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Gloria Naylor on the American Dream

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We remember novelist Gloria Naylor, who died September 28, 2016, at the age of 66. Best known for The Women of Brewster Place, which received the National Book Award in 1983, and was adapted into a 1989 miniseries produced by Oprah Winfrey, Naylor speaks compassionately and critically about the notion of the American Dream. She explores this theme in three American classics: Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). This never-before-heard interview is from director Michael Epstein’s Novel Reflections on the American Dream (2007).

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Gloria Naylor: When I think of the American Dream I think of exclusivity to be quite honest with you. I think that dream just like the foundation of America was only held out to a few and was only meant for a few. You know it was meant for the most part for those who had come from Europe who were land owners who were part of the aristocracy who had held to them the promise that they could indeed prosper in this country. The Constitution was not intended for people who were landless for people who were not male. For people who were not white. You know this country was just simply not founded that way. We had to have amendments in order to make this democracy more and more inclusive. And so with the American dream as well it was held out to those who were white to those who were male for the most part and others had to fight for inclusion in it.

Michael Epstein: So for you, what is the American dream in your life or are the images the pictures when somebody says the American Dream what are the pictures that pop into your head?

Gloria Naylor: The ability to be able to live as a full citizen. When I was coming of age the dreams that were held out for me to attain were ones of self-actualization. They were not so much succeeding within the society as to succeed within one's own skin and to try to attain a sense of your own full humanity because that was the fight in those years. You know you were constantly being degradated wherever you looked there were stereotypes about you about your culture about your social class. And so my parents always sort of reinforced in my sisters and I that you have to set your own standards of excellence. You have to strive to become a full person. It did not reach beyond the self into let's say attained then attaining success within society because of a sort of a given if you can just first maintain your own humanity reify your own personal worth. You then flow into the system as an entity.

Michael Epstein: So let me ask you, can you finish this sentence? The picture I have of the American Dream is- do you have a snapshot of that?

Gloria Naylor: The picture I have of the American Dream is one of an illusion. It's one of an illusion that's been set out for us and that we have to shape in our own image. You know it is it is it is indeed a dream a dream is something that's ethereal. You know, a dream is something that's not really quite there. And when I think of the American dream that's what I think of something that is manufactured something that is ethereal something that's not quite there.

Michael Epstein: Do you have any sense of the dream in American literature, in any books, maybe the books that we’re reading, or any books that you read as an adult or as an adolescent/

Gloria Naylor: I think perhaps of of the books that we were reading. One that really stands out the most about the American dream is “The Street”. I think for that character Lutie Johnson. She believed the hype. She looked at the model that was set for the likes of The Ben Franklin's of this country and she felt that, yes indeed I can attain it because I'm told if I just work hard enough if I want it badly enough if I save enough then I should be able to better myself which makes perfect sense. If you are indeed in the mold of the Ben Franklins. But what Lutie Johnson did not take into account was her race and her sex and her class. You know and so she did work very hard. She did want things very passionately. She did save and scrape and sacrifice and she ended up in Harlem running from a murder.

Michael Epstein: Do you think the American dream is a lie?

Gloria Naylor: Yes. Definitely, if we want to get real. Let's get real. I definitely think it's a lie I think. I think it's part of the same philosophy which flows that this is a real democracy. You know this is not true democracy. It's important that this society and any society be ruled by the few because there was never any trust in the masses.

Michael Epstein: The American dream- what role does it play then?

Gloria Naylor: What it helps to do is to keep people calm. It helps to keep a society contained because then an individual believes like the Joads for example in “The Grapes of Wrath” that if I'm not prospering, if I'm not attending these things they are something that I am not doing. It's not that the society is flawed or that the system is flawed or weighted it's just that there's something wrong within me.

Michael Epstein: Is a Gatsby-like reinvention of self in your mind possible for African-Americans?

