‘It Was All a Dream’ Shows How Black Millennials Are Redefining Success in the Post-Obama Era

"Maybe our mobility shouldn’t always be measured like our White millennial peers,” the author writes. “Maybe it’s measured in joy and pleasure.”

[Photo: Young black man reading a book entitled 'It Was All A Dream.']
Based on interviews with more than 75 black millennials in cities and towns across the country, the work is a bold exploration of how millennials define success for themselves in the post-Obama, post-civil-rights era. Hatchette Book Group

Like millions of other Black millennials, Reniqua Allen came of age during the political upheaval and economic uncertainty of the early 21st century. But as a child born in 1981, she witnessed the mythical Black 1990s.

The economy boomed. Colin Powell toyed with running for president. Biggie Smalls ruled the airwaves. Black people had not yet made it to America’s picket-fence promised land, but they were on the way, and Allen saw the signs everywhere — especially on TV.

In her suburban New Jersey home, Black middle-class dreams beamed on every channel broadcasting big living rooms, big two-story homes, and bigger aspirations. Clair Huxtable practiced law. Carl Winslow policed bad guys. Uncle Phil presided over a courtroom, four kids, and a delinquent nephew. But for young Allen, no character captured the vision of the American dream more than Living Single’s Khadijah James.

“She had a Black-ass sounding name (like mine), ran her own magazine business, was not too girlie, remained down for the people, was loyal to her friends, and had a fine man at the end of the series,” recalls Allen.

By the time Allen arrived at college, the reruns had been thoroughly internalized, and she pruned anything that didn’t fit her upwardly mobile ambitions. But all the while she had been living and getting an education, the ground beneath her feet was shifting. When she was just a baby learning her first words, Ronald Reagan was deregulating the financial markets. As she was finishing high school, companies were automating and offshoring. As she enrolled in college, banks were doling out subprime mortgages. And so by the time she graduated and entered into adulthood, the world resembled nothing like the Black middle-class haven she saw on television as a child.

Taking this all in, Allen asked herself what remained of the dream that she imagined as a child watching TV and what has changed since. After all the upheaval, she wanted to know what the world looked like to young Black Americans.

These questions ultimately formed the basis of Allen’s new book, It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America, out last week

Based on interviews with more than 75 black millennials in cities and towns across the country, the work is a bold exploration of how millennials define success for themselves in the post-Obama, post-civil-rights era. Allen, who is an Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute and a former fellow at New America and Demos, turns to many places for answers including journalism, sociology, and political science, but she does not abandon the terrain that helped her articulate that dream as a young child — television.

In the book, Allen describes how a new generation of Black creators like Donald Glover, Lena Waithe, and Issa Rae capture the cultural zeitgeist. Their stories stand in sharp contrast to the ones shared in the ‘90s. Gone are the tales of uncomplicated upward mobility. In their place are topics like housing insecurity, the gig economy, and gentrification. These themes course through young Black adulthood today. They animate the most talented storytellers’ scripts and haunt the millennials portrayed on screen.

On Insecure, Issa struggles to pay rent as a Lyft driver. The Chi’s Brandon must make the best of selling his childhood home. And Atlanta’s Earn barely has a home at all, secretly living in a storage unit for much of the show’s two seasons.

Often the weight of downward economic mobility mixes with generational expectations to form a melancholy tonic.

On the last season of Atlanta, the show’s protagonist Earn confronts his working-class uncle Willy, played by Katt Williams.

“What I am scared of is being you. Being a know-it-all fuck-up J, that everybody knew was smart but just let shit happen to him,” Earn snarled at Willy.

Fear of “being a know-it-all fuck-up” captures the anxiety many Black millennials harbor, as precarious members of what has come to be known as “the most overeducated and underemployed generation.”

The angst is as dark as it is banal. It’s so ubiquitous that even Allen herself confesses in the book, “my American Dream was to not fuck up.” It’s easy to feel like you’re fucking up when you’re young, Black, and living in a racist, late capitalist economy. It’s even easier to feel that way when your elders constantly reinforce that message.

