By Clover Carroll
Were you as outraged as I was when our government shut down for two full weeks last month for no better reason than political grandstanding? The government of “we the people” seemed to have been hijacked by partisans who put politics ahead of the good of the country and the needs of the people they were elected to represent. Are you, like me, worried that the gridlock in Washington and the seeming inability of our elected representatives to effectively govern will cause us to lose the America we were raised to believe in?
Poet Langston Hughes expressed a similar feeling in his moving 1938 anthem, “Let America Be America Again.” This sentiment seems especially appropriate this month, when we both exercise our right to vote and honor the veterans who risk all to defend our shared American dream of freedom and equality.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African American art, literature, and music during the 1920s and included Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. Dubois. Hughes, who grew up in Missouri and Illinois, began writing poetry in the eighth grade and never stopped, becoming the first black poet to earn a living through his writing. He published more than 50 books of poetry, fiction, essays, and drama and won numerous literary awards during his lifetime.
Hughes is best known for “integrat[ing] the rhythms and structures of jazz, blues, and bebop into his poetry, … working to create a poetry which was African-American in its rhythms, techniques, images, allusions, and diction” (Poetry for Students). In this poem, Hughes is writing in the context of early 20th century racism and segregation, which he encountered both in the job market and while attending Columbia University. But he expands to a more universal vision with the inclusion of Native Americans, immigrants, and the working poor, many of whom were unable to attain the American Dream because of political corruption and economic injustice.
After stating his basic, rhapsodic theme in the imperative case—“Let America be America again!”—the poet defines our country’s founders’ original dream of America as a “great strong land of love,” “the homeland of the free.” Yet this dream, however noble and worthy of the many sacrifices it has inspired, has never become a reality for the speaker or for many others like him. The repeated line “America never was America to me” draws a contrast between two meanings of the word “America”—one, the dream of its founders who wanted to prevent tyranny and a rigid class system based on wealth, and two, the actual segregated, classist country of the early 20th century, where many citizens suffered social and economic inequality.
The italicized lines imagine an interlocutor asking the poet who he is who dares to make such a demand, to cloud the beauty of the stars on the American flag. The remainder of the poem becomes an answer to this question, “who are you?” In his answer, the poet speaks in the voices of the many citizen groups who have been denied access to their dream by “that ancient endless chain/ Of profit, power, gain … / Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” Many of the original groups who worked to build the country–Native Americans, a melting pot of immigrants, and the pioneers who settled the West–have by the time of the poem’s writing been shut out of its bounty. With the line “O, Pioneers!,” Hughes alludes to the same 1865 poem by Walt Whitman that Willa Cather used as the title of her classic 1913 novel, which was the November selection of the Crozet Library Monday Night Book Group. This novel provides a window into the lives of Swedish, German, and Bohemian immigrants struggling to survive on the plains of Nebraska at the turn of the century. The lost dream Hughes mourns here is the same dream he refers to (with far less patience) in his most famous later poem, “Harlem” (1951): “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? /… Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load / Or does it explode?”
Although much progress has been made in the 70 years since Hughes wrote his paean to the American dream in terms of tolerance, civil rights equality, and equal economic opportunity, “Let America Be America Again” expresses in heartfelt terms the same yearning many of us feel today for the ideal of an America that at times seems to be slipping further from our grasp.
We share the same mixture of hope for the promise of our country and despair that that promise is so seldom realized. We share his frustration as we witness, or experience the effects of, the widening divide between rich and poor, corporations using their vast resources to influence elections, Wall Street bandits cheating Main Street investors, and our government becoming more and more detached from the people it was elected to help and protect.
While we often feel powerless to influence government decisions, we also applaud those who stand up, speak out, write letters to the editor, attend meetings, and–most important of all–vote with conscience.
Our own Crozet Library is a shining example of the power of grassroots activism to bring about change. While many of the specific issues may have changed since he wrote his stirring poem, Hughes’ plea for justice, equality, and good governance rings just as true today. If only our leaders were listening.
Let America Be America Again (abridged)
by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
O, I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
For the full poem, visit www.poets.org