Gloria Naylor: I have seen it happen. There are some African-Americans who are today able to quote unquote pass and they're able to pass on to great it not so much of skin color but to pass into the larger society by simply sublimating those things which are considered quote unquote too ethnic or too political. So therefore they aspire to the values of the broader society. They they try very hard not to stand out as far as the way they look physically the way they might dress the language they might speak the food they might eat the values they might hold. And they are acceptable. The Colin Powell’s of America. It was such a phenomenon to me that Colin Powell was so deeply loved by the American media and actually touted as becoming President. And when you looked at the man you sort of understood. What could be more American than someone was willing to die for this country. You know than a man who was a general then a man who was that conservative you know a man who was also fair skinned which was extremely important and who had Republican leanings.

Michael Epstein: So give me a sense then if if if as you sort of this kind of modern passing that we're talking about that Colin Powell is not white but in every other way. Frame it for me in Nella Larsen’s time. She's written a book in the mid 20s. What are the dynamics of access to the American dream if you-

Gloria Naylor: Well in those years the access was through the color of the skin. To even have a hope at running the race although like I've already said the race cannot be won. But even the hope of running in the race you had to be white to enter. So in those years what a person did who had that complexion was simply to assume the mantle of whiteness to have a chance at the game. Today you don't need to assume that mantle of whiteness as far as the skin color as long as you assume certain values and certain political stances and you don't make waves.

Michael Epstein: Let's talk about the book. What do you think. Why do you think Larsen starts “Passing” with this sweltering summer heat?

Gloria Naylor: I think it starts with that sweltering kind of heat because that symbolizes the oppressiveness of the society in which the Irene's of the world and Irene was a middle class black you know. Who was talking of sending her children to Europe and they took summer vacations at Martha's Vineyard and this sort of thing. And yet and still what she was oppressed by was the color of her skin. So she had to worry about whether or not when she was taking an iced tea at the top of this very fancy hotel whether or not she would be embarrassed and shuffled out.

Michael Epstein: One of the things I always like to do, is to help us with the narrative. How does Irene escape the heat?

Gloria Naylor: Irene passes. That's right Irene. She doesn't announce that she is white but she doesn't deny it either. So she just simply she she goes up she's she's fair enough to pass as white and she sits there and she just simply pretends and that's what Clare brought out to her later in the book. You have when it has been convenient for you you have indeed passed. I just did it for higher stakes.

Michael Epstein: So they're on the roof of the Drake Hotel and Irene kind of sees this woman looking at her-

Gloria Naylor: And she's afraid that maybe there's a white woman who has recognized that she is Black and that she's about to be accosted and then you have this whole wave pf emotion that flashes through her you know first there’s anger then embarrassment and then she steels herself for what she thinks is an impending confrontation and that shows you it's quite a way to live is it not? Irene is not able to just move as herself as a human being throughout that society. She has to always be second guessing herself.

Michael Epstein: So it's a it's two African-American in the day- two Negro women meeting at the top, being who they are. They're both pretending I guess on the top of that hotel.

Gloria Naylor: Oh yeah, well definitely, well with Clare Kendry her entire life has become a lie. You know she is living as a white woman. She has married a man who is a racist a white man who is a racist. So every day of her life she must live a lie. And I think as far as an artistic choice that was an interesting one that Larsen made because she could have married a man who was a Libertarian, it could have been quite possible, but she had her marry a racist which is which is to show how oppressive it must be for that woman to hear these things about herself each day of her life from this man who hated Black people.

Michael Epstein: What’s Larsen trying to say here in that moment about money and passing and access?

Gloria Naylor: That basically that in order to attain Clare’s concept of the American dream which is the attaining of materialism that she is willing to make any sacrifice to go beyond the sacrifices that have been laid out in the mandate which is which are hard work and thrift she is actually willing to sacrifice her own psyche in order to attain material things in order to attain a certain amount of psychological freedom because that's all she's getting is basic basically psychological freedom because she came from a milieu where she could have married a black doctor or a black lawyer. Those were the people that there that she moved among. She could have married Irene's husband was wealthy. You know he could have put her up well as far as material things. But I think Clare Kendry was after something else and I've often wondered about that with this book it must have been that she wanted the psychological freedom to move within American society and to be considered a human being. Because even the wealthiest black was not considered the equal of the poorest white.

