Last week we went to the Charleston Festival to listen to writer and broadcaster Bonnie Greer and author Sarah Churchwell discuss the American Dream. It is 60 years since civil rights activist Martin Luther King made his famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’ to describe his vision of America at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Bonnie and Sarah, with chair Matt Frei, former Channel 4 Washington correspondent, shared their thoughts about the American Dream.
Both coincidentally born in Chicago but now living in the UK, Bonnie and Sarah brought different but complementary perspectives to the topic. Bonnie is a working-class African American. She is a playwright, novelist, critic, and broadcaster. She is writing a book about the African American gay author James Baldwin (1924 – 1987), who lived in France for many years. Sarah is a professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her books include two about the USA: The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and Lies America Tells.
Charleston, near Lewes in East Sussex, was the home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. They were members of the early twentieth-century group of artists, writers, and others known as the Bloomsbury Group. Vanessa’s sister was Virginia Woolf, who lived nearby in Rodmell with her husband, Leonard. Charleston is a uniquely creative place for people to come together to engage with arts, ideas, and different ways to live, think, and work. It is an enjoyable and fascinating home and garden to visit.
Bonnie and Sarah were provocative, witty, and insightful. Bonnie called for America to stop dreaming and connect with society’s reality. She spoke about the racism in American society. Sarah explained how America’s dreams were rooted in two mythologies and the tension between influencing America today. The first was the white settlers who fled religious persecution in Europe to colonise the newfound land at the expense of the indigenous peoples. The second was the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution, which recognised human rights but excluded women and black people. These two warring mythologies—God-given rights to the continent and idealistic democracy—clash with each other. Of course, this is a summarised version of a more complex discussion that inadequately describes it. Nonetheless, it was palpable that the conversation resonated with the audience.
We left the event deep in thought but moments later deep in conversation and for the rest of the day. We drew from our own experiences of living and working in the USA for 20 years to reflect upon what Bonnie and Sarah discussed.