Make America America Again – lessons from Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes offers an alternative to "Make America Great Again"
Langston Hughes, photo by Gordon Parks, 1943

We’ve gotten used to seeing the red hats: “Make America Great Again.” I found the seeds of a slogan that resonates better with me in an article last week on the step-up in deportations: Make America America Again. Not such a great acronym—MAAA—but it’s a lovely vision.

I have to credit the poet Langston Hughes. The Huffington Post article on the anti-immigrant raids quoted a bit of his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Here’s the full text—scroll down in the box below to get it all.

Make America America: See it through someone else’s eye

I used to have a newspaper clipping over my desk. I saved it for the headline: “For the Clearest View, Use Someone Else’s Eye.” Langston Hughes—an African American, most probably gay; doubly an outsider in his own country—offers a crystal clear view of America in his era. And, sadly, in ours as well.

The first few stanzas of the poem read like a patriotic hymn:

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.

But before we can wallow in those noble sentiments, Hughes corrects the picture:

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

Then he catalogues the oppressed, by race, by class, by birth, detailing the ways they’ve been beaten down or turned away by forces in this country. Still, he finds optimism:

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.”

The irony stings—enslaving people to build a “free” nation. Yet there’s hope, people hanging onto a daring dream “so strong, so brave, so true.” Langston Hughes must have had a deep reservoir of optimism about this country that had so mistreated him, and treated his ancestors even worse. Because despite all the wrongs, he still wants to save his country, to make America 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.
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.

Optimism: still justified?

“Let America Be America Again” may be the most patriotic poem I’ve ever read. Not the easy, jingo-istic patriotism of the folks who slap a flag on their lapel and then pursue their selfish objectives. But the patriotism born of true love, a patriotism that can see the worst this country can dish out (well, the worst to date) and still see the power of community to knit us back together.

I’ll be reading more Langston Hughes. And praying that his optimism is still justified.


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What makes America famous? We get to choose – Song for a Sunday

It’s not the song I thought I’d be writing about today—Harry Chapin‘s “What Made America Famous.”

Harry Chapin wrote the song "What Makes America Famous"
Harry Chapin in concert Photo By Cindy Funk (harry61880) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I went to YouTube in search of his “She Sings Her Song Without Words.” I thought I’d juxtapose the “song without words” with the song without music of the powerful poem Ashley Judd delivered at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.

But as I was listening to Chapin sing his sweet, very of-the-era love song, I noticed a video in the sidebar called “What Made America Famous.” As a long-haired, guitar-playing teen I was a Chapin fan back in the day. But I couldn’t quite place the song title.

So I clicked on the video and heard something I need to share with you.

It’s a typical Chapin story-song—an eternity at seven minutes long, but the length is part of what makes it work.

The length and the rhythm lull you into complacency as he sings about the mom-and-apple-pie things that “made America famous.” He builds the intensity as he approaches contemporary life, the Vietnam-era world neatly divided between the “us” and “them.” “Us” always being white, middle-class and “them” the hippies, people of color, people stuck at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Disposable people. We don’t know anything about that world today, do we?

Chapin could have ended his song on a hopeful note, a Norman Rockwell picture of comity. But he knows that’s only part of the story. So sit tight ’til the end.

What makes America famous? Our choices

Chapin wrote the song in 1974. A lot has changed in our country since then. Or at least it has seemed that way to those of us in the “us” category. I have no doubt the country will change more before the song marks its 50th anniversary, just two presidential elections from now. But I’m not sure things will get better.

So join Harry in a primal scream:

Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Is anybody there?

And when you’re done screaming. Think about these words from another Chapin song, the words engraved on his gravestone:

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world

How we answer that question will determine what makes America famous going forward.


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“Will you choose to matter?”—the most important question

“Will you choose to matter?”

I’ve given a lot of thought to this last blog of the year. Would I summarize lessons learned? Or maybe offer a list of the best books I’ve read, best speeches I’ve heard. Whether you’re dating or writing, the end of the year always carries unwarranted expectations.

And then Seth Godin sent out this link to a TED Talk he gave a couple of years ago. In just about three and a half minutes, he delivers a fascinating story, hooks us in, and delivers one of the most powerful calls to action I’ve heard.

It’s the best gift I can give you as we end the journey of 2016 and arrive unsteadily on the shores of 2017.

I wish us all a peaceful and productive year ahead. But whatever happens, let’s resolve to matter.

“Look at each other”— Gloria Steinem on the present

Everyone in the room—well, not quite everyone, as it turned out—hoped Gloria Steinem would save us. She’d done it before, though she demurred when one of the audience members said that. She chuckled self-deprecatingly and replied, “It’s called a ‘movement’ because there are lots of people in it.”

