“Let America Be America Again”
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free….
“I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!” — Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
I first encountered this poem (click here for the complete text) in a textbook when I was teaching American Literature. It has always moved me, that last line. His hope, his courage and tenacity, his determination that American principles — which could and should be a light to the world — will someday be reality for all of us.
Langston Hughes is also famous for this poem:
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.” — Langston Hughes
I think “Let America Be America Again” was the first poem that got me thinking about the difference between immigrants who came here voluntarily — inspired by the dream of equality, and the hope that their own hard work would build a better life for their children — and the very different “America” of those who were torn from their families, shipped here in chains, sold into slavery, and even denied the right to think, “I can bear this because my children will have a better life.”
The children of the enslaved were taken from their arms and sold into slavery.
In all the long list of injustices and cruelty “the darker brother” and sister have endured, think of that difference between black lives and all the rest of us.
Their children were sold. No matter how difficult the lives of other immigrants to America may have been, the “American Dream” was different for those who came here by choice. Black families were torn apart, and few were reunited after Emancipation. How can we ever make reparation for that crime?
So I keep thinking of Langston Hughes. If he could keep faith with the Dream, the rest of us have no excuse. We ought to be ashamed. Why is equality still only a dream? It’s time to repeat — and act on — his words:
“And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
[Yes, the children of native and aboriginal peoples have been taken from them, too. Another injustice with long-lasting effects.]