Let America be America Again by Langston Hughes (1994)
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, though written 24 years ago, speaks volumes to the present.. The 45th president ran on a campaign that he would “make America great again;” how ironic is it that a white, straight, privileged man would take the same words written by a black man and use it to promote prejudice against “others?” Exploitation is nothing new, especially in America. As we’ve seen through the stories of brave black men and women, the white man has done so much to suppress the greatness that the black community possesses.
“Equality is the air we breathe,” writes Hughes, in a sarcastic tone, referring to the Declaration of Independence, which stated that “all men are created equal;” however, “all” only meant some for the founding fathers. Blacks did not have any rights, still sold as slaves for 97 years after America declared its independence from Britain. With Hughes describing equality as air, I can only imagine that only some are free to let the air go through their lungs without fear, whereas blacks had to hold theirs for hundreds of years, well after the Emancipation Proclamation, well after Jim Crow, and well after this poem was written.
Hughes later writes “torn from Black Africa’s strand I came / To build a ‘homeland of the free’,” which points out that the slaves of America built much of the greatness of this country. As the Afric-American Picture Gallery demonstrates, there is so much Black Excellence that is sewn into the fabric of America, often unnoticed. In picture No. 3 of the Gallery, the author points out “that the first bosom that was bared to the blast of war was black; the first blood that drenched the path-way which led up to American liberty, was from the veins of a colored man” (54). Without the death of Crispus Attucks, the land of the free would not have been possible.
“O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet—” says the speaker. Once again, Hughes reinforces that America cannot be great “again” because it never has been, not as long as minorities have been (and continue to be) disenfranchised. America cannot be America again as long as Haiti is allegedly referred to as a “shit-hole country” when few know who Touissant L’Overture is. This poem eloquently points out the ironies of American patriotism while simultaneously criticizing the dark past of the country as well. It is unfortunate that the poem was so relevant in the 1990s, but even more upsetting that it is almost verbatim to the rhetoric of today. There is much work to do, but visiting these narratives as lessons is important in becoming more inclusive and more educated in what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes, which would certainly make America great.
Make America Great Again
As if it were so great before
As if America ever truly recognized its