By Reniqua Allen
Bold Type Books. 368 pp. $28
For black millennials, there are arguably no five words more defining of our generation than these, from Notorious B.I.G’s 1994 hit “Juicy”: “It was all a dream.” Biggie’s rhymes promised black kids and teens of the ’90s that one day, we’d be able to give a collective middle finger to the naysayers — the teachers, the police, the politicians — who told us that our dreams should be limited.
“Juicy” told a tale of black upward mobility — “Don’t let ’em hold you down/Reach for the stars” — and we relished its optimism. That our own success and happiness would exceed those of our parents seemed a foregone conclusion. But while hip-hop did, as Biggie predicted, “take it this far” — becoming the most consumed musical genre in the nation — the black millennials who were its most loyal fans have encountered a much tougher road.
Reniqua Allen’s new book, “It Was all a Dream,” details our generation’s disappointments. “With the increasing cost of college, the proliferation of a low-wage, low-skilled work force, and a recession,” she writes, “. . . whatever dreams we once had are in grave danger of never becoming a reality. We see versions of Black millennial success in sports . . . in popular culture, and in politics, yet these are the exceptions, not the rule. Success for young Black people is increasingly difficult to achieve.”
Allen’s book is a mix of personal stories (including her own), backed by research. She interviewed 75 black millennials across the country, and the tales she shares span class, gender and education level. She profiles a recent graduate from a top-tier historically black college who fears that her ethnic name keeps her on the bottom rung of her field. She tells the story of a coal miner whose union doesn’t protect him from being ostracized and called names. We hear about the graduate student who works as a dominatrix to help pay for school and has to endure racist clients.
Among the most compelling personal stories is that of Michael, a pseudonymous young striver from a failing industrial town in northeastern Ohio. An athletic scholarship gave him a way into college, but when a stomach illness ended his track and field career, Michael lost his funding. He juggled as many as three jobs at a time and took out loans — scraping by to cover tuition, books and medical bills. For survival, he stole meals from the cafeteria and ate low-quality foods, which took an additional toll on his health.
The son of a factory worker, Michael had nothing to fall back on — there were no parental savings, no family investments, no inheritance. For him, the most definitive path to a financially stable middle-class life began with nearly $100,000 in debt. And yet he tells Allen: “By no means do I pity myself, do I feel sorry for where I am. I made some choices, and I got to pay some people the money back.” His hope: to become a professor in cultural and Africana studies “so that he can support students the way people helped him.”
At a time when every aspect of the millennial experience has been dissected ad nauseam, “It Was All a Dream” offers a fresh perspective. It’s an honest account — buoyed by statistics — of the struggles of black young adults and the disparate racial outcomes: Young black Americans need two additional levels of education to reach the same probability of employment as their white counterparts. But to get there, they must accrue nearly twice as much debt as white graduates. And even with that education, the median net worth of black families led by a college graduate — $25,900 — is nearly half that of white families led by a high school dropout.
Allen’s analysis leaves no doubt that racial disparities still define the American experience, even for a generation that white America once deemed “post-racial.”
Occasionally, Allen breaks character as a dispassionate teller of facts to unabashedly air her grievances. She’s not just relaying other people’s stories, she reminds us. This is her story, too. “Young Black people have been patiently waiting for their shot in this country for nearly four hundred years, and it feels as if the time will never come,” she writes. “The f---ed-up thing about being young and Black in America is that we can’t just be free — we can’t just have dreams.”
It might seem like an odd message coming from Allen — a homeowner, a published author, a black woman working on a dissertation for her PhD. But even Allen, 37, has been affected by the issues she describes. She explains, for example, the sense of accomplishment she felt when she became a homeowner in her mid-20s, only to later learn that she was the victim of a predatory loan from a company that was the subject of a class-action suit by black and brown borrowers.
“Sure, I knew that my income made me a target,” she writes. “But because of my race? It hadn’t ever crossed my mind. I was devastated. I know the history of this country, know the history of redlining, know how my grandparents were locked out of neighborhoods because of their skin color. But for some reason I was still surprised. . . . The little piece of America that I had to scrimp and save for was just as racist as ever.”
For high-achieving black millennials, Allen shows, upward mobility comes at a greater cost than for their white peers. They take on more debt in college, face more obstacles to homeownership and are more vulnerable to downturns in the economy. Betweeen 2007 and 2013, black graduates lost nearly 60 percent of their wealth, compared with 16 percent for white graduates. As they rise through their careers, many say they encounter white colleagues who were average students, who work shorter hours and produce less, whose mistakes are treated as growth opportunities rather than evidence of incompetence.
Allen’s perspective seems bleak. There’s only passing acknowledgment of the ways the black experience in America has improved in recent generations: the growth of the black professional class and its growing presence in TV and movies, for instance. This is a persistent point of conflict between black boomers and millennials: How do we acknowledge how far we’ve come without losing sight of how far we have to go? The remarkable story of a people who, in less than 150 years, went from being enslaved to having one of their own become leader of the free world is a special one that should inspire hope.
But in the aftermath of the first black presidency, “It Was All a Dream” is a vital book, a necessary reminder that this post-racial generation is anything but. It’s a reality that America will have to grapple with or risk making the American Dream a broken promise for the black youth of Generation Z, as well.