“They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em” – Rage Against The Machine
Please please please, right now in our current situation as a country, read. Read articles, books, newspapers, statements, essays. Anything you can get your hands on.
In this era of intense uncertainty, it is extremely important to stay informed and stay empathetic.
We know that history tends to repeat itself. But we can’t learn from a past we don’t know.
I picked up Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold The Dreamers” because I saw it on some list of ‘great books from 2016’ and the inside flap intrigued me. I had no idea how relevant it was going to be.
Jende, a man from Cameroon, comes to America and after working for several years is able to bring his wife, Neni, and son over as well. They’re barely making ends meet when Jende gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. The book spans many months and we watch the two families evolve as their situations deteriorate. Mbue does an exceptional job of touching on every topic without losing the reader in the whirlwind. In an effort to do the same, I’ll touch on the highlights.
Class: This isn’t just the middle class meets the upper class, this is barely scraping by and the top 1%. The Edwards represent everything Jande speaks of in his description of achieving the dream. This difference in class doesn’t just represent the American Dream, it shows the failings of the dream. Surely the Edwards are happy with all their wealth, right? Wrong. If the cliche trouble in paradise was ever appropriate, it’s here. Even their son Vince, who wants to be free of the trap of America’s materialism and moves to India, doesn’t really get it. It is only because of his privilege that he’s able to drop out of law school and move to another country. As the book unfolds, Mbue shows us
that scenario doesn’t work if you’re a man from Cameroon trying to stay in America.
American Dream: Then there is the dream itself. I know for a fact its incredibly hard to come to America and stay, much less during one of the worst economic crashes in America’s history. The school system is against Neni following her dreams, religion isn’t giving any tangible help, and what advances Jande’s family do make are largely thanks to his well established cousin. And even when they sort of make the dream with Jande’s well paying chauffeur job, they still live as though they’re just barely making it. A logical conclusion would be to move out of New York City where living is cheaper. But with the economic crash there isn’t a good place for anyone to relocate.
Housing: Fun fact about me, I used to work at a housing market news source. And it wasn’t any small potatoes either, it was one of the biggest in it’s space. They covered everything related to the industry; legislation, mortgages, real estate, finance, servicing, investing, you name it they covered it. So take my word for it when I say the crash was HUGELY under represented in this book. I know some of it comes from Jande saying several times that he doesn’t understand what everyone is talking about (he wonders who Enron is). But in reality the fall out was massive. Pretty much incomprehensible. If you would like to be an informed citizen do some research, I assume if you’re reading this you have access to the internet, or even watch The Big Short.
Remember what I said about learning from the past? Trump messing with Dodd Frank and bank deregulation should freak you out. Seriously.
Fate: *SPOILERS* On top of all of these circumstances, Mbue asks us to consider how fate plays into the dream. Jande’s father dies back in Cameroon, Neni gives birth to a gril, Mrs, Edwards dies shortly after being confronted by Neni, and Jande is denied his papers. He eventually gives in to the crushing weight of his situation and decides to return the family back to Cameroon. Their return is described in such a way that we think it’s a good thing. Like this is how it was always supposed to end.
Mbue also covers issues of gender, substance abuse, cultural traditions, and the separation of groups even within the immigrant community. I had a few issues with the novel, but on the whole it’s a must read.
Conclusion: So seriously, seriously, seriously. Pick it up.