The American Dream or The American Nightmare? What is the reality for Chicago South Siders?

Many understand “The American Dream” as having the white picket fence. A home, two children, a dog and spouse. The successful and/or stable career, financial security, owning a piece of land and later passing it down to the children, has been the definition.

In 1931, author James Truslow Adams defined “The American Dream” as “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” Translation, if you came to America or even are American- if you work hard, you can find a job in order to control your destiny to achieve the ideal life you want in the land of the free.

In 2017, are Chicagoans living “The American Dream or The American Nightmare?” At what point do we look at our success to really analyze if we are living the life James Truslow Adams described in 1931. In order to get a sense of “The American Dream or The American Nightmare”, several Chicagoans who are vested in their careers, communities and families were asked their thoughts. Particularly Chicagoan’s living on the South Side, who like many, experienced the ills of a tough economy, polarized political climate, a plethora of past disinvestments and polices that have worked against South Siders. Factor in ethnicity and demographics, how are they feeling about “The American Dream”?

On Paper It Looks Good: It’s Window Dressing

Brian Barker, 37 resides in Greater Grand Crossing with his wife of 2 years, 6 month old son Bryson and owns a 4,000 square foot home. He’s currently a professor at DePaul University where he teaches hospitality and management. On paper he’s living “The American Dream”, he’s not quick to jump on the bandwagon of saying he’s living “The Dream” but does feel he is doing well.

Brian Barker and his son Bryson

“I remained loyal to my community; I returned to my community, it’s a little disheartening because I want more of my community members to do well. It’s difficult to reach any level of success when you know so many others who are not on that path,” said Barker.  Any level of success he’s obtained is overshadowed by the guilt of wanting to do more for his community and making a systemic change.

Brian Barker, DePaul University Professor

The successful career, the spouse, the nice home and the family are personal success, also known as window dressing, states Mark Harris. Harris is an Englewood native who currently resides in a condo in Hyde Park with his wife of 2 years.  He also happens to be a successful film director.  Several of his films including “Black Coffee and My First Love” can currently be seen on TV-One, B.E.T, Centric and to date, he’s produced several films that are either on TV or showing on Netflix. When mentioning his accolades, Harris adds there is still a concern for blacks. The Black Community and improving the lives of black people is something he cannot overlook.

Mark Harris, Film Director

Harris believes he can equally achieve the success of his white counterparts in film, but also feels by telling blacks that if he can make it they can too is a lie. “I know by telling black people that, it’s like saying this world is not designed to keep us in a certain position or this system is not designed to suffocate us.”  You’re leading them to believe that there are not things set in place to work against them. Harris adds that through unity we can all do it because unity is more important than looking at personal or individual success.

American Sitcoms Shaped Who Lived “The American Dream”

We saw the “The American Dream” on The Partridge Family, Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best and a host of shows that articulated what this “Dream” looked like post World War II. For many Americans, the idea of inclusiveness has been measured by the indicators of a house, a white picket fence, a dog and a family anchored by a man and a woman role in maintaining the house and the child role in growing. In reality there may have been a dream for some Americans, but there are others who have had to work harder to get ahead in hopes of this “Dream” becoming a reality just because of their race. “At the same time while we saw images of white families living the American Dream, we saw blacks struggling in Good Times, Sanford and Son, Julia and various shows that showed the black plight to achieve that hope. What it said for blacks was an “American Nightmare”. A nightmare that had it’s beginning for a group of people kidnapped from Africa and subjugated through institutional slavery,” said Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks.

Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks sees the evidence of African Americans accomplishing “The American Dream” (or let’s call it Black Excellence).  Greater Saint John AME Church is home to many affluent blacks who were doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians who too were homeowners in the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950. Many of which are the off springs who are also living “The American Dream” and currently make-up the congregation. Greater Saint John is the oldest African American church located in Chicago’s Englewood community established in 1887.

Pastor K. Andre Brooks and GSJAME Members

Brooks adds, it was not until shows like The Jefferson’s, The Huxtables and Family Matters that blacks started to see themselves as inclusive members in the idea of “The American Dream”.

Whose Is Allowed To Have This Dream?