Michael Epstein: It's interesting that you say psychological freedom because to me when I read the book, I don't see Clare as having any- I think she’s psychologically tormented. You don’t see her as psychologically tormented?

Gloria Naylor: I see her as being drawn back to her own roots. Definitely yeah. Yeah. Because one must be what one is you know and at some point you want to just breathe free and to truly be yourself as to the same thing with people who are homosexual and who are in the closet. There's a point when you just want to simply not have to guard every word guard every gesture but to simply be oneself. And and that's what Clare Kendry gives up. So in a sense she is in a psychological cage but then there are other times in her life when she can be in the rooftop of fancy hotels and not have to worry. You know when she can go into stores but they don't really do much when you think about it it's it's a very prescribed world that these women move in. It's a world of shopping and of Tea Parties and cocktail parties and of of second homes. So that's why I kept saying to myself, what is it that she wanted that she couldn't have attained if she stayed in the black bourgeoisie?

Michael Epstein: And that is that freedom to be white.

Gloria Naylor: Well I think you have that freedom once you move in the outside society.

Michael Epstein: You know we’re also thinking of “The Great Gatsby”. Do you see any similarity between Clare going back and Gatsby going back? I mean here are both characters that reinvent themselves and what they do they go you go home.

Gloria Naylor: They go home yeah. You know because that they're that that's where you get your basic freedom from. Except that Gatsby doesn't quite go home because Gatsby reinvented himself from the time he was 12 years old when he left the Midwest you know he had been the child of farmers I believe failed farmers and he left. But he goes back to that moment in his life when he was a young Army officer and he could have married Daisy Buchanan you know so he returns I think to her in that sense he doesn't go all the way back what Clare Kendry does is that she literally wants to go back into the black world of the black bourgeoisie and to just move among these people and be there. What I think both authors are showing is that these characters being drawn back to their past ultimately leads to their destruction. If they had stayed there in the first place perhaps that's where true happiness would have lain. So there's a sort of cautionary tale I think in both of those books.

Michael Epstein: It seems almost to me to this point exactly that you're making that if you choose to reinvent yourself-

Gloria Naylor: You know there's a price to pay. I think because each author is saying to their character and to the audience is that what these individuals were after, was shallow. They were after something that they could not truly attain or even more importantly that they probably should not have wanted. You know Clare should not have wanted to move in the white world. She should have wanted perhaps to stay where she was to thrive and be fruitful within her own race. Gatsby should not have wanted to move into this very shallow world of the wealthy and accept it there in East Egg. He should have perhaps thrived where he was.

Michael Epstein: So let me ask you then as a reader, do you have any understanding, and empathy for Clare or for Gatsby?

Gloria Naylor: Of course I do. I do because what can we attain to except what we are given. You know you have a child that comes up and they look at the world and they are told if you are white and blue-eyed and blond-haired you will be a happy little girl. And if you are not that kind of little girl if you have no old alternative message then you are going to believe that those are the values that will make you happy and if you look around the world where you live and you see that little blond-haired blue-eyed girls move with freedom are considered pretty are allowed to go to certain colleges to certain stores to live in certain neighborhoods. Well then the society is saying to you that's what you should aspire to. So therefore I don't think that Clare had much choice. I have sympathy for Clare because she wasn't given by her country an alternative way to believe that she could be happy. I have sympathy for Clare for that reason. I don't have sympathy for Clare because she could have stayed with that her own race and found a sense of freedom and worth if she had worked for it. The author purposely put her in hell you know and because the author wanted to say this is not the path to go. And this is the extreme price that you pay if you choose the path of reinventing yourself for gain.

