Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.

Bayard Rustin

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

When I met with my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, this Monday, I noted that the weekend had provided for us local and national examples of why the course matters: locally, one high school restricted students from having U.S. flags at a football game because of patterns of using that flag to taunt and harass rival students who are Latinx/Hispanic, and nationally, Colin Kaepernick was questioned about his sitting during the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL preseason games.

As entry points into the work of Baldwin as well as the long history of racism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I read aloud and we discussed Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B” [1] and “Let America Be America Again.”

I stressed to these first-year college students that Hughes lived and wrote in the early to mid-1900s—nearly a century ago in terms of the college student personae in “Theme for English B.”

As we examined the professor/student and race-based aspects of power in “Theme,” students were quick to address the relevance of Hughes today—emphasizing as well part of my instructional purpose to expose these students to the lingering and historical racism in the U.S.

But the real meat of this class session revealed itself as we explored “Let America Be America Again.”

Hughes: “(America never was America to me.)”

Written and published about 80 years ago, “Let America Be America Again” represents a racialized dismantling of the American Dream myth—a poetic companion to the skepticism and cynicism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers/artists works throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

Hughes begins with a celebratory stanza that easily lulls readers into an uncritical response to the American Dream, but then offers a brilliant device, the use of parentheses, to interject a minority voice (parenthetical, thus representing the muted voices of the marginalized in the U.S.) after several opening stanzas:

(America never was America to me.)…

(It never was America to me.)…

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

And then the poem turns on two italicized lines followed by:

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.

My students soon recognized a disturbing paradox: Hughes and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan share a foundational claim but for starkly different reasons.

Trump has built political capital on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (both as “Others”) sentiment that the media and pundits often mask behind what is being called legitimate white working-class angst.

Parallel racist anger has been sparked when Michelle Obama, for example, confronted that the White House was built in part with slave labor—raising the issue of just who did build this country. Upon whose backs? we must ask.

Eight volatile decades ago, Hughes named “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart” now courted by Trump’s coded and blatant racism and xenophobia.

However, Hughes’s poem celebrates the diverse workers who created the U.S. while reaping very little if any of the benefits. Hughes offers a different coded assault, his on capitalism and the ruling elites, but not the rainbow of U.S. workers “fooled,” it seems, by the hollow promise of the American Dream.

In Whitmanesque style, Hughes raises throughout the poem a collective voice of immigrants and slaves as the foundation of the U.S.:

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.”

But as he returns to the poem’s refrain, Hughes unmasks the promise and tempers the hope:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

In the final stanza, there is hope, built on “We, the people, must redeem.”

In a time of Trump’s cartoonish stereotype of the empty politician, his “Built a Wall” and “Make America Great Again” sloganism, we must reach back almost a century to Hughes’s often ignored voice that merges races through our shared workers’ remorse.

Hughes calls out the robber baron tradition of U.S. capitalism—”those who live like leeches on the people’s lives”—as the “fooled and pushed apart” line up to support those very leeches.

“Let America Be America Again” is a warning long ignored, but truths nonetheless facing us. Silence and inaction are endorsements of these truths.

“To be afraid,” Bayard Ruston acknowledged, “is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

It remains to be seen if we are brave enough as a people to “Let America Be America Again.”


[1] See also Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.

4 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    The Historical Origins and Development of Racism is an interesting read too.

    “Racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable. An ideological basis for explicit racism came to a unique fruition in the West during the modern period. No clear and unequivocal evidence of racism has been found in other cultures or in Europe before the Middle Ages. The identification of the Jews with the devil and witchcraft in the popular mind of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was perhaps the first sign of a racist view of the world. Official sanction for such attitudes came in sixteenth century Spain when Jews who had converted to Christianity and their descendents became the victims of a pattern of discrimination and exclusion.”

    http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-01.htm

  2. Pingback: Poetry in an Era of #BlackLivesMatter by Paul Thomas, author Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance - Garn Press

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