The American Dreams for Blacks in this society has often been highlighted by what many see in the media, i.e. struggling families, single parent homes and impoverished communities. The fact of the matter is that blacks were much more successful in manifesting “The Dream” despite the American realities.  Black Wall Street was a major example of the African American fulfilling “The American Dream” during the early 1900’s when Tulsa, Oklahoma had over 600 black booming businesses and many affluent black communities. This type of Black Excellence was echoed around the country which prompted the shared prosperity, adds Pastor Brooks. It exemplified, that blacks too are American and can climb the economic ladder. Yet this became a dream deferred or possibly “The American Nightmare” when in June 1921, envious whites bombed the area and killed some 3,000 blacks.

Homeownership plays a major role in defining “The American Dream”. The next best thing was putting down stake in a community by owning a piece of property you worked hard for and a place you could call your own. In the classic novel “A Raisin In The Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry the world was given a glimpse of the reality for blacks in regard to real estate discrimination. Hansberry’s book was based on her family’s story in which she detailed the policies and practices used against blacks to prohibit them from accomplishing “The American Dream” i.e. homeownership.  Such polices included restrictive covenants – which was legal at the time prohibiting black buyers from purchasing homes in an all-white community.

Hansberry’s story was similar for many blacks who faced the struggle in achieving this “American Dream” and was told by way of polices like “redlining” and “restrictive covenants” which in essence stopped blacks from purchasing property in white communities. That restriction led to blacks not being able to readily take part in “The American Dream”.

Many families like my own grandparents still pushed through such redlining practices in 1960’s and fought to purchase in predominately white neighborhoods like Chicago’s Englewood community in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Katherine and Lawrence Haynes (Rashanah’s Grandparents)

A Challenging Dream

There are a lot of mindsets, challenges and variations of what this “American Dream” meant from generation to generation. “I will always be a black man in America,” explains Harris. No matter how successful African Americans are on paper or even in their respective careers, until the community as a whole is operating better; to believe in that dream is a challenge.

While each men expressed his sentiments about living the “The American Dream or The American Nightmare”, collectively they perceived that their communities would have to be thriving in order to really look at themselves as living out that dream. They felt that as a whole there would need to be systematic change, improvement of the quality of life for African Americans and thriving communities in order for them to bask in the glory of living “The American Dream.”

Dream Deferred vs Personal/Bad Choices

Achievement of “The American Dream” has been proven by the noted success of our ancestors (who built America) who had much more to face and overcome.  If they could do it, then so can we.  However, a small part in not achieving “The American Dream” may sometimes be due in part to one’s own personal and/or bad choices in life.  These choices play a pivotal role in how far one can, or cannot, go to make “The American Dream” a reality.

Institutionally, blacks have not been on a level playing field where we did not have the boots or boot straps to pull ourselves up.  This coupled with bad choices really places the odds against us.

So it becomes imperative that we are careful in the choices and decisions we make.  There is not much room for error, i.e. no petty theft, no child-hood pranks, no detrimental FB postings.  The list is endless, yet we are up for the challenge and clear that Black Excellence is the goal to which we strive.

Why Black Church Should Matter to Black Millennials: #WhyBlackChurchStillMatters?

Photo credit: dazzle shot images
Rashanah Baldwin

Why should Black millennials re-engage in Black Churches?

There is an outcry from Black millennials who feel that Church is not the place for them anymore and consequently have disengaged. Many millennials question the relevancy of “Church” and see it as a bastion of yesterdays fight for freedom and religious fellowship for Black Americans.  They are frustrated with the overwhelming number of Black churches in depressed and impoverished communities that are not active socially, economically, and politically.  In recent articles and academic research reports by Pew Research Center, Poynter Institute, and Huffington Post articles reveal that millennials have either disengaged all together from church or have been church hopping.

While doing research on this issue, I ran across statements like “You can’t say you love me but don’t address the massive social injustices we face. You can’t expect us to worship Jesus the Christ but then the church does not speak out against police brutality.”

As a millennial, I set out to get the facts by talking with two pastors on the South Side of Chicago in the Englewood community who are known to have active participation from millennials.

Why Do Black Churches Matter?

“Black Churches have always mattered, the real question is when and why did they stop mattering to Black millennials? The Black Church has always been the number one civil, moral, social, and human rights organization in America for the upliftment and advancement of Blacks since 1787…the problem is that the parents and grandparents of millennials did not emphasize this fact…both institutionally and individually…Black millennials would not be the great critical theorists they are if it was not for the sacrifice of their Black grandparents in churches who created a thriving Black Middle Class through their colleges,” said Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks of The Greater Saint John African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African American Church in Englewood, Chicago (Founded 1887).

