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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