We Too Dream: AOC, Stephen A. Smith and the Narrative of How to Make It in America

Apr 22, 2019
11:08 AM

By now a number of media outlets have reported on the comments shared by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the annual convention of the National Action Network. In doing so, we revisit a series of ongoing dialogues about the significance and implications of code-switching, audience reception (and criticism), and the processes of socialization that are informed by, and in some eyes, overdetermined by geographical location and race. Whether folks debate the merits of AOC’s invitation to the cookout, or the alleged appropriation of a Southern drawl (in addressing a Black audience), the commentary misses the mark on the most compelling (and egregious) aspects of soundbite culture and the avalanche of prevalent access to the ever-present bully pulpit that is social media.

The issue at hand is not one centered on language, its diversity, invocation, or delivery. One can make the argument that the soundbite circulating on Twitter finds AOC in full-fledged performance mode: one-part slam poet, one part advocate and activist, one part student of history, and several servings of politician flexing their oratorical and political muscle.

All in all, AOC is an inheritor, an interlocutor, answering the clarion call of her predecessors, lessons culled from the depths of the past to quell the thirst and angst of the present, those who have felt the brunt of hindsight breathing profoundly upon their backs. Engaging in the citational politics that is equal parts nostalgia and homage, AOC addressed her audience within the backdrop of the 51st anniversary of the passing of Martin Luther King, Jr. In that vein, AOC sought to illuminate a particular arc of history that implicates us all as agents of social change, figures who are at once receding and representative of futures to be undertaken and undone. Thus, there are dreams and then there are nightmares, but it is in the intimate tethering of both that permits us the space to aspire, inspire, and dream again.

It is within this context that the Reverend Al Sharpton would invoke and welcome community (diasporically I might add!), referring to the Congresswoman as both a “little sister” and “a sister-Congresswoman,” one who seamlessly transitioned from “a bartender serving customers” to “Congresswoman serving the people.” In painting a picture of trajectory and scope, Sharpton drew a comparison between the fantasy embodied in the privilege and myopic lens of Trump, and the dream as continued in the narrative of Ocasio-Cortez.

Upon taking the stage, Ocasio-Cortez would harness the energy of that introduction to reflect upon her own come-up narrative. In Ocasio-Cortez’s America (much like MLK Jr’s forgotten longing) there is honor in being a working-class person. Inherent in the infrapolitical possibility of working-class solidarity, there is an ingenuity about survival and everyday resistance narratives that locates a kind of cosmopolitanism (of outlook, empathy, and ideology)m whereby the Bronx serves as a literal and symbolic metaphor of audacity, an acknowledgment that speaks community into existence, while being afforded the outlet to imagine, envision, and theorize broader conceptualizations of the communities we can subscribe to and see solidarity with.

This stance allows AOC to draw explicit parallels that connects the South Bronx to the residents of Appalachia and beyond, an untethering of dominant discourses that allows muffled voices to speak from the shadows à la Jordan Peele’s Us. The fixation with a soundbite does not permit these kinds of connections.

In focusing our efforts on the performance and misdeeds of the authentic or inauthentic, we deprive ourselves of one of the fundamental questions posed by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, a commentary on How to Make it in America.

However, in spite of her rhetorical genius, affect, and the (if not strategic) invocation of the shared beautiful struggle that incites a fierce solidarity across geographic, temporal, and other marginalized identities, there is a misstep on her part as she maps out a narrative of how we have fared in times of uncertainty, and how we respond in the face of deep mistrust and regroup thereafter. In drawing parallels between her own experiences and those of her audience, she elides the intermediary steps involved in making it: the access to higher education and graduate school training, the analytical lens, and the public speaking skills, in addition to, the mobilization of different forms of capital that effectively adds up to experience and exposure. After all, how common is it for our passions to be discovered and nurtured in times of duress when the present (or past) is neither indicative of our potential, or a reflection of the possibilities and limitations of what we could be.

One can go from working at a restaurant to becoming a member of Congress in the span of a year… if you have access to and can deploy the resources within your toolkit to empower yourself, while continuing to advocate for and speak on behalf of other vulnerable segments of the population. That is no small task! It would behoove us to be mindful of the thought-provoking op-ed penned for The New York Times entitled “The Implicit Punishment of Daring to go to College When Poor.”

In sharing their perspective, Enoch Jemmott narrates the significance of having skin in the game of college admissions. The implications are twofold. One reading would suggest a willingness (and bravery) to bare one’s soul in highlighting the obstacles and barriers to be negotiated in applying to college. The other, a juxtaposition with the current college admissions scandal, highlights the inherent inequities involved in a decision to play the admissions game, where wealth, relationships, academic preparedness, and resources not only determine a series of admits and rejections, but of financial aid and access (just because you have been granted an “in,” does not mean you’ve been put “on”). All of this before interfacing with the institution itself, and the labor involved in those efforts.

This not only underscores the interventions recently made by POLITICO (highlighting how the rise of AOC serves as a shock to the system of electoral politics and gamesmanship), they force us to confront other invocations of the American dream. To invoke such a dream vis-à-vis educational access and success at this particular moment comes within the backdrop of the recent T.M. Landry controversy (for those most vulnerable segments of the populations), where administrators exploited the American dream in their favor by embellishing, and in some instances, crafting vignettes of creative fiction that sought to undo and hustle the system in favor of their students. While some students fell short of great expectations, some students actually did well.

