It’s been too long since I was able to sit with one of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, so I was glad when I stumbled into the stuff Langston Hughes was writing in 1938: I feel like digging into a great poem, but unfortunately the length’s a bit daunting (I try to cap the amount of poetry I ask anybody to take in from a blog post at about 20-25 lines). So it seemed best to me to just sit with the first portion of this poem: you can read the whole thing here, if you like, but my comments are going to focus primarily on the excerpt I provide below. This is the first few stanzas of Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again”:
“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.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
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—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
I like the prophetic feel of the poem—the underlying sense that Langston is speaking something into being, that he has come out of the wilderness, his breath stinking of locusts and honey, ready to tell his nation some hard truths. His doubled use of the word “America” is, of course, the key to the poem, and I think it works really nicely: the contrast of the world as it is with the world as it claims to be. In this case, I am struck (despite the poem’s criticisms of America in 1938) by Hughes’s positive associations with the American ideals: this isn’t a jaded man too bitter to express hope. He’s talking about the pioneer spirit and about the dream of freedom, using phrases like something out of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or the verses of “America the Beautiful” that we have trouble remembering.
But falling in the gap between the stanzas of hope and praise are the footsteps of the truth: that America has never been “America”, not to the black Langston Hughes, despite his fame as a writer. He is so plain-spoken, so direct, which I think is the source of a lot of his strength as a poet—this is the same direct power I remember from the way he addresses his white teacher in the poem he writes for “English B”, and expressed in the closing lines of his more famous poem that begins “What happens to a dream deferred?” The power of his statements actually arrests the poem’s forward momentum—the four-line stanzas halt suddenly, as the poem addresses his parenthetic comments, asking who it is that comes to bring this challenge to the idea of America?
And I am impressed by the scope of Hughes’s ideas, since it would be easy to focus on the numerous injustices being suffered by his community. But instead he opens with poor white laborers—they stand next to him in the shadows, beside the outcast Native American and the suffering immigrant. All of them look to America in disappointment: they were promised the Land of Opportunity, and they got this. In a world where the winds were beginning to blow again—where German racism and Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism were joining forces to imperil the survival of ideas like equality and liberty—Hughes wants not so much to damn America as to wake it up. He is smart enough to know that America may, in 1938, prove to be the last best hope for freedom: he also knows that too many Americans take for granted that the battle for freedom has long ago been won.
This is a message Americans have a hard time hearing. Even now, we still live in a country where it is considered disloyal for a politician to suggest that there may be some things that America needs to live up to. We still live in a country where many of us think being proud of our great ideals is so precious a possession that we are unwilling to risk losing it, even if it means blinding ourselves to the truth. Just the other day, at the school where I used to teach, a parent requested a meeting with teachers and administrators in order to complain that American history classes were teaching about injustices in America’s past—the rationale for the objection? Essentially that, if they are taught the truth, students might stop loving America.
It makes me wonder. Much as I am proud of many of the stories in my country’s past, I wonder if it would be so bad a thing to lose my love of it—if I would be a better man, a better citizen, if I loved less and challenged more. Langston’s poem still lies ready to challenge us, to ask us to live up to the dream that had not been realized in 160 years when he wrote the poem, and which has lain unrealized another 75 years since he did. He believes that the country we believe in can still rise up—that, as he says later in the poem, “out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, / The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,” we can redeem our lost opportunities and the waste we have made of our promise. In fact, he more than believed in this idea: towards the end of the poem, he swears an oath to make that future real. It is, I think, more than a shame that a man who had every reason to be angry at his country could be so lonely in that oath; that, while he was swearing a commitment to the country that had failed him, the powerful people who preached the American ideal largely did not bother themselves enough to make it happen.
So this is a poem that reminds me to be more aware of my surroundings—to spend less time counting my blessings as an American, and more time asking myself if the American dream has really been extended to all the people who have been promised it. We pat ourselves on the back more than any nation I know of. Perhaps we should spend a little less time blowing our own horn, and a little more time living out the dream. If we manage to realize the truly inspiring ideals that we have long taken as our creed, somehow I think there will be no shortage of other people to speak up on behalf of America, land of the free.