In about a week we start another school year — my thirteenth year teaching, and my first to teach eleventh graders.
I’m excited for the new class. There’s a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, so this week I started pulling down and rereading some favorite poems and stories, trying to decide which texts to share with my kids. I’ve been flipping especially through the giant Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. It’s been a while since I’ve read “Let America Be America Again,” first published in 1936; I look forward to reading it with my students in the new age of #MAGA.
If you don’t know it, check it out, below. If you do, why not slow down to read it again?
Let America Be America Again
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!
* * *
P.S. I kind of took a summer break from this blog; hopefully I can get back again soon into the habit of regular posting. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, here’s something good you can store away for a rainy day (or a sunny one) soon: Langston Hughes speaking at UCLA in February of 1967, just months before he died.
5 thoughts on “Make America America”
Well spoken. Thanks for sharing and thanks for your excellent radio show each week!
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Thanks, Brian! I appreciate the comment very much.
I’ll have to check out the Hughes video! The Hughes collection, now lost in a move so I need to replace it, was maybe the third collection I bought. Right behind Silverstein and Poe. I reconnected with Hughes last year when I taught 11th grade, as well. Simple words. Big, beautiful ideas with a strong connection to life lived in the world. I’m sure you’ve heard it, but somewhere I have Weary Blues, a record he did with another one of my favorites, Charles Mingus.
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Yes, that’s a very cool album! What are your favorite Hughes poems to teach (or otherwise)?
This may sound boring, but I was working with a particular text and it had the “hits,” you know what I’m talking about. In my junior and senior classes, I think there grew an appreciation for his sense of metaphor and simile. I suppose I could just say image. See even when students could see the broad picture (“I get it. It’s about not giving up.” “It’s about racism.”) the poems allowed them to really dig into the words on the page and think about each image. It’s not a raisin or a grape becoming a raisin. It’s a raisin in the sun. I just had to get them to slow down and think about diction. It seemed like it was useful and on the surface, Hughes is simple and the students weren’t intimidated by his Poetry at first.
Teaching him for the first time reminded me about how much I had enjoyed his work decades ago. I need to reread before I can talk about favorites.
I like to have my students bounce back-and-forth from larger worldviews to bringing the poems specifically into their own lives and geography. So with “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” we looked at possible aims Hughes may have had and then I wanted them to think about their own families and places like the rivers mentioned. We talked about the difference between calling a poem “Harlem” and calling it “A Dream Deferred.” Similarly, we broke down each individual image in “Mother to Son.” They get the theme on a basic level, but they were often how much is described even in a simple phrase like “turnin’ corners” given the context of the poem.
That’s what I can remember for now. Let me know if you have any specific questions!
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