Dare we knock those students’ hustle?

In a song entitled “Things Done Changed,” from his debut album Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G. once cautioned listeners, “Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot,” a commentary that was meant to illuminate a sliver of what America represented (to some). That is, a sense of helplessness, hope, audacity, despair, talent, and ambition—a cocktail of a generations mortality navigating and negotiating an urban terrain where opportunities and outlets were limited by the optics of one’s zip code.

Not all together different, there is the narrator Justin Timberlake occupying the role of “Richie Furst” in the film Runner Runner, wherein questions of race, class, access, and opportunity are intimately tied to the conceptualization of capital, privilege, and space. Playing the role of a graduate student pursuing a Master’s of Finance at Princeton University, Furst informs viewers, “at Princeton you’re either bred for it, or you bleed for it. And I can’t seem to stop bleeding.” The poignant line encompasses an observation differentiating haves from have-nots. The observation pinpoints the price of the ticket—the pound of flesh demanded of those who seek to transcend in their quest for upward mobility, acceptance, and access, and the traces of self that reference both wounding and healing.

While seeing Timberlake and Biggie as interlocutors engaged (via storytelling) in a running social commentary on the invisible, the marginal, and the anxieties informed by and in response to the search for a success narrative, we have accounts that juxtapose the streets and athletics from the pillars of higher education (and an elite education at that)—musings on dreams, nightmares, and fantasies.

All of this underscores the gamut of competing narratives that circulate and vie for our collective attention when thinking about communities and stories that go unnoticed when they encounter the public sphere, let alone the gaze of mainstream media. The narratives performed by Biggie and Timberlake range from the legal to the illegal. They seek to account for the tethering of self to the game of capitalism and more importantly, the conduits implicated within that system, those that allow for success and survival (however illusive that may be). Taken together, there is a cognizance of what it means to have skin in the game and the fragile relationship of self to the allure of the chase that can ultimately call into question the nature of the game itself: rules, regulations, and mechanisms that control who’s in and who’s out.

AOC’s linking of self to others synthesizes a balance between descriptive and substantive representation: the dual, if not contrasting storylines implied in the mantra, keeping it real. In offering anecdotal evidence that binds AOC to the audience, her dream is irrefutably, one of our dreams.

This not only informs Ocasio-Cortez’s urge to reinforce how much she talks and acts like the Bronx (as if one could actually quantify or measure what that looks like amidst the diversity present in the borough. Shall we juxtapose AOC with Cardi B, who also hails from the Bronx?), it informs a progressive narrative of projection that is intimately, if not fundamentally puro Americana (no matter how much you rail against the establishment). In naming, claiming, and owning her working-class roots, Ocasio-Cortez echoes the words of rapper Tupac Shakur:

Here’s a message to the newborns waitin’ to breathe
If you believe, then you can achieve: just look at me!
Against all odds, though life is hard we carry on
Livin’ in the projects, broke with no lights on
To all the seeds that follow me, protect your essence
Born with less, but you still precious; just smile for me now!

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise is one of great ambition, labor, and dues paid. This should resonate with all, across the political and ideological spectrum, for underemployment, in the search for “a break,” is equally a provocative a narrative as we will encounter in American society. National conversations about student debt and free tuition at public colleges touches on these push and pull forces.

This is precisely why Stephen A. Smith’s Twitter comments on April 4 were equally as thought-provoking and evocative.

Yet another invocation of the American dream. In that comment, he echoed sentiments expressed some years ago, drawing a distinction between the “American dream” and the “American fantasy.”

The latter was contextualized via the names Jay-Z, Kobe Bryant and others: exceptional, once in a generation talents whose efforts (and productivity, prolific at that) transformed the cultural landscape of their respective crafts. The former, Smith invoked in narrating some of his backstory: an upbringing in Hollis, Queens, his repeating the fourth grade, experiencing poverty, and being a product of a public school system and an HBCU. He too labored in obscurity, paying dues, and hoping for that same break—one he parlayed into positions at the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Accordingly, there are exceptional, transcendent talents, but intellect can be cultivated. Therein the positivism reinforced by Horatio Alger narratives lurks behind the hidden, untold stories of the American dream, those interstitial, yet formative experiences that are tinged with nightmares and fantasies —the underside— experiences that collectively shape our politics, outlook, and resolve.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Stephen A. Smith are but two examples of how the legacy of King in its audacity, radical imagining, and resolve are invoked on April 4th. Both speak across geographical, political, educational, racial, gendered, and classed conversations to highlight the challenges involved in both navigating and negotiating circumstances, systems, and institutions.

It is worth noting that there is substance and value to these narratives being brought to the forefront, particularly as they become cultural data to debated in the political and popular arena. The issue at hand is not about the mechanisms invoked or signified upon (language) that frame the American dream, it is in the fine tuning of details and narrativization that draw us closer to one another, the passing of information that informs how we all collectively move, in our efforts at making it in America. Jay-Z said it best on the “Story of O.J.:” Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine/But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.

That too is American dreaming.


Wilfredo A. Gomez is an independent scholar and researcher. He can be reached at gomez.wilfredo@gmail.com. He tweets from @BazookaGomez84.