Image credit:Mitchell Siporin
Tonight, I can’t read Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again without crying. When Hughes uses “America” twice in the title of his poem, he uses the word to signify a promise and a betrayal. Tonight my tears come not through the joy of a Democrat elected to the White House nor, it must be said, from one gin and tonic too many. For me, tonight is painfully familiar; the betrayal can’t be far off.
Growing up under nearly two decades of Conservative rule in the UK (Margaret Thatcher 1979-1990 and John Major 1990-1997), I remember when the British electorate put Tony Blair 1997-2007 in power. Having voted Green in the 1997 British Election, I came to America on the day that Blair’s Labour Party came to power. I wasn’t around to see the day when, I’m told, people smiled at one another on the London Underground – a sign of unrefined joy if ever there were.
But Blair’s Britain turned to ashes. And I’ve no doubt that the Obama presidency will disappoint the vast majority of those who voted for him – he will not redistribute as forcefully, nor demilitarise as vigorously, nor change quite as hopefully as he offered.
Despite all that, tonight is still a promise partially delivered. In Britain it would have been, and still is, impossible to imagine a native-born person of colour winning the highest office in the land. It couldn’t happen anywhere in Europe. When the United States elects a person of colour, one who grew up without the benefit of inheritance or patrimony, that’s a clear sign of transformation, even if it’s ultimately an egalitarianism among the bourgeoisie. That said, of course, this wee table from CNN is rather telling.
As we’ll soon discover though, in any person’s vision of how the future might be, there are always exclusions. In Hughes’ poem, it’s women. It won’t be long before we find out who Obama’s forgotten are. And it’s as well to understand that Hughes’ full promise will be fulfilled not when there’s one Barack Obama, but where there are millions. To get from here to there, though, we’ll still need to to celebrate the fall of tonight’s a very real barrier (even as another is erected).
Let America Be America Again
Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes
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!