Hughes – the Promise of America was Meaningless Unless Universal
Langston Hughes saw Trump coming at least as early as 1936, with the publication of his poem, Let America Be America again. I have journalist Paul Rosenberg to thank for reminding me.
As the racist, overgrown child and tv con man who currently occupies the White House busies himself with inciting his white nationalist base to inflict violence upon those seeking justice in Kenosha, Wisconsin and beyond, it’s worth recalling that our racist roots run very deep in these United States of America.
Writing for Salon.com in 2017, Rosenberg noted that Langston Hughes’ “deep grasp of America’s flaws and virtues stands in such stark contrast to Donald Trump’s ignorance and incoherence, and provides an excellent statement of how many who stand against Trump see themselves and America today.”
America’s promise means nothing, and belongs to none of us, unless it belongs to the least among us, the most discounted, oppressed and despised. We are not doing anyone a favor or being selfless when we align ourselves with the powerless, the forgotten, the strangers among us. We are taking the only sure path to our own salvation.
If anyone is excluded from universal promises and protections, then we all are. It’s just a matter of time for each of us before our individual luck runs out. There is no one whose life is so foreign, so strange and alien to us that it does not reflect on our own humanity. In fact, the more strange and alien it at first appears, the deeper the connection ultimately goes.
Rosenberg concluded that people “around the world today look to America, trembling in fear at the sight of President Trump and trembling in hope at the sight of the resistance against him. Because America — as Langston Hughes understood it — really is the collective hope and promise of the world.”
Back in Trump’s America circa 2020, I cling to Hughes in sum:
“America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
This version of Let America Be America Again was first published in the 1938 International Workers Order pamphlet, A New Song, and is an expanded version of the poem that first appeared in the July 1936 edition of Esquire magazine.
Read on for Let America Be America Again in its entirety.
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!