Okay, so Gloria Steinem hadn’t taken the entire mass of womanhood on her fine-boned shoulders and carried us to the Land of Equality. And when another audience member implied that that’s where we’ve landed (“My sister is 11 years younger than I am and she’s got a great job in finance and doesn’t understand what my generation went through to get her there”), Steinem demurred again.

“Of course we haven’t ‘gotten there.’ Women are still not paid the same as men…” and she reeled off a number of other points that didn’t make it into my notes. But anyone who lived through the Demonization of Hillary Clinton knows women aren’t on a level playing field.

My evening with Gloria

I should pause here and explain what brought me into the same room as Gloria Steinem. I had the privilege of attending a private showing of Annie Leibovitz’s photography exhibit, Women: New Portraits. The show has been traveling the world all year and you can see it in New York until December 11th, at a former women’s prison. Steinem helped Leibovitz line up portrait subjects, and they’ve apparently made this kind of joint presentation frequently.

Gloria Steinem & Annie Leibovitz at an earlier gallery talk
Steinem & Leibovitz at an earlier event. Photograph: George Chinsee for WWD

This particular gathering brought together people from my high school’s community—students, teachers, alumnae, parents; anyone fortunate enough to have clicked quickly enough on the email the school sent at 8:00 the night after the election. They alerted us that it would be coming, but in my post-election haze, I’d forgotten. By pure chance, I decided to check my email before turning off my computer for the day. I looked at the clock—8:01—and experienced my first moment of happiness since the election. [Note: still waiting for the second.]

And so a few days ago I trekked to the westernmost reaches of Chelsea to attend my first large-scale gathering since the world changed in November.

Over and over, I heard women greet each other: “How are you? Well, you know—other than…” But of course it’s hard to separate the rest of our lives from the “other than.” And even being in a roomful of extraordinary women—the ones lining the wall in Leibovitz’s compelling photographs and the ones standing around nibbling lemon squares—even that didn’t lift the feeling of impending doom.

Gloria Steinem says “Don’t look up”

How can we get through this? We all wanted to know.

“Look at each other,” Steinem advised us. “Don’t look up.” Because when we look up—”at the boy in the bully pulpit,” as she put it—we feel alone. But when we look at each other, we can see the power and potential we have. We’ve always had it, and now that we’ve been shocked out of complacency, we need to put it to good use.

“Look at each other; don’t look up.”—Gloria Steinem

Someone asked why so many women voted for Trump. Steinem reminded us that many segments of women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, including African American women and single women. Only married women voted in the majority for Trump. She suggested this might be a case of internalized oppression.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Internalized oppression is the manner in sociology and psychology in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor.

For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own populations, or they start to believe in negative stereotypes of themselves.”

So perhaps you’re a post-menopausal woman who’s noticed how tired you get these days. If you generalize your feelings across your entire gender, it’s easy to believe people saying that Clinton lacks the “stamina” to be president. Voilà! Internalized oppression.

A brave question—and an answer to model

But it was the very next question that made me want to tell you all about this event. A woman asked—not timidly or aggressively, just genuinely wondering:

“Is it possible to be a thoughtful woman and vote for Trump?”

Steinem answered the question with integrity, grace, and complete respect for the questioner—behavior we should all emulate.

She acknowledged that some people feel stuck and abandoned. Some feel confused to find themselves living in a country where descendants of white Europeans will soon become a minority. And for those people, Trump may have seemed like the most logical choice.

If the election proved anything [this is Elaine again, not paraphrasing Steinem], it’s that we’re not going to get anywhere by labeling each other—not “racists” (though certainly some are); not “idiots” (though ditto, or at least easily misled).

We need to listen to and try to understand the people on the other side, try to arrive at a shared truth. Even if it’s only a tiny slice of the truth, if we can share it and reconnect at the level of our common humanity, we can broaden the conversation. And then we have hope.

Gloria Steinem suggests that real, lasting change happens when we “look at each other,” connect to each other. And how do we do that? My answer won’t surprise regular readers: we tell our stories, authentically and often.

We share our pain, one person at a time. We remind each other that the masses of people the PEOTUS and his not-so-merry men are trying to make us hate or fear are composed of individuals like you and me. People with the same needs, the same hopes and dreams for respect and security, for peace and understanding.

Demonizing any group only leads to more hatred—whether it’s Trump demonizing immigrants or Clinton’s voters demonizing Trump’s. “Look at each other,” as Steinem said. And tell your stories. One story at a time, one connection at a time, perhaps we truly can change the world.


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A voice of one’s own: Virginia Woolf and us

Eighty-seven years ago yesterday, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own.