Before his fall from grace, Bill Cosby crisscrossed the country bemoaning how “although civil-rights activists had opened the door for Black America, young people today, instead of stepping through, were stepping backward,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic. Likewise President Barack Obama lamented that too many young Black men “make bad decisions,” that there was “no longer any room for excuses,” and that any hardships faced by Black millennials “pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and overcame.” Even Denzel Washington chastised “Black kids these days” in a thinly-veiled monologue during 2018’s Equalizer 2. “I don’t wanna hear about your environment. And what your momma didn’t give you. And the white man won’t give you no shot. You got a chance. Use it while you’re still alive! You don’t know what death is!” Washington bellowed at his Black teenage sidekick.

The message from the Ghosts of Black Pop Culture past is clear: They faced real racism. They made it easier for us. If we don’t succeed today, we are the ones fucking up.

But grit doesn’t trump globalization. Determination doesn’t defeat automation. Respectability hasn’t quelled discrimination. And stick-to-it-iveness isn’t closing the wealth gap. Despite the best efforts of generations past and present, in so many ways, it’s not easier today — a thread that Allen explores in the book.

She reports that college prices have risen 247 percent since 1975 and that millennials carry 300 percent more debt than their parents. For Black students, who don’t have a cushion of intergenerational wealth, that means the cost of college is often prohibitive. Moreover, as the global job market continues to quake, Allen finds that over 40 percent of Black millennials are working class.

Her research and reporting on “downward mobility” builds on the scholarship of sociologists like Princeton’s Matthew Desmond, who’ve argued that since 1968 racial economic indicators measuring mass incarceration, unemployment, housing costs, and extreme poverty “have grown worse.”

“Success for young Black people is increasingly difficult to achieve,” Allen writes, “and while we are working harder than ever to try to make our dreams come true, to have our stories told, we may be fighting a losing battle.”

The battle scars of trying to make it are visible in the lives of many of the Black millennials interviewed in this book. The stories between pages recount tales of administrative assistants turned strippers trying to keep the lights on, nonprofit employees who take out six figures of debt to find a decent job, teenage drug dealers dodging arrests and helping with rent, and much much more.

Yet despite the strife that this generation faces, the book is not about a defeated downwardly mobile group. Rather, Allen recounts the ways this generation is redefining success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

“As I talked with more young Black people, I realized that what had at first seemed like stories of failure — college dropouts, sex workers, moves away from cities to the slower-paced South, hustling in the entertainment industry — might also be stories of rejecting definitions of success imposed from the outside,” Allen explains.

When she writes of a young Black lawyer who moves from New York to Atlanta, it’s not a story of downgrading to what some consider a second-rate city. The move is an upgrade from a two-bedroom condo to a four-bedroom house. And the Black dominatrix Allen interviews in Chicago isn’t in distress. “I’m a Black feminist who beats up White men, and that shit is so cute,” the woman told Allen with a smile. “I like parading around this character of getting reparations and getting a lot of money from White CEOs that kiss my feet.”

The book is full of these subversive stories of young Black people shedding societal inhibitions and expectations and finding creative ways to pursue fulfillment and liberation in this new America. Like many of the millennials she interviewed, Allen ultimately finds herself wrestling with her personal definition of social mobility by the end of the book. At 36 years old, she had been able to start a successful career in journalism, produce films that she is passionate about, and earn a series of venerable fellowships at think tanks and research centers. But many of the traditional markers of economic success still have eluded her. “I sat with a mountain of debt, an unfinished PhD, and an old Prius in the driveway,” she recounts, reflecting on goals still unmet.

But Allen doesn’t let the challenges obscure her success. “We are seeing new and different kinds of mobility, in ways that perhaps can’t be measured on charts. Maybe our mobility shouldn’t always be measured like our White millennial peers,” she writes. “Maybe it’s measured in joy and pleasure.”

For those curious about the plight of Black millennials, It Was All a Dream is a light; for those stumbling through this generation themselves, it is a balm. The 368-page book captures many of the insights that flutter across Black Twitter and expands upon the best of these threads: the humanity of queer folks, the oppression of whiteness, the absurdity of student debt. Allen traverses the country melding stories with data on a journey to better understand this era.

In the end, she avoids a simple answer for what the new American Dream looks like for a generation berated by constantly shifting economic and political calamities. Rather, Allen is content to observe and explore the complexity of a remarkably diverse and resilient group, assuring readers that whatever lies ahead, Black millennials “gone be alright.”