Michael Epstein: I’m gonna ask one last question about this book. When we selected this book a lot of people didn’t know the novel. And I guess the question I have for you then is do you think the book has lost its relevance?

Gloria Naylor. That’s a good question. I mean I think you have to take it. It's definitely worth reading and to understand a bit about the history of race relations in this country. Definitely it's worth reading. I think that that the whole though the concept of passing into a white society is more refined now. And one must make the intellectual leap to understand that passing is still possible but it's no longer so much the color of one's skin as it is what's inside of one's head. If you're willing to whiten inside of your head you are fine.

Michael Epstein: Just to sort of shift gears if we can. So what does something like the event of the Depression do to the American dream?

Gloria Naylor: I think the Depression came, came the closest to actually destroying the illusion of the American dream because what the people saw en masse is that with all of their hard work with all of their sacrifice they were getting poorer and poorer and that perhaps this country was not about succeeding on one's own worth perhaps this country was about big business and big interest and that those were the only people who were prospering. I mean and that that's why the Communist Party was flourishing so much during the Depression because people began to actually have- this is the average man the one who must be contained the one who must be propagandized, the average man began to question whether or not America was really working for them.

Michael Epstein: Seems to me that it’s the idea that hard work guarantees you nothing.

Gloria Naylor: Well that’s what the Depression kind of showed, that hard work guaranteed you nothing. Hard work is supposed to guarantee you a modicum of comfort. You're supposed to do that. You’re supposed to be able to buy the little house to have a little dog outside. The 2.7 children. And to go about and live your life and not worry about the bigger picture, not worry about the fact that the politics of the country are for the big interests that that that the whole foreign policy of the country are for the big interest that your sons die for big interests. Now what happened with the Depression is that people were not even able to attain the modicum that they had worked for.

Michael Epstein: Is it a dry, un-impassioned removed reporting of the facts?

Gloria Naylor: Definitely not. My goodness. It is an extremely passionate novel and the way it's constructed it sort of reveals the author's passion because “The Grapes of Wrath” in some chapters becomes very close to being an essay you know because what you have is Steinbeck with the large picture of the fact that the American dream does not work. And then you have the Joads who are his examples of how it does not work. And Steinbeck is extremely angry about the fact that the common man who is striving very hard, who wants so very little is not even able to attain that little if it backs up against the interest of the banks and of the big landowners you know and that's what “The Grapes of Wrath” I think is basically about is about watching these people try to simply live. Who are asking for little they are not angry people they are not revolutionaries they're not sophisticated they they simply want to farm, they are tenant farmers. They simply want to go out bust their butts every day and get a small return and then pass that on to their children and even that under certain circumstances is asking too much. If you're going to inopportune the banking interest and that's what made Steinbeck so furious.

Michael Epstein: It’s interesting, one of the things we’ve talked about is that the Joad’s seem to define themselves by work.

Gloria Naylor: Definitely by work that that's that that's what makes a man and that's what makes the man is being able to go out there and to feel that soil and to create the corn and to create the cotton. And what makes a woman is to be able to put her hands into the dough and to feed her family and to sew the clothes and to clean the house that define them as people. And they asked for nothing else. This is sort of the pathos in that book. They wanted nothing else. They did not even aspire for their children to go to college. They wanted to pass on the land and that kind of work to their children.

Michael Epstein: So when those Joads are denied work what happens to their soul?

Gloria Naylor: It doesn't disappear because another message I think in this book is about the tenacity of the human spirit. But it definitely begins to shrivel up and to be transformed. And you see people who were just plain ordinary people become people who are somewhat bitter and a few of their element even become a little political.

Michael Epstein: So let's go back to just the author for a second. We’re talking about this book, that it is impassioned. What sense do you get of Steinbeck? And how he must have approached his desk every morning when you read his words?