A first edition of the Virginia Woolf essay, A Room of One's OwnPedantic copyeditors usually redline that construction: “Writers don’t publish; their publishers do.” But Woolf, of course, was both writer and publisher. So not only did she have the “room of [her] own (with a key and a lock)” she prescribed as essential for every woman writer, she also had the means to get her creations out into the world.

Woolf’s literary output, both fiction and nonfiction, would be remarkable in any era. But given her circumstances—her lack of formal education, the mental breakdowns that punctuated her life and limited her work and social interactions—really, it’s amazing she created anything. Still, as she wrote in A Room of One’s Own,

“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

So, yes, Virginia Woolf is one of my literary heroes. Sheer courage kept her writing. And kept that writing audacious, whether in an essay like A Room of One’s Own or her novel Orlando, with its time-shifting, gender-shifting protagonist. (Originally I wrote “a novel like Orlando,” but I don’t believe anyone else has ever written a novel like Orlando. I don’t believe it’s possible.)

Virginia Woolf lived here.
Best birthday present ever: a ceramic replica of a British heritage plaque overlooks my desk

I first came to A Room of One’s Own by way of Eileen Atkins’s very fine one-woman play. Woolf originally wrote the essay as two lectures she delivered to two of the women’s colleges at Cambridge University. Atkins substituted a paying audience for students and melded the two essays into one devastatingly moving evening. I sat stunned in the theater, weeping, long after the final curtain.

Virginia Woolf and Us

Virginia Woolf on a coaster
Virginia Woolf, now available as a water-absorbent coaster. On my desk.

Any other year, I might have celebrated the anniversary of A Room of One’s Own privately. But this year it resonates more strongly for me. We’ve watched a woman fight to be heard in the presidential debates. And watched men try to silence her (no, not just Trump; remember Matt Lauer?).

By and large, women still don’t have “a room of [our] own” within the mainstream media. News directed at women still skews heavily on celebrities and fashion. A woman may make still make news if she becomes the first to hit a milestone. But we don’t have a (metaphorically) loud enough voice to make an impact that doesn’t get erased in the next news cycle. And of course when we literally speak above a whisper men criticize us for being “shrill.”

Woolf’s essay dealt with women’s portrayal in fiction. But doesn’t this passage still resonate?

“Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.”

In a few weeks, we in the U.S. may have a woman who can’t easily be left out of history. Give her a (white) house of her own and maybe—maybe—women can finally be heard.

Many things about the world have changed since Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own nearly 90 years ago. But not enough. Not yet.


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Time flies — happy fourth quarter, everyone

“The bad news is that time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” —Michael Altshuler

Seems like a good thing to remember as we start the final quarter of the year.

So far, I’ve piloted my year in many directions I didn’t expect when I sat down with a hot cup of tea last New Year’s Eve. And also in some I did. I love my work, so having more of it is never a problem.

I invite you to take a little time on this lovely autumn Sunday to think about where your piloting has taken you so far this year. And where you’d like to go.

Here’s to another quarter of “Making the world a more interesting place, one sentence at a time.”

Fast food, faster message: Wendy’s one-word answer

How powerful is a one-word answer? Very. (Okay, maybe not every one-word answer.) But if you want people to remember your message, the fewer words, the better.

What's Wendy's mission? Founder Dave Thomas offers a one-word answer

I’m not big on fast food, but I found myself in a Wendy’s last Saturday, and after I finished my (surprisingly good) hamburger, I looked up and found this mission statement on the wall, a quote from the chain’s late founder, Dave Thomas:

All of Wendy’s spins off one word: FRESH

It reminded me of a story Chip Heath and Dan Heath tell in their invaluable book Made to Stick. Herb Kelleher, a legendary CEO of Southwest Airlines, once told someone:

“I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.”

Wendy’s employees have even less to remember. They only need that one word—FRESH—to guide their actions.

A one-word answer sticks

Companies tend to write wordy, multi-part mission statements. But the more ideas you present, the less memorable each one becomes. (The Heath Brothers discuss that bit of wisdom in their book, too.) When you’re tempted to add more ideas to your mission statement, stop writing and ask yourself a different question: What’s the mission of my mission statement?

If you answer, “To make sure every department and stakeholder feels included,” then by all means keep adding clauses and bullet points. And adjectives, don’t forget the adjectives.

But if the point of your mission statement is to give your people clarity about your expectations and goals, get out the red pen and start eliminating all of the extraneous stuff.

How much more power does one sentence pack? “We are THE low-fare airline.” Really, what else does anyone need to know?

And if you can boil your mission down to a one-word answer, even better.


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