“The Chaneysville Incident” and the American Dream
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley follows the narrator John Washington in a deeply introspective exploration of his family history in order to truly find himself and the origin of his existence. Washington reaches a pinnacle of achievement in his life; he’s a respected scholar and has hit all the quintessential milestones which would indicate he’s achieved the ‘American Dream,’ so to speak. Despite such attainments, he realizes early on that with this immense amount of knowledge comes a greater understanding of the inner workings of society. One particularly important portion of the novel was Washington’s analogy, which he uses to describe America as a classed society through the various forms of transportation and to demonstrate how this society is very clearly rigged.
Washington states that in order to truly understand anything, specifically how a society is structured, you need to analyze the seemingly insignificant details. He states that the reason for this is:
“For one of the primary functions of societal institutions is to conceal the basic nature of society, so that the individuals that make up the power structure can pursue the business of consolidating and increasing their power untroubled by minor carpings of a dissatisfied peasantry” (Bradley, 6)
Quite honestly, Washington can appear to be putting forward a conspiracy theory. It goes to say that even down to the most minuscule intricate detail, society is manipulated greatly by this elite power structure that’s made up of the wealthiest most influential people in society. They make it so there’s an illusion of choice to comfort those with no power or say, when in reality it’s all rigged from the get-go in a class-society structure that makes it difficult for anyone to break through their tier and escape this metaphorical hamster wheel. The narrator states that the only way to truly understand the actual condition of a society is to start at the very bottom: in the bathroom.
The narrator goes further with this analogy when he demonstrates how the various forms of transportation correlate with this societal tier wealth power structure in America. Airports are the crown jewel of American ingenuity in this time period and even today. He goes on to state how the people are well-dressed, speak eloquently, and always tend to be beautiful. The attendants are well-paid and alcohol is an easily obtainable accommodation. With this level of service comes a hefty price tag, an excess of 200 dollars per ticket. The cost alone dictates which socio-economic class has the ability to use this form of transportation, and from the get-go it’s rigged for things to play out this way. There’s an expectation that this form of transportation will be primarily used by the wealthy (primarily non-minority) patrons. He states that this is evident by the level of urgency to maintain their sanitary facilities, “The sinks drain. The Johns flush. And if they do not, they are speedily repaired” this reinforces the metaphor he initially started this train of thought with – signaling that society is engineered from its inception to cater to the wealthy.
The middle tier of society is represented through an analogy about railway transportation. Washington goes on to state that the overall image and structure of this system is far more lackadaisical than its airline counterpart. The facilities are often maintained at a different level of quality, nearing what you’d expect from a mid-range establishment: “the bar bourbon is of the cheaper sort. The trains are frequently ill-maintained. The operator (“engineer”) wears a flannel or work shirt, in contrast to the airline pilot’s quasi military uniform, and the attendants, who take take tickets instead of provide service.” (Bradley, 7) This level of quality runs parallel with the middle class of America. The vast majority aren’t wealthy, they live with modest accommodations and prefer a fairly frugal lifestyle. The narrator is using this idea to further ingrain this idea in the readers head that these tiers aren’t a coincidence, society is structured like this entirely on purpose. It’s no coincidence that the train is typically for working class folks that don’t come from a wealthy background.
Bradley’s speaker elaborates on this class structure further by depicting the bottom of the barrel so to speak. The bus system is considered to be the lowest level of public transportation, and this is due to not only the craftsmanship of the facilities, but also the staff and cost to the patron utilizing it. Minorities at the time tended to be from lower socioeconomic classes with income levels nearing poverty level. He creates this distinction between the highest tier of transportation and the lowest by stating, “The various degrees of civilization represented by sanitary accommodations inevitably reflect class status that the society at large assigns to the passengers. It is no accident, then, airline patrons are usually employed, well-dressed, and white” (Bradley, 9).
So what conclusion can we draw from all this? From birth we’re thrown into a system we didn’t choose to be a part of and categorized by not only the color of our skin, but the money we make. This structure insures the safest most advanced facilities for those wealthy in power, and continues to oppress and give little back to the impoverished portion of the population. This format is no coincidence and examples of this can be seen blatantly throughout society if you care to look hard enough. Unless we improve from the ground up, we’ll never see closure of this ever-growing socioeconomic gap we see in society today.
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