What is the American Dream?

I seem to have a habit now that when I follow someone on Twitter and the person has a new book coming out, I try to get on the launch team for it. In the past eight months I have been on launch teams for books by Trillia Newbell (Sacred Endurance), Lore Wilbert Ferguson (Handle with Care), Beth Moore (Chasing Vines), and now D.L. Mayfield’s new book The Myth of the American Dream.  

I have to admit that when I first started following D.L. Mayfield on Twitter that I thought she was a bit too liberal for me. I didn’t follow her because I wanted to argue with everything she said. I wanted to hear different voices and perspectives from my own. I didn’t know about her first book or her podcast. I just listened to her voice about immigrants and refugees as my own views started to change.

When the opportunity came to join the book launch for The Myth of the American Dream, I jumped at it. Though, to be honest, the title of the book scared me a bit. I am a firm believer in the idea that if you have access too a good public education, that if you know how to handle money, and that if you are not afraid of hard work that you can have a good life. Now by good life, I don’t mean having the nicest of everything. My idea of a good life is one where you can pay all your bills, save some money for emergencies, and live generously.

I was raised in what would be considered a lower middle-class home. My mom was a high school English teacher and my dad did outside sales for the local lumber company. He was also the pastor of the small country church we attended. My mom made some of our clothes (long before that was the popular thing to do), we grew our own food, my mom and grandma canned vegetables, my siblings and I worked with my mom in a lawn mowing business, and as the seasons changed we picked up black walnuts to sell and shoveled snow. We had so many yards that we mowed over the years, that I felt like I knew what most of the backyards looked like in our small rural community.

There were three things that were important in our family: Christianity, education, and hard work. I accepted Christ when I was young and lived the life of a pastor’s kid (PK). If you aren’t a PK, then you are unaware of the kind of pressure that puts on a family. Everyone expects you to be perfect, and for the most part I felt like I played my role well. The thing about being a PK, is that you are either going to be a rebel or you are going to be legalistic. I am sure there are some PKs that are well adjusted, loving people, but from everyone I have talked with, rebel or legalistic seem to be the two ways you can go as a preacher’s kid.

Education was also very important. My mom was just shy of getting her PhD in English. She took my siblings and myself with her to her Masters’ classes and let us sit in the hall or in the library while she was in class. I know how hard she worked to be the best she could possibly be for all of her students. She instilled in me the love of learning and what it takes to be an exceptionally great teacher. My mom is still in education as a counselor at a tiny public school in rural southwest Missouri.

My mom made sure we knew how to work hard. We didn’t have name brand shoes or name brand anything else. We wore our clothes and shoes until they were beyond repair or outgrown. Even though our clothes may have been wearing out, they were always clean. I knew we were poor, but still knew other people who were worse off than we were. We had heat in the winter and a/c in the summer. I had friends where that wasn’t the case.

Working hard paid off as I went to college. My siblings and I were all the valedictorians of our senior classes and all made it through college on full ride educational scholarships. Working hard paid off even more, as an investment in lawn-mowing money when I was 18 doubled when I was 32, and we used the money to pay off the house my husband and I bought (after putting every extra dollar we had to that home loan for three years).

My husband and I learned how to live well below our means, how to save money for emergencies, and how to be generous with our money and our time. I know we have been blessed by God, by our families, and by putting into practice the values that we were raised with all our lives.

It was about 2014, when I began to question how much my own background played a role in how we were able to achieve what most people think of as the American Dream: completely debt free – home, cars, education, and credit card. How much of our “dream” came about because of the family I was raised in? How much of it was because we were white?

I read through Benjamin Watson’s book Under Our Skin and I was challenged. I was raised in a poor, rural, mostly white community. Even though I didn’t see police brutality, I was challenged to admit the fact that it was happening elsewhere. I didn’t understand the challenges to African American communities. I didn’t understand the dynamics of urban areas, because I wasn’t raised in them. I was challenged to broaden my perspectives beyond what I could experience.

When I started teaching at the public school that would become my home for 13 years, I started learning more about immigrants too. At that time, nearly 20% of the school was made up of Hmong students. Most of these students were first generation U.S. citizens. Their parents were very invested in their education, even though the students would have to translate for their parents at conferences. My students taught me about what it was like to be an immigrant and what their parents had to endure to get to the United States. The Hmong community was hardworking and industrious. They expected their children to be that way as well.

As my husband and I started looking into the impact that being white and middle class played on our seeming success, we became curious about what dynamics were at play in other communities different than ours. We watched a lot of PBS and learned about systematic racism in cities. How red lines kept the poor blacks and immigrants away from services that were available to more affluent white areas. We learned about the role of good public education, public transportation, public parks, and access to fresh food and medical care had on communities. What happens when you don’t have a good public school? What happens when there are not public parks? What happens when there is no access to fresh food? What happens when good jobs aren’t close to bus stop? What about access to affordable childcare?

I was afraid when I started reading D.L. Mayfield’s book The Myth of the American Dream, that the book would be bashing the values that I hold dear. That it would be a book shaming me for being in the position where I am. Instead, I found a woman who feels very much like me. A woman who chose to live in an immigrant community, to be able to love on her neighbors better.

I found in The Myth of the American Dream, a friend who shares more values and thoughts with me than I thought we would have when I started the book. I found a friend who is troubled, just like I am, with a Christian culture that seems to be more caught up in protecting itself and its power than loving communities that look different than itself. A Christianity that wants to serve on mission trips to “poor communities” instead of investing in relationships with people, who happen to live in poor communities.

I found myself wanting to have Danielle and her family over for dinner, because I am sure we could be friends (I sure hope that doesn’t come across as creepy to her). I want to sit across our dining room table and tell her about the community garden we started at church. I want to tell her about how we are adding more plants so we can feed our community as food insecurity is going to be a big deal this summer. I want to tell her about how we are teaming up with another non-profit working with Somali and Sudanese immigrants to start a community garden of their own.

I want to talk with Danielle about her public school in Oregon and what I can do to help there too (or what resources might be available). I want to pick her brain about her move into an immigrant community. I want to compare notes on what it means to be poor in the city as opposed to poor in a rural area.

More than anything, The Myth of the American Dream, puts into words a good part of our family’s thoughts we have been thinking about for the past few years. What does it mean to be a neighbor? What does it look like to help people in a way that is best for them?

If you want to stay in your own personal bubble and live your life there, this book is not for you. However, if something inside of you is curious about what life can be like when you look beyond yourself, this book is for you.

Here is my “official” review of the book in a nutshell:

D.L. Mayfield casts a vision of what the American Dream looks like in her new book, The Myth of the American Dream. The book connects you with the realities facing the immigrant, refugee, people of color, and the poor. Through her own personal experiences, Mrs. Mayfield weaves a series of essays pointing out the issues of Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power in the United States and how these things can blind us to the hurting of those around us. She challenges the reader to become a part of a greater community that looks more like Christ and less like people seeking to keep power and influence.

You will be challenged in this book to look into your own motivations.

The book releases on May 5th. Since bookstores are closed, here is where you can pre-order your copy of the book:

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