Sunday, January 15, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Let America Be America Again

I've featured this poem here at least a couple of times before, but it is a favorite of mine and, frankly, it has never seemed more appropriate than now when one has reason to fear that the ideal of America may be lost forever.

Langston Hughes was an African-American poet of the 20th century, and he was well aware that America had not lived up to the ideal imagined for it by our founding documents. It is an ideal that still eludes women and minorities in this "homeland of the free." 

On this weekend when we celebrate the life of another great African-American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as we anticipate the inauguration of a demagogue as our president, all our hopes and all our efforts should be directed toward letting America be America again.

(The emphasis on the last three stanzas is my own.)

Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes (1935)

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 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,
America!

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!

8 comments:

  1. Dorothy, don't lose hope. There is greatness still in our country. It can't be crushed out. This week I loved the push back from and for John Lewis. Of course I can't say the same for Congress nor he who shall not be named. I also liked your quote from MLK.

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    1. John Lewis has been a hero of mine since the '60s. He still is.

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  2. This is such a wonderful poem. Written in 1935, it sadly holds true today. I will link to this tomorrow as it has inspired me. Alana ramblinwitham.blogspot.com

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    1. It's a poem that I frequently think of at low points in the nation's history. It's been on my mind a lot recently.

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  3. I'm not sure I agree with the view in this poem. I think that, despite ugly politicians on BOTH side of the spectrum, America is the place in the world where your dreams and efforts are likely to come true.

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    1. You have a very hopeful attitude, Carmen.

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  4. Thank you, thank you, Dorothy, for sharing this! I've always loved Langston Hughes' poetry, but I don't remember ever reading this one before. His message rings as true today as it did in the 30's, sadly.

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    1. The part about those who are hopeful of a better life but find the "same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak" certainly sounds as if it could have been written about today, doesn't it?

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