Mbue provides a transparent look at how the fate of one family pursuing the American Dream depends on the future of another.
In her novel, Behold the Dreamers, author Imbolo Mbue's shares her observations of the hardships of an immigrant family seeking the American Dream in New York City in 2008. Through her characters she gives voice to the inequality of race relations that we still see in the 2020s.
It was George Floyd's recorded demised that brought the inequality to the forefront in a time fraught with tension. When so many were willing to look the other way when it came to racial inequality and the abuse of a flawed system, we could no longer look away or ignore it. However, if we just read, we can find evidence recorded in our books.
Behold the Dreamers is a novel by Imbolo Mbue that brings light to racial injustice. Prentice Onayemi gives voice to the characters through his audibook narration. Onayemi’s stunning performance provides a melodic tone to the story of a Cameroonian family pursuing the American Dream. His lyrical voice captures the character of Jende Jonga through his excitement and frustration of having the American Dream within his grasp and his struggles to keep it. In addition, his vocal characterization of each character adds depth to the story.
The backdrop is New York City when the financial institution Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. The main character, Jende Jonga, leaves his job as a New York City cab driver and becomes the full-time chauffeur for Wall Street executive Clark Edwards and his family. The book shares the interactions between the two men, Jende Jonga and Clark Edwards, and the interactions between their wives.
Jende and Clark's lives become further intertwined when Jende's wife, Neni, accompanies Clark's wife Cindy as a housekeeper and nanny at the family's vacation home over the summer.
Mbue deftly demonstrates the juxtaposition between the two families through the interactions between the husbands and the wives.
The reader sees their lives become further entangled as the fate of one family depends on the future of another during the 2008 financial crisis. Both are pursuing the American Dream. The Jongas left Cameroon to find it in New York City. The Clarks discover that wealth does not guarantee or equate happiness in their pursual of the American Dream family left Cameroon looking for the American dream in New York City. However, the Clark family discovers that wealth does not guarantee happiness.
Each family makes decisions to maintain their dignity and position, thereby applying further stress to their work and family. Their priorities redefine what the American Dream means for them.
I was intrigued by Mbue’s inspiration for the story. During the recession, Mbue lost her job. She walked the sidewalks of New York City searching for a new job and noticed that black drivers were lined up on the street waiting for the white financial executives to leave their offices. Mbue wondered how their lives intersected, and over the next five years, she wrote Behold the Dreamers where she expertly describes the hardships and obstacles of an immigrant family looking to better their life.
The book also touches on race relations from Jende’s point of view. One such observation is when his wife Neni tells him of a church that is willing to help them.
“Maybe because they don’t have black people there, and they have to have a black family,” Jende retorted. “Those kind of white people are always trying to prove to their friends how much they like black people.”--Jende Jonga, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Mbue's commentary on the racial divide in 2008, is beautifully shared through Jende's observations. It feels like it should be something from an earlier era; sadly, it is not. As we explore our own actions in the 2020’s social and political climate, it is a reminder that racial allyship is not for show but an actual call to action.
Have you read Behold the Dreamers? What do you think of Mbue's commentary on race relations? Do you think it's still relevant today?
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