143. Let America Be America Again: Langston Hughes

An evokative photo that proves a picture is worth a thousand words.

I was tickled by this article in the Manchester Union Leader about Rick Santorum kicking off his 2012 Presidential Campaign. The day before his team launched the slogan “Fighting to Make America America Again” (note the second America is in italics in the slogan). A poetically literate student noted the similarities with this Langston Hughes’ poem, which threw the former Senator for a loop. Here an excerpt from the Union Leader:

Santorum by and large stayed on message but was tripped up a bit when a student asked him if he knew that the choice of his slogan, “Fighting to make America America again,” was borrowed from the “pro-union poem by the gay poet Langston Hughes.”

“No I had nothing to do with that,” Santorum said. “I didn’t know that. And the folks who worked on that slogan for me didn’t inform me that it came from that, if it in fact came from that.”

The student, whose name was not immediately available, was referring to the poem “Let America Be America Again.” When asked a short time later what the campaign slogan meant to him, Santorum said, “well, I’m not too sure that’s my campaign slogan, I think it’s on a web site.”

It was also printed on the campaign literature handed out before the speech.

What I love about the presidential race is that it exposes phonies and lightweights. Whatever your opinions about our various presidents and those who were on the losing side, they could at least muster together an organization and you felt that, with the balance of powers in place, they would be caretaker presidents (of course, you need to assume congress does its job of balancing, but that’s another blog).

The Langston Hughes poem speaks for itself (better than Santorum did). This is a poem to focus on craft. Hughes takes those images we know–the songs and stripes and stars and phrases–and turns them just enough. Those first few stanzas are a call-and-response, but the response is simple and sad. The use of repetition works. When the listing of wrongs begins, each line speaks volumes. In part, Hughes is able to do this because he taps those bits of American history everyone knows. Their truths are so basic that no history lesson is needed: poverty, slavery, Indian relocation, etc. He also includes everyone.

By coincidence, I was helping my wife find a good single passage from “The Grapes of Wrath” yesterday, and it was hard to find that one, personal scene that evoked the Great Depression. Steinbeck wrote a story that painted with a wide brush, and his lists of wrongs reads much like those Hughes ticks off. They both have the same feel, creating an image of injustice that washes over the reader.

Compare this poem to Woody Guthry’s “This Land is Your Land”, who also uses America’s great images. Students probably know the first verse, but have them read all of them. You can find it here. Even Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” is interesting in comparison, as she goes back to the ancient world, while Hughes uses the promise vs. the reality.

Historically, I also find the student’s identification of Hughes as “pro-union gay poet” to be interesting (is the student aghast at the source being gay, or purposely ironic in that Santorum has very conservative values yet finds inspiration in such a man as Hughes?). The Harlem Renaissance poets, musicians and artists are often relegated to the sidebars of our history books, and Langston Hughes is the one face slapped on as a photo. For Black History Month, a few lines of “I Have a Dream” are complimented with “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” or some such poem. The management of this group’s image over time is interesting, as they are a proud, intelligent and talented collection–a true renaissance–yet the way Zora Neale Hurston was pushed to the margins and the fierce closeting of gay artists in that history telling is fascinating. Similarly, Hurston’s posthumous lumping-in (when convenient to the sidebar) and how words like “pro-union” and “gay” are used as slurs is equally worthy of study. This is perhaps another lesson, for a more subversive teacher.

For now, celebrate all that our country is and could be, and trust the democratic process to find the wheat in the chaff.

Let America Be America Again
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.)

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 am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
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.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For 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.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

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.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

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