• Evi Arthur

Imbolo Mbue discusses power, privilege and her book ‘Behold the Dreamers’

“She is going to be here in about four minutes, she needs to use the bathroom before she gets started,” jokes Heather Dalmage, director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation. 

Imbolo Mbue, author of the New York Times bestselling book “Behold the Dreamers,” is supposed to be in the Goodman Center to talk about her book, privilege and power, but she’s running a little behind schedule. Her plane from New York City was delayed and she just touched down in Chicago. She’ll be about 40 minutes late. 

This lecture is part of Roosevelt University’s annual American Dream Conference, a series of panels and lectures that examine the idea of the “American Dream” and how to get there. This is the Mansfield Institute’s contribution to the conference. 

Her book, “Behold the Dreamers,” tells the story of a young couple emigrating from Cameroon to New York City in the fall of 2007. The husband, Jende, gets a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers named Clark Edwards, and quickly befriends Edwards and his wife. Both families strive to reach the “American Dream” but when the 2008 recession hits, everything becomes much more difficult. The reader soon realizes that although the two families are distanced by class and status, both are powerless in their own ways. 

All of the freshman students at Roosevelt have been reading and discussing the novel in their first year seminar classes, sticking closely to the themes of power, privilege and powerlessness.

Dalmage continues her speech, managing to capture the essence of the week-long conference: “We’re taught from a very young age in the U.S. ‘work hard and you’ll achieve your dreams.’ The inversion of that is ‘if you don’t achieve your dreams, it must mean you didn’t work hard enough.’ But what happens if we have dreams that just aren’t achievable given our circumstances?”

Mbue does eventually show up—she doesn’t have to use the bathroom first—and jumps into a shortened version of her lecture. She talks about growing up in Cameroon, in a society that relied heavily on class distinctions: “I couldn’t accept the fact that one person had the right to claim power over another person simply by virtue of being from a higher socio-economic class.”

She remembers watching shows like “90210” and “The Cosby Show” growing up and dreaming of America as a land without classism. However, the dream of America faded when Mbue came to the United States for college. “[America and Cameroon] were both based on a system based on power,” Mbue says. “I noticed that in America, just like in Cameroon, there were the powerful and there were those whose powers had been either stolen from them or taken away by force.” 

Alexa Bocek, a freshman journalism and media studies major, attended the lecture with her honors United States Politics class. This is Bocek’s first ever American Dream Conference session. 

“She was talking about, at the beginning, self-discovery and learning about ourselves- I think it really helps you put a lot of things into perspective, especially since we’re younger and we’re just starting off,” Bocek says. “I’m interested in going to more [American Dream Conference sessions] and I definitely want to go next year.” 

The lecture was followed by a brief question and answer session so students could ask Mbue about her book as well as discuss her experience immigrating to the U.S. from Cameroon—Mbue tells the story of her first trip to McDonald’s, in which she was confused about which part of the chicken the chicken nugget came from. 

“Living in two very different countries has made me realize that we cannot look at racism or classism or sexism or any of the isms in isolation,” Mbue says. “Power structures that force the inequality are what we should seek to put an end to.”

Visit the published story here.

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