaning and doing laundry while we're losing money and sleep […]”
“But it’s scary how bad this could get,” Cheri said, her tone turning serious as their laughter ebbed. “When people start talking about flying coach and selling vacation homes…”
“What are you going to do now?” he asked her.
“Something really great," she said, sounding more upbeat than she had in the morning. “I've got over twenty years of experience, honey. I'm not worried. I'm going to take a month and relax before I start a job search.”
“You should do that.”
“I will, maybe go see my sister in Florida. That's the good thing about a life with no husband or children—no one to hold me back, make me feel as if I can't go where I want, whenever I want, do what I want. I'm going to enjoy myself in Sarasota, and when I come back, I'll dust off the old résumé.”
“You will get a new job very fast when you return,” Jende said. “Mr. Edwards will surely tell everyone that you were a good secretary.”
More jobs would be lost […] The Dow would drop in titanic percentages. It would rise and fall and rise and fall, over and over, like a demonic wave. 401(k)s would be cut in half, disappear as if stolen by maleficent aliens. Retirements would have to be postponed […] College education funds would be withdrawn; many hands would never know the feel of a desired diploma. Dream homes would not be bought. Dream wedding plans would be reconsidered. Dream vacations would not be taken […] In many different ways it would be […] a calamity like the one that had befallen the Egyptians in the Old Testament. The only difference between the Egyptians then and the Americans now, Jende reasoned, was that the Egyptians […] had chosen riches over righteousness, rapaciousness over justice. The Americans had done no such thing. And yet, all through the land, willows would weep for the end of many dreams.
“In America today, having documents is not enough. Look at how many people with papers are struggling. Look at how even some Americans are suffering. They were born in this country. They have American passports, and yet they are sleeping on the street, going to bed hungry, losing their jobs and houses every day in this…this economic crisis.”
“You should have been with me last week when I saw this man who used to drive another executive at Lehman Brothers. We used to sit together outside the building sometimes; he was a fresh round man. I saw him downtown: The man looked like he had his last good meal a year ago. He has not been able to find another job. He says too many people want to be chauffeurs now […] Everyone is losing jobs everywhere and looking for new jobs, anything to pay bills. So you tell me—if he, an American, a white man with papers, cannot get a new chauffeur job then what about me? They say the country will get better, but you know what? I don’t know if I can stay here until that happens. I don’t know if I can continue suffering like this just because I want to live in America.”
By her late twenties, all she could think about was America […] The African-Americans she saw on TV in Cameroon were happy and successful, well-educated and respectable, and she'd come to believe that if they could flourish in America, surely she could, too […] Even after she'd seen the movies Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing, she couldn’t be swayed or convinced that the kind of black life depicted represented anything but a very small percentage of black life, just like Americans probably understood that the images they saw of war and starvation in Africa were but a very small percentage of African life […] Every picture she'd seen of Cameroonians in America was a portrait of bliss: children laughing in snow; couples smiling at a mall; families posing in front of a nice house with a nice car nearby. America, to her, was synonymous with happiness.
Later, as she stood in front of the mirror staring at her face before applying her exfoliating mask, she promised herself she would fight Jende till the end. She had to. It wasn’t only that she loved New York City […] It wasn’t just because she was hopeful that she would one day become a pharmacist […] It was hardly only about […] things she could never find in her hometown, things like horse-drawn carriages on city streets, and gigantic lighted Christmas trees in squares and plazas, and pretty parks where musicians played for free beside polychromatic foliage […] It was mostly for what her children would be deprived of […] It was for the boundless opportunities they would be denied […] She was going to fight for her children, and for herself, because no one journeyed far away from home to return without a fortune amassed or dream achieved.
When he had told her of his plan to return home, she had wondered why he was coming back when others were running out of Limbe, when many in his age group were fleeing to Bahrain and Qatar, or trekking and taking a succession of crowded buses to get from Cameroon to Libya so they could cross to Italy on leaky boats and arrive there with dreams of a happier life if the Mediterranean didn’t swallow them alive.
“One can never trust any government—I don’t trust the American government and I definitely don't trust the Cameroon government.”
“No, but it's our government and it's our country. We love it, we hate it, it's still our country. How man go do?”
“It's our country,” Winston agreed. “We can never disown it.”