Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Xolo Score 3.25/5
Set in the heels of the 2008 financial crisis Behold the Dreamers follows the intertwined lives of the Cameroonian Jonga family and the Edwards – the Jonga's all-American wealthy employers. The Jonga's (Jende, Neni, and young Liomi) are recent immigrants to New York City that work every day to make their American dreams come true. And things start to take a positive turn when Jende finds work as Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards' driver. But, unfortunately, it isn't very long for both the Jonga's and the Edwards lives to crumple when Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy, and the U.S. dives headfirst into a recession that quickly lifts the veil of the "American Dream."
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
Throughout Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue spotlights the harsh realities and precariousness of being an immigrant in the U.S. No matter how hard you try or work, larger forces at play can quickly destroy any foundation you've built. And reminds us that family is what makes a place your home and that there is no shame in starting over.
Although the term DREAMer and general U.S. immigration discourse are typically associated with immigrants from Latin America, Behold the Dreamers centers on the African immigrant perspective. The immigrant experience is not uniform, and it's important to highlight these complexities. Although immigrants can commiserate on the bureaucratic pains that come with the USCIS, immigrants are not treated the same. Some are awarded racial privileges both within the immigration system and among U.S. society.
Behold the Dreamers at its core demystifies and debunks the rose-colored narrative of the "American Dream." Of course, it's important to celebrate the accomplishments and successes of the immigrant community. But like anything else, it can perpetuate this false narrative that the U.S. is a meritocracy where social mobility is your reward for working every day on stolen land. Too often, this idea breeds the model minority myth and ignores the systemic barriers and inequalities immigrants face to make ends meet. Mbue challenges these ideas and has the Jonga family return to Cameroon disillusioned, a bit defeated, but ultimately together as a family and with their heads held high. Although the Jongas initially believed the U.S. would be their salvation, they also learned that it's ok to start over as long as they are safe and together. Thus, their return to Cameroon is not a failure but another opportunity to grow.
Imbolo Mbue does an excellent job of bringing this much-needed nuance to the "American Dream" through the portrayal of the Jonga family. However, the book extends a lot of sympathy for the supposed "plight" of the Edward family. The mental health deterioration and instability of the tragically abandoned wife and mother Cindy Edwards feels like a forced plot point to demonstrate that the Edwards don't come out unscathed from the crisis. And by comparing the experiences of these two families, the book comments on how a crisis disproportionally affects lower-income families than their upper-middle-class counterparts. But it still seemed a bit unfair to Cindy's character, and it doesn't make sense to the more prominent critic of the book about systemic inequalities.
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