The United States is known both home and away as the “land of opportunity.” But the ideology of the American Dream extends far beyond the country’s borders.
The most important export the United States has is its culture. This includes popular culture in everything from music to dance to clothing, as well as political culture, with notions of democracy and capitalism and freedom, all defined in the American way.
On Sunday night, Viola Davis became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series for her role as Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder. It was a moment of celebration for her and for many Black women on television, past and present.
It was also a moment of reflection in which Davis so beautifully and accurately pointed out something the country needs to hear, and perhaps more often: “The only thing that separates Women of Color from everyone else is opportunity.”
Just a week ago, Matt Damon’s failed commentary on diversity with Effie Brown present, was a topic of public discussion. So the reiteration of the need for opportunity for specific groups who have faced disenfranchisement at all levels, could not have come at a more perfect time.
Davis was not the only Black woman who won that night. Uzo Aduba and Regina King were also Emmy winners on Sunday, and the importance of all these Women of Color winning is not to make them tokens. But rather, it is to point out the reality of Davis’ words, and especially one – opportunity. If Women of Color, if People of Color, if people in disenfranchised communities are afforded opportunity, achievement is made possible.
Opportunity, at least equal opportunity, despite the political attachments to notions of fairness and equality and the right to dream, continues to be more an ideal of the American imagination than a reality of the country itself. This is also true of many nation-states that currently exist. The difference is no other nation-state currently exports its culture the way the United States does. Perhaps that is why no other nation receives as much expectation for accountability as this one does.
In Pope Francis’ address to Congress, he discussed the political ideology of the United States the world is accustomed to: The idea of liberty, of freedom, and the country being one of dreams for many – especially immigrants. But the Pope makes it abundantly clear that he believes this dream is yet to be accomplished.
In his speech, the Pope advocates for vulnerable groups in society, touching on immigrants and the poor specifically. But most powerfully, he proclaims, “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.” Aware of the inequities of the world at large, and referencing unjust systems in this part of the world, the Pope calls for sensible legislation to achieve his dream of a more fair world.
There will be many things said of both Viola Davis’ and Pope Francis’ words. The implications of their words for the communities they reference, and the America each knows at large will be discussed; both these cultural moments have become/will become sites of political conversation. But the conversations of both people are ultimately about a culture that can be made into more than what it is – a place that can live up to its ideals.
My comparison between these two seemingly separate cultural and political conversations with two seemingly different public figures may come across as unusual. But it is a testament to my reality as a Nigerian-born third-culture kid; a Black girl who came to this country at sixteen going on seventeen, a practicing Catholic, and a multiculturalism scholar whose interests often center on race and culture.
But perhaps included in all the above-mentioned identities is a belief that cannot neatly be summarised or conceived. And here it is: I know and understand the myth of meritocracy in the American imagination. But I still very much want to believe that this country, for all its imperfections, is still a place where hopes and dreams can be made possible. And because hopes and dreams can be made possible, opportunities are also created for their fulfillment.
It is easy to be cynical and hopeless with how little things sometimes seem to change. But these dreams and hopes aren’t ones that you can have when you’re cynical and hopeless. They also aren’t ones you ought to have without working for practical means to achieve them.
Whether it is in telling more stories of Women of Color on screens, or changing economic and political systems to aid the most vulnerable groups in society, this culture of hopes and dreams can manifest in a way that is meaningful and pertinent for more; for all.
This land of opportunity that remains more ideal than reality, can come to exist. If we try and we keep trying because this dream is only made possible if we also do. And then too, lands of opportunity can dare to exist elsewhere, from their own doing. But also because of that great American export – culture.