According to Brooks, the Black churches have been the place where many organizing efforts started, where many civil rights leaders who would have been considered millennials at the time, used the church to convene in privacy and where movements centered on addressing social justice issues were birthed.

Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks of Greater Saint John AME

Church is Compassion and Justice. (We have to do both)

“Church is relevant because it is supposed to be God’s hands and feet,” said Pastor Jonathan Brooks of Canaan Community Church located in Englewood.  The majority of his congregation is made up of millennials and generation x’ers who call him Pastor J.  Similar, to Pastor K. Andre Brooks, he acknowledges how instrumental Black churches have been in shaping civil rights movements. Pastor J implied that many Blacks have hung their hat on that history and rested on it alone. He believes many Blacks became relaxed after segregation ended.  He understands the narrative of why many millennials have disengaged from Black churches.

“It includes caring about their neighbor. You can’t have a food pantry but not march against these food injustices. You can’t sit in a community with closing schools and not engage the community outside the walls of church,” said Pastor J.

Pastor Jonathan Brooks, Canaan Community Church

Pastor Jonathan Brooks, Canaan Community Church

Millennials across the nation and right here in Chicago have been impacted by the death of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and many more.

With so many churches in the Black communities, millennials are wondering why these Black churches aren’t involved in these social issues.  Pastor J says “they’re in that community and they should be involved in some capacity.”  Social issues and spiritual issues should not be separated. It’s dangerous. An example is slavery and how white slave masters physically controlled the bodies of slaves. Christianity was used to justify the institution of slavery while not acknowledging the contradiction, which is, slavery in a civilized society.

Pastor Jonathan Brooks, Cooking Matter Workshop

Understanding The Role and History of Black Churches.

Black churches, or more specifically, Black pastors became the spokespersons of civil rights movements and even social movements. Black churches enforced cooperative values, instilled the hierarchical approach—taught organizing skills to budding leaders rising up in the ranks about understanding democracy, equality, working together and caring for others. Some of the harshest laws and practices created by the fore fathers of the United States of America under the values of Christianity were overturned by civil rights leaders both religious and non-religious leaders who organized in the church.

Jim Crow-ism and all forms of segregation were abolished by way of the efforts of the Black churches. Young people have always been anchored in the church.  Pastor K. Andre Brooks points out the establishment of fraternities, sororities, Chicago Urban League, NAACP, SNCC (student nonviolent coordinating committee) and the Black Panther Party were organized by the efforts and support of the Black churches.  “These churches created a since of black organizational excellence and civic engagement in the community…. led primarily by young people i.e. millennials of that era,” said Pastor K.  Brooks.

Get In Formation. Segregation Birthed Black Unity

“Don’t Break The Line, Don’t Scream and Holler. We have water, we have medics and minsters on the line.  We’re going to bend down and pray. If a rock is thrown at you try to catch it. Wear strong hats,” recalls Jacqueline Baldwin, Englewood Native and activist. These were the words she members Jesse Jackson saying to her and young activists in Chicago who were bused from Englewood to Marquette Park as well as other racially segregated areas in Chicago to protest during the 1960’s.  Jackson organized ( by then Operation Bread Basket now known as Operation Rainbow Push Coalition) workshops where he taught young activists like Baldwin on how to prepare for these protests, how to prepare for the attack and the negative remarks. She says, attending church was a way of life, you had no choice but to go to church, you got your upbringing and morals from church.  If the parents did not go to church the children still were sent to Sunday school.  As a teenager Baldwin, remembers watching the horrific images of dogs being unleashed on young children, men and women in the South. She recalls watching bricks being thrown at Blacks, Blacks being spit on and water hoses being used on them. These images were imprinted in her head and many others who wanted to fight back.

Where did they turn? Who could they trust? Who was responsible for the gathering of these passionate folks like Baldwin who were compelled to do something?  She states, “We didn’t organize in vacant lots, it wasn’t the schools because they were ran by the racists who did not want to end segregation.” The church basements and the pastors office is where we organized.  These were the safest places for Blacks to go, to strategize, to plan the next rallies, to create fliers, create slogans and meet other churches as well as pastors who were doing the same thing.” She adds this is why Black Church matters and still should matter.

Segregation forced blacks to unite, celebrate each other and fight together, this came from Black churches, both Pastor K. Brooks and Baldwin stress.

Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks

“How many marches would have taken place if it wasn’t for the churches?  We stood up for those people who got hurt, got hit, and we prayed.  Dr. King came to Englewood, frequently to New Friendship Baptist Church (71st Green) to organize and rally with the youth led by a young Pastor John Porter. The youth were used at the churches to organize these movements; the churches birthed some of the greatest singers, actors, and teachers. In church you learned about life, Baldwin says. Black churches matter then and they matter now. During this time, Baldwin says church made her consciously aware of who she was, why the fight for Black rights was important, and why blacks need to stand up for themselves.

Engaging Millennials Beyond The Ministry

“Scripture speaks the way of life”-Pastor Jonathan Brooks.

“I was present in the environments that they were in, I was cool and I was hip. I talked like them and spoke their language. I engaged them were they are…. They wanted to know more about me and I told them my pains, insecurities, frustration with parents, God, and the Black Church…. bottom line I went out of the church and built relationships based on sincere interest and love…not dogma, doctrine, religion. I loved them.” said Pastor K. Brooks, when asked how he was able to get millennials to start attending a historic and traditional Black Church.

Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks and GSJAME members

Pastor K. Brooks saw the importance of adapting to the culture of millennials by simply meeting them on their level. Using language, lingo, and an understanding of who they are.  He took it a step further by forming meaningful relationships with them outside of the church. While speaking on fostering relationships with millennials, Brooks says he engaged them at coffee shops, clubs, and at community events. He found out what their interests were and found ways to teach them through ministry. His sermons reflected their language and integrated pop culture with the word of God in the message.  He created a positive attitude and perception about the church, fostered a culture where being a believer is cool and hip, fashionable, cutting edge and trendsetting.

Pastor Kevin Brooks with GSJAME Members

In addition, he enacted a revolutionary zeal for millennials to confront injustice. Greater Saint John AME Church will celebrate its 130th Anniversary in August and will continue to preach the “Good In Englewood”. There have been many initiatives that were led by millennials out of GSJAME such as the Gun Buy Back by Programs, GED Classes, Suit & Clothes Give Aways, After School Tutorials, Social Justices Rallies, Dinner Parties, Water Crisis in Flint Michigan and “Tea With A Queen” (a young girl mentoring series). It’s important that millennials have an active role in the church where they can serve in leadership roles alongside the elders of the church, explains Pastor K. Brooks.

“I just recently started going back to church and it really has been eye opening for me. Instead of being pushed into focusing in on the religion aspect of church. It’s more of a spiritual connection that my pastor expresses towards the members of the church. He does speak from the bible and gives us lessons from it. He wants us to awaken our spiritual awareness.” Jahmel T. Singleton, Greater Saint John AME Church, Member.

In Canaan Community Church, there is an environment in which millennials could challenge the bible and the pastors in a respectful manner, said Pastor J. This is a way of engaging millennials meaningfully and less critically.  He adds, “I didn’t come to abolish ways, I came to embrace it. I don’t judge. I speak their frequency. I speak to their interests.”

Pastor Jonathan Brooks

One Narrative. One Community. One Englewood

“Live Where you work, Worship were you live and Eat where you live,” has been the motto of this millennial who chose to join the Black Church because I observed that my Pastor K.Brooks, was not trying to shove Christianity down my throat but share a meal and spread the life giving message of salvation through Christ together.

In unison, both Pastors assert that millennials who are not feeling the inclusion at church or that their church is not active in social justice issues, should first seek to talk with their pastor.  Seek out solutions before leaving, such solutions include becoming officers of the church, forming youth ministries and also starting their own ministry.

“We want to be a church that serves with the community. I made it a point to engage in the community where the church is housed,” said Pastor J.  Our churches are resources. A variety of initiatives take place at Canaan including  the Continuum around education, Edward T. Dunn Scholarships for college, Hip-Hop (Sunday Sessions) and end of the month Poetry Nights. Pastor J is also active at Henderson Elementary School and participates in Angels of Hope, where he and church members visit the families of those incarcerated.

To the churches and pastors who do not engage millennials, address social justice issues, and who discount millennials, Pastor J says “stop and begin listening to the young folks.”

Pastor J says, “Black churches still matter, because God is still concerned with the plight of black people in America. Any church not concerned is not echoing the heart of GOD.

The Brooks’ of Englewood Chicago are starting a revolutionary youth movement that millennials can be proud of and actively engage in Rediscovering and Redefining the Black Church.  For more information visit  @GoodInEnglewood on  Facebook and Twitter.

Pastor Kevin Andre Brooks and Pastor Jonathan Brooks