Meet Darlene: Surviving the American Dream

By Jenna Mason

Delicious Foods is not a story about the death of the American Dream, but an illumination of the fantasies that surround it, and the denial that permits us to believe in its innocence. – Ben Samuel, Guernica

In the first scenes of Delicious Foods, Eddie has escaped from a Louisiana farm and sought refuged with his Aunt Bethella in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In the escape, Eddie lost both of his hands. As Bethella persuades him to see a doctor, she presents two ways Eddie can handle his circumstances.

“You’re acting just like your grandad. He enjoyed sitting in his pain and just wallowing….All of you are smart enough to know exactly how the world screwed you, and the Man screwed you, and that there’s no hope to change it. Your daddy wasn’t like that….He tried to change things!”

Bethella thinks resignation or activism are the two courses of action. She praises Eddie’s father, Nat, for his commitment to bettering black people through political action: “Oh, they got him,” she says of the white men who murdered Nat for his community organizing, “but at least he died fighting.” For Bethella, that outcome matters less than the knowledge that Nat took control of his life. She despises Eddie’s mother, Darlene, for succumbing to the siren song of crack cocaine, losing control of her life and endangering her son.

As a young woman, Darlene followed the unstated rules for getting ahead in America. She attended college. She married the father of her child. They purchased a home in a small Louisiana town and raised Eddie together. The reader glimpses the completely stable life Darlene and Nat have built:

“On a normal morning, Nat would’ve calmly entered the room by now, set her coffee on a coaster on the nightstand, made the bed as she showered, whistling as he glided from room to room….By that time, Nat would normally have filled the house with the smoky aroma of country bacon. Eddie would probably have gotten up with him to set the table and pour juice into their jam-jar glasses before Nat walked him to what they called day care.”

The black couple had achieved a modest version of the American Dream. But they were one catastrophe away from ruin.

After her husband’s murder, a flood of lawyers descends on the town, “[shaking] their fists at the press, telling them everything they knew about justice and how it ought to work. But fist-shaking did not produce sufficient evidence for the justice system to feed on.” A higher rule, the lingering logic of Jim Crow, worked against Darlene’s pursuit of justice: “Nobody white in the town admitted to seeing anything untoward. Nobody white would take the word of anybody black.”

Abandoned by the legal system and isolated by neighbors who can hardly look her in the eye, Darlene clings to her pride. When she resorts to prostitution to earn money for crack, she refuses to wear revealing clothing or proposition clients. One man equates her hesitation with laziness. The idea of a prostitute with some dignity offends him.

Darlene is not lazy. Crippled by her addiction, she longs to make an honest living. When a woman in a minibus promises her steady work on a farm, Darlene welcomes the chance to redeem her dignity and support herself and her son. Unfortunately, the offer is, like much else in Darlene’s life, “a hot mirage.” She and Eddie end up trapped on the farm. For six years, they suffer exploitation and abuse.

The night Eddie escapes the farm, Darlene is finally in a position to take back her life. But she must decide how. She could murder Sextus Fusilier, the man ultimately responsible for the atrocities of the Delicious Foods farm. But what justice system would sympathize with a black female crack addict claiming self-defense? She could call the police to handle the situation, but she had seen firsthand how ineffective police can choose to be. She could trust the northern journalist who has come to the farm to expose the operation, but she doubts his efforts will bring real change.

Sextus offers to give her anything she wants in turn for his life. “I want a real job,” she says, and begins to dismantle Delicious Foods from the inside out. She erases the bogus debts of the workers and tells them they are free to leave whenever they like. Instead of taking one of the two paths Bethella maps, Darlene carves her own path to freedom. Instead of playing by the rules of the American Dream, she plays along with the rigged system, carving out her freedom piece by piece.

Much like his mother, Eddie chooses neither to fight against a rigged system nor to resign himself to a powerless destiny. By playing up his physical injury to sympathetic white people as the “Handyman Without Hands,” Eddie develops a steady business and creates a stable life. He allows himself to be an object of curiosity, “because the discomfort came with a bag of gold attached.”

In Delicious Foods, Eddie and Darlene confront the lies that trouble the American Dream. Disillusioned, they choose to rely on their wits to survive. Perhaps Bethella or Nat would disapprove, but in the words of Scotty, the voice of crack cocaine in the novel, “Ain’t nothing shameful ‘bout trying to survive.”

* * *

James Hannaham will speak at the SFA Fall Symposium, set for October 11-13 in Oxford. Tickets go on sale August 1. In a lead-up to that event, this SFA series situates Delicious Foods in the broader narrative of Southern foodways, asking challenging and open-ended questions.

We invite you to read along during our five-part web series. Grab a copy of the novel from your local bookstore. We’re keen on Square Books here in Oxford. Or if your summer includes significant time on the road, we highly recommend listening to the audiobook, read by James Hannaham himself.

Series topics:

What We’re Reading: Delicious Foods

Fact and Fiction: Meet James Hannaham

Meet Eddie: Race in Delicious Foods

Meet Darlene: The American Dream

Meet Scotty: Addiction and Trauma

Additional Resources:

Bowe, JohnNobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. New York: Random House, 2007.

Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2012.

Marquis, Susan. I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Rawal, Sanjay. Food Chains: The Revolution in America’s Fields. 2014.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Farmworker Justice

Free The Slaves

Modern Slavery Map