This week’s poem is “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—Langston Hughes (1901—1967)
The steel of freedom does not stain.
Poem 250. 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 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."
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,
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!
This poem contrasts the white man’s America with that of Afro-Americans, Indigenous peoples and immigrants who had none of the benefits enjoyed by white Americans: freedom of movement, freedom from tyranny, freedom to love, opportunity, and equality. In many ways, these rights are still in question or under attack—most notably for women, the right to access the reproductive healthcare they need.
Each assertion of the rights of the white person is answered by a single line from the shadows: “America never was America to me” and eventually the bald statement, “There’s never been equality for me/Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’”. The original speaker demands to know who is interrupting, and is answered.
His interlocuter is the voice of the dispossessed: poor whites, Afro-Americans, Indigenous peoples, and immigrants; the young men of any race whose hopes are stifled by the chains of greedy men who seek to squeeze the maximum from every part of their world; the farmers, factory workers and servants—all those who are beneath the notice of the high and mighty drivers of the economy: “The poorest worker bartered through the years.”
Hughes makes the point that the founders of America came from the ranks of the dispossessed in Europe, and they dared to dream of a land of freedom: even the slaves brought from Africa laboured to build the “homeland of the free,” though there are millions on relief (the dole), millions shot for striking, and millions whose pay is practically worthless—these people have nothing but their dream.
His plea is for America to truly become the land of the free, the land of every man: the poor, the Indigenous peoples, the Afro-Americans, the immigrants—all those who have contributed their sweat, blood, faith and pain in the foundries and on the farms to build “our mighty dream”.
He disdains the ugly names thrown by those determined to suppress the rights of these people: “those who live like leeches on the people’s lives” must be dispossessed themselves of the land. Though America has not been kind or a place of freedom to so many people, they are determined to wrest it from the gangsters, the corrupt, and the liars and make it a true reflection of their dream.
It is an interesting poem because it was written during the Great Depression but its echoes still sound today: there are still many disenfranchised, disaffected and dispossessed members of American society and the recent behaviour of the Trump administration has not made their lot any easier. It is not isolated to the USA either: the UK has its own well-documented troubles with migrants, as do many countries across the world—whenever there is war, famine or economic ruin, there will be mass movement of people seeking a better life in a more propitious environment.
There’s an obvious connection to the Trump mantra “Make America Great Again” but this poem isn’t intended to appeal to Trump’s audience—it is addressing the people who are considered below notice, but who have contributed so much to a great nation: Hughes is implying that America will be great again when everyone has equal opportunities and equal treatment.