Gloria Naylor: I would say that he probably had to rein himself in a great deal to keep from becoming too didactic that he had to just simply allow these people to evolve and to be. I really wonder if Steinbeck wanted them to to come out in the end as quote unquote Good as they came out because they still come out with their humanity intact and with that ability to even nurture and to help someone of their own kind. They come out looking quite noble I can believe given his own political leanings that he probably would have wanted them just as the writer to have ended up like the preacher somehow enlightened about the true structure of American society and American economy and somehow more militant. But as a good writer which Steinbeck is he allowed his characters to evolve in their own way. And these people were not the kind of people who were going to join the Communist Party.

Michael Epstein: Do you think that Steinbeck’s writing is overwhelmed by his anger?

Gloria Naylor: No I don't think- I think he walks a fine line in this book. I myself read the anger in between the lines of the book. But I think where he goes off into these editorial forays often you're walking a very fine line of being of being too didactic and just letting your art tell the story itself because the Joads themselves sometimes what you do is that you get if you're impassioned about something you get a tiny bit afraid that maybe the characters won't convey it all. And so you want to nudge them a little bit. And but yet Steinbeck allowed these people just simply to be- their story is evocative enough. It truly does say what he wants to say is that and what he's saying is that people it's just not fair. That is what he’s saying, yeah.

Michael Epstein: Help me understand, the beginning of the book. Paint a picture for me of this beautiful- you know how does the big portrait of this thing open up?

Gloria Naylor: The environment the description of the environment which is to foretell what's going to happen in the whole novel itself. So you open up with the land. Not being able to nurture the corn that the rain comes but it doesn't penetrate the earth. You have the dry wind that's blowing the corn down and drying up the young stalks. You have this sense of oppressiveness and sterility and above all I think futility that even nature itself is futile and unable to flourish. And then slowly what's moving from the horizon are these big tractors and what these tractors are coming to do is to destroy the homes of the sharecroppers and to put in a huge agribusiness.

Michael Epstein: Why?

Gloria Naylor: Because it was not it is more profitable for the stockholders to have an agribusiness than to have the tenant farmers there.

Michael Epstein: So give me a sense of how you that first moment when you see the whole family, what you think of the Joads?

Gloria Naylor: What you see people trying to do physically is to save bits and scraps of their life and to move on with it and so they're deciding what do I take what do I leave? Do I take the little china dog. Do I take the letter my brother wrote me just before he died. What won't overload the truck as we try to move on with our lives? So you have this overwhelming picture of people just sorting through the little scraps and mementos of their lives getting ready to leave that.

Michael Epstein: Gutwrenching. That they have to leave even memories.

Gloria Naylor: Yes they have to leave memories. The fact that she didn't want to take the letter that her brother wrote just before he died you know that there wouldn't be enough space for that.

Michael Epstein: But do you think that Joads share Steinbeck’s anger?

Gloria Naylor: I know the Joads don't share Steinbeck's anger. What you see the Joad’s doing and what this book becomes is a sort of quest for one's humanity and that humanity is equated to having some kind of substantial work. So what the Joads keep moving from place to place to place looking for a chance to work looking for a chance to be human. They don't blame the banks in the east they don't blame the stockholders. They don't blame the huge farm owners. The Joads don't blame anyone. They don't really even blame themselves what they feel as they haven't tried hard enough. So you move a little further. You try a little harder. You know you just simply you try for that one day to make that one meal. And then when you think about it what else could they do given the kind of people they were? They were not people for big picture. I don't believe in that whole novel they ever once picked up a newspaper.

Michael Epstein: Do you think they see themselves outside of the American dream?

Gloria Naylor: I don't think that the Joads- if we- see because you asked me in the beginning how do I even define the American dream and I gave you my definition. If we just look at the overall sort of pat definition of the American dream which is if you work hard enough, you want it badly enough, save enough, that you will indeed prosper. I don't think the Joads even had that large a vision. I think what the Joads wanted to do was to wake up in the morning to feel that they have had a productive day when they go to bed that night. That's what they want they want to be able to provide for their families for that day and that that that's where Steinbeck's rage comes in because they are denied even that. They are not allowed to be human beings.