Let America Be America Again

Let America Be America Again
By Langston Hughes – 1902-1967

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!

Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1860

“Let America Be America Again” is a poem written in 1935 by American poet Langston Hughes. It was originally published in the July 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine. The poem was republished in the 1937 issue of Kansas Magazine. It was revised and included in a small collection of Langston Hughes poems entitled A New Song, published by the International Workers Order in 1938.

The poem speaks of the American dream that never existed for lower-class Americans and the freedom and equality that every immigrant hoped for but never received. In his poem, Hughes represents not only African Americans but also other economically disadvantaged and minority groups. Besides criticizing America’s inequalities, the poem conveys a sense of hope that the American Dream is soon to come. While Hughes does not address the LGBTQ+ as one of the minority groups, sexuality was likely on his mind when he wrote the poem. Some academics and biographers believe that Hughes was homosexual and included homosexual codes in many of his poems, as did Walt Whitman, who, Hughes said, influenced his poetry. Hughes’s story “Blessed Assurance” deals with a father’s anger over his son’s effeminacy and “queerness.” The biographer Robert Aldrich argues that to retain the respect and support of black churches and organizations and avoid exacerbating his precarious financial situation, Hughes remained closeted. There has been some controversy, but most of it centers on whether Hughes was homosexual or asexual. Few believe that he was heterosexual or had any interest in women.

Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again” while riding a train from New York to his mother’s home in Ohio. He was depressed because of recent reviews of his first Broadway play and his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. Despite being a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, he struggled for acceptance as a poet, battling persistent racism, and barely making a living. Selling a poem or a story every few months, he referred to himself as a “literary sharecropper.” Fate, he said, “never intended for me to have a full pocket of anything but manuscripts.”

Hughes finished the poem in a night but did not regard it as one of his best. The poem would be revised numerous times. It did not appear in his early anthologies and was only revived in the 1990s, first in a public reading by Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, later as a title for museum shows. Following Donald Trump’s election, the poem started trending on social media. In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and others in police custody, the poem has found new urgency. Perhaps it was the word again that first drew people’s attention. Decades before Trump used the slogan “Make America Great Again” in his 2016 campaign, Hughes published this poem titled “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes’s first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” published in 1921, addressed the Black experience in America: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” In 1926, he published his first book of poems, The Weary Blues. Influenced by poets such as Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hughes embraced free verse. His collection included the poem “I, Too,” which opens “I, too, sing America,” and closes “I, too, am America.” The poems are a coda for Whitman’s poem “I hear America singing.” 

“Let America Be America Again” begins “Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be,” then continues, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” It’s a dream of freedom, equality, opportunity, and liberty—the ideals that form the bedrock of the nation. Yet a parenthetic voice adds, “(America never was America to me).” If you’ve read much of Hughes’s work, it is clear that the parenthetic voice is the victim of the long history of racial segregation and oppression. The poem anticipates this assumption, and a new voice asks, “Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? ” What follows is a list of everyday Americans: “the poor white,” “the Negro,” “the red man,” “the immigrant,” “the farmer,” “the worker.” All are carrying hope for a better future, and all have fallen victim to “the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” America is not America to any of them.

The poem laments the conditions of the Depression, with millions unemployed and on relief, and asks what happened to America, the purported “homeland of the free,” where so many have nothing left now “except the dream that’s almost dead today.” Almost dead, yet unvanquished.

For Hughes, the United States was an unrealized, perhaps unrealizable ideal. It was a land that “never has been yet— / And yet must be,” a dreamland unlike any other country. But the nation’s failure time and again to live up to its aspirations is a profound part of the story. Whatever its struggles, the United States has always identified itself by its dreams. Dreams inspired by abstractions like democracy, justice, and rights. Dreams animated by those seeking freedom and equality. Dreams stirred by those making a new home in America and pursuing a better life. Hughes believed in those dreams, and his poem ends not with despair but with an urgent plea:

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!

Hughes would continue to think about America, asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” in a 1951 poem titled “Harlem.” Martin Luther King Jr. had also been contemplating dreams, long before his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. King and Hughes were friends: in 1956, King recited a Hughes poem, “Mother to Son,” from the pulpit. King publicly kept his distance because of the poet’s suspected Communist, just as King eventually distanced himself from his advisor and friend Bayard Rustin because of Rustin’s homosexuality. Even though publicly distanced from Hughes, King must have appreciated the closing of “Let America Be America Again,” where the people are summoned to redeem the land. In a sermon first delivered in 1954, he declared that “instead of making history, we are made by history.” The line is easily misunderstood. King was not offering an argument for why history matters; instead, he was decrying passivity and insisting on empowerment. It was a call to action. King was telling his congregation that the time for waiting on dreams was over—the time for making dreams come true had begun.

Today, we have the chance to put the United States back on track to letting “America be America again,” at least the dream of what America could become but has yet never been. We can elect Joe Biden and other Democrats to help heal the soul of this nation and try to fulfill the true American dream of democracy, justice, and rights. For too long, conservatives in the United States have held back the ideals of democracy that are found in the words of our Founding Fathers as laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Under Donald Trump, the idea of a perfect Union has been weakened as he has worked to divide this country along the lines of race, sexuality, health, age, and economic status. He has destroyed the domestic tranquility of the United States as his rhetoric and lack of action have led to protests over racial inequalities, women’s rights, and the health and safety of all Americans. He has worked with our enemies to weaken our status on the world stage and has distanced this country from our allies. He has failed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that promotes the general welfare of this country. He has mocked science and medical professionals, those who wear masks, and those who promote social distancing to curb the spread of the virus, and he has hocked quack endorsed and crackpot cures for his own financial gain. He is destroying our posterity by allowing a failing economy, civil unrest, and a raging pandemic to fester. His ineptitude and inexperience with leadership will doom this country if he is reelected. 

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” The opening line of Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary War pamphlet series, “The American Crisis,” resonates with Americans as much today as it did during the bleak winter of 1776. We, like our patriot ancestors, are locked in a struggle each side believes it must win to preserve the freedom and human dignity that are the natural rights of every American. Our souls are bowed under the pressure of the conflict, but each side remains resolute, even as we feel our nation’s bonds weaken under the strain. Everyone eagerly desires victory on Tuesday, and fear what might befall them if they are defeated. In his appendix to “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine wrote something that became one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite quotes: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Taken literally, the sentiment would end in bloodshed and revolution. But that’s not how Reagan read it; he viewed Paine’s idea as an expression of optimism about the American spirit. So long as Americans remained true to their political heritage (at least in rhetoric), the natural equality of each and every human being, Reagan believed every generation of Americans would always rise to meet their “rendezvous with destiny.” Sadly, Reagan did not rise to meet America’s destiny (he set us on this path to Trumpism), but I believe Joe Biden can and will.

We must elect Joe Biden and Democrats down the ticket to salvage the dreams of the United States. The Supreme Court has often been the force of social change and equality but is now in danger with a majority of conservative justices who care more about what their interpretation of the original intent of the Constitution is over the idea of a living Constitution that can better the American dream. Biden can help reverse that with reforms to the judiciary and possibly the addition of more justices to the Supreme Court. We need Democrats to take control and right the wrongs of the Republicans and the Trump administration. We need to bring dignity and legitimacy back to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. If you have not already voted, please vote today and vote for Democrats. Let this be a BLUE WAVE the likes of which this country has never before seen.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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