By Jerry Davich
MERRILLVILLE – John Littman Jr. hasn’t achieved the American Dream. He doubts he ever will.
“As a person of color in America, my entire adult life has born witness to a demise of … expectations. And a seemingly tougher means to claw a way up,” he said.
Littman is a 62-year-old life insurance salesman. He’s nothing like the self-deluded salesman of a mythical American Dream – the literary character Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. Littman came to realize that easy success and inevitable wealth are figments of a contaminated pipe dream, not the promised American Dream, as Loman wrongly and fatally believed.
“I believe the answer may be relative to the individual’s idea of what they believe to be the American Dream,” said Littman, who lives in Gary. “For most people, it may mean being able to rise to a level of success equal to or greater than what your parents were able to achieve. This includes building, or continuing, a legacy for your children and successive generations.
“If I apply that standard to myself, my choices and my experiences, I would have to say I haven’t achieved it,” Littman said.
I wondered how many other people have come to the same conclusion at a certain age in life. Littman is nearing retirement age. At some point he reached a shift-in-time perspective where he began glancing more to the past than the future. All of us will experience this someday. Maybe you have reached this point years ago.
For some people, the past may rattle around like broken glass in a paper bag. The future may seem like an empty box of lost opportunities. At some point the dream turned into a bothersome restlessness that never reached their expectations.
“I believe to solve the problem of all Americans having the ability to achieve the idea of the American Dream, we must first fix American democracy,” Littman has concluded. “By fixing our democracy, we can begin to fix the economic, education, health and labor issues that have come to plague our nation over the last 40 years.”
Littman was born in New Bern, North Carolina, later living in Tuskegee, Alabama. He and his mother relocated to Gary in 1970, living in the Horace Mann neighborhood. He returned to New Bern with his father to attend North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. In 1982, Littman came back to Gary. He’s been married twice, with one son and three grandchildren.
He’s seen a lot of life. He’s done his research about this topic. He speaks from experience and education, not from ignorance or delusion. “Was the American Dream always a lie?” he asks.
The dictionary defines it this way: “The ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.”
Littman questions the aspect of “any American” achieving this white-picket reality.
“Given the definition and part of speech as an intangible, the phrase in fact is relegated to an idea,” he said. “That idea is cherished by a segment of society as a goal, an end, by which with hard work, dedication and good choices you may be able to achieve it. But was that idea intended for the nation’s first people, for the African, for the indentured servant?”
Littman cited numerous reports and studies to support his thesis.
“What role does classism play in our ability to achieve the American Dream?” he asked.
He shared a report from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., showing the American upper middle-class separating, slowly but surely, from the rest of society. Not only through income disparity, but also through growing gaps in family structure, education, lifestyle and geography.
“To say the country is divided, and that we can count on ongoing contentiousness, is one thing,” Littman said. “The question is do we know and understand what is at the root of the divide? It’s not the government. It’s not the politicians. It’s not religion or lack thereof. It is we the people, and how a large number of us have been living lives based on lies, and our unwillingness to study the facts.”
Unlike too many Americans, Littman has been studying the facts. He’s been questioning what he once believed as truth. Has the American Dream been lowered to half-staff indefinitely? Has economic policy decisions hindered achievement of the American Dream? Have our expectations sabotaged our realizations?
Littman questions how much voter suppression has tainted the American Dream for marginalized people and oppressed populations.
He finds inspiration through influential, outspoken leaders such as the Rev. William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Littman’s home state.
“Barber is a leader at the forefront of meeting this challenge,” Littman said.
Barber uses peaceful protests and biblical passages to challenge public inequities that Littman is noticing more as he gets older. In a recent interview, Barber told his followers, “If you’re going to fix this system, you have to have a movement strategy that shifts the consciousness of the country.”
Littman is tapping in to this shift in collective consciousness.
“There seems to be … an ever-growing hope for a better future,” he said.
Littman also is tapping into his higher power, which transcends the flickering promises of the American Dream. It keeps his personal dream aflame in the harsh winds of skepticism. He remains hopeful, not only for himself but for our people.
“What gives me hope for the future is my faith in God,” he said. “The God of justice and peace.”
Hope. Faith. Justice. And peace.
When Littman shared with me his reimagined dream for America, I wondered if he should sell life assurance, not life insurance.
Jerry Davich is a columnist with the Post-Tribune in Merrillville.