News and Tribune

January 28, 2013

CUMMINS: The American Dream is alive and well

Local columnist

— The American Dream is not a myth. It happens all the time, and that’s why so many people want to come here. My ancestors did and so did yours. I vaguely remember someone saying, “You can grow up to be whatever you want to be, maybe president someday.” The presidency didn’t interest me, so I dreamed about becoming a ball star, throwing, shooting or kicking one. I never dreamed about becoming a rock star, because there weren’t any back then, but we had loose rocks all over our place. While hauling them off the hills, I dreamed there must be something better than this, and there was.   

 I never dreamed life would be so good to me, particularly during my old, but “new” days. It is because my folks and America were good to me. I lived with the notion that I’m free to be and do whatever I want to, but it’s up to me. We need to tell every child that. Although talents, abilities and the luck of the draw are unequal, the opportunity to be what you want to be must remain a realizable dream. If we ever lose that, then it won’t be America. 

Perhaps the greatest example of the realization of the American Dream had its roots in the birth of a bi-racial child in 1961 in Hawaii, not Kenya. His dad, whom he saw only briefly twice in his life, ran away. His mother bounced around, married and divorced again, struggled and survived at one point on food stamps. When things became too tough, the young man, called Barry, went to live with his white maternal grandparents from Kansas.

In reflecting upon his childhood, Barry wrote, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me, that he was pitch black and my mother milk white, barely registered in my mind.” He also admitted smoking dope to “push questions of who I was out of my mind.” Encouraged by his family, he was a good student, and holds degrees from Columbia and Harvard Law School, graduating magna cum laude.

There was another good student, who graduated from Princeton and then Harvard Law School. Michelle was raised on the south side of Chicago. Her ailing father worked at the city water works. She and her mother, father and brother, Craig, lived in a second-story, one-bedroom apartment. Michelle and Craig slept in the living room with a sheet strung between them for privacy. Her mother quit her job as a secretary to raise her children, believing that education was the key to, at least, a two-bedroom apartment. It worked. Both children learned to read at the age of 4 and both skipped the second grade. Craig received a scholarship to Princeton, and is currently the coach of the Oregon State University basketball team.

Michelle met her future husband when both African-Americans worked briefly for a nearly all-white Chicago law firm. After their first date, Michelle asked her brother Craig to arrange a pick-up basketball game with Barry to determine if he was a jerk. Craig did and reported Barry OK.

The two lawyers married in 1992, had two beautiful daughters, and 15 years later, Barack H. Obama was elected president, and the great-great granddaughter of a South Carolinian slave became the first lady. You seldom hear the president or the first lady give a talk without mentioning the importance of education. They know what unlocks the door to opportunity. 

After four years, the president raised enough money to run again. He had to fight the opposition, which had only one goal from day one, make him a one-term president. It was two packs of pit bulls fighting to the end, but the president prevailed.  

Whatever your political persuasion, ideology or passion, President Obama is our president for four more years. We can tear him down or work together for all young people out there of all political persuasions who have a dream. Just wait, you can be proud during the inauguration of Ms. Republican (Latino?) in a few short years.

There was something about the inauguration indicating the American dream is alive and well. There was an atmosphere, an aura or a kind of magical somberness and dignity that seemed to, despite biases, prejudice, intense partisanship and, how else state it, hatred, re-awaken a lost pride — or should have. If you are not proud to be an American, then I don’t know what you do.

— Contact Terry Cummins at