The Department of American Studies is introducing a theme that will create common threads among course offerings, discussions, and departmental events throughout the 2012-2013 school year. Dr. Janet Davis explains what kinds of conversations we might have about this year’s theme: DREAM.
The word “dream” has rich and variegated meanings in American life. The American dream offers the ideal of social mobility as a distinctly American ethos. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King reckoned with the aspirational potential and deep contradictions of this American value in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington: “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” Dreams are a central part of our nation’s political and cultural language. “Dreams from My Father,” is the title of President Obama’s bestselling memoir. On June 15, 2012, the president issued an executive action to put the Dream Act into effect.
The lexicon of dreams has saturated pop cultural productions throughout American history: “Dream On”; “Dream Girls”; “Teenage Dream”; “California Dreamin”; “Dream Weaver”; “All I Have to Do is Dream”; and more. In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe’s surreal poem, “A Dream Within a Dream,” asked ominously, “Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?” Sigmund Freud treated dreams as a portal into the human subconscious. When Freud traveled to America in 1909, he visited Dreamland Park at Coney Island and was fascinated by its pantheon of dizzying rollercoasters, lights, tunnels, and fragrant machine-spun candy floss. Myriad cultural forms embody the ways in which American dreams are pleasurable, whimsical, aspirational, hopeful, fearful, nightmarish, and denied.
The Department of American Studies invites you to consider the significance of “Dream!” in the American experience. During the 2012-2013 academic year, each of our course offerings will touch upon the ways in which our designated word enriches our understanding of American culture and society. Thus, we structure this year’s inaugural word as an invocation and an imperative. Dream!