The American Dream is that idea that in a free society you can indeed get ahead. Starting from near whatever point you can, by dint of work, application and that modicum of luck necessary in any human life gain a proper foothold on the economic ladder. Can, in fact, move up to the sort of riches and security which were nothing but a dream to earlier generations – and to distressingly large numbers of people out there in other countries.
So, here we’ve got a woman writing an acclaimed book telling us how hard this all is. How she worked as a maid and this proves the American Dream doesn’t work. Except, of course, having an acclaimed book published when one has been working as a hard pressed maid is a proof of that very American Dream, isn’t it?
As a single parent caught in the welfare trap, Stephanie Land got the only job she could, tidying homes for the comfortably well-off. Now she has turned her experiences into an acclaimed new book At first glance, it’s not immediately obvious that the toddler in the video I am watching is taking her first wobbly steps in a homeless shelter. Watching the tiny girl babble to her mother behind the camera, I am distracted by how spotless the floor looks. Yet in the eyes of Stephanie Land, the person who cleaned it, it was appalling: “Years of dirt were etched into the floor. No matter how hard I scrubbed, I could never get it clean.” People such as Land are perhaps the biggest threat to the myth of the American Dream: someone who worked hard, yet found her very country pitted against her success. Her new book, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is both a memoir of her time working as a cleaner in middle-class households, and a dismantling of the lies the US tells itself about the poor: namely, that they don’t work.
Why is success from a standing start in a bad position a refutation of the American Dream? Surely it’s a confirmation of it? Think how different it would be in a properly planned society. The housemaid applying to join the writers’ section of the State Cultural Board in order to see whether the State might like to publish her work. No, don’t laugh, that’s how it was managed over some third of the globe.
Not that the maid going on to star is a new phenomenon in American life:
That’s how Little Eva’s career started:
It was hardly an original piece of choreography, but the Loco-motion was certainly one of the most impressive records produced by the early 1960s vogue for pop dances. Much of its impact was due to the skill and personality of its teenage singer Little Eva, who has of died of cervical cancer aged 57.
She was born in Railroad Street, Belhaven, in rural North Carolina, the 10th of 13 children of Laura Boyd. At the age of 15, she moved north to attend high school in New York, living with relatives. She also worked as a maid and, two years later, a singer friend, Earl-Jean McCrae, of the Cookies, got her a babysitting job with two of the city’s top pop songwriters, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Legend has it variously that King and Goffin discovered Eva’s talent when they heard her singing around the house, or when her informal dancing inspired the duo to compose the Loco-motion.
It is an odd claim though, isn’t it? That a housemaid gains fame and fortune is a disproof of the American Dream?