Langston Hughes in a “Make America Great Again” Era

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Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

Memories and stories are often passed down to new generations. Sometimes, along with anecdotes and tales of ancestry, the trauma of past generations is shared, too. As a child, I remember the first time my father told me he knew which streets he was allowed to walk down and which roads would make his brown skin a target for racial slurs and violence, a sign we’re not far removed from some of this country’s darkest acts. And still today, people who are native to this land are the least heard. I’ve often wondered how oppressed people around this world are still able to find the strength to move forward. Instead of becoming immobilized by fear or anger, they somehow find a way to preserve hope and their cultures, while they seek freedom and equality with relentless courage. One recurrent theme I’ve come across is the transformative power of art; amid cries to “Make America Great Again,” I hear the clear, resounding words of Langston Hughes in his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Though written in 1935, the piece bears an indisputable resemblance to today’s racial and social strife.

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In the poem, Hughes shares the reality of life for millions of people in this country:

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.)

So often we rush into believing that America is in a state of post-racial neutrality, and yet our present parallels the poem Hughes formed 30 years before the Civil Rights Movement even began. In startling words filled with vivid imagery, he describes what America has been like for Native Americans, blacks, immigrants and poor white people.

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.

Hughes makes a plea for America to be America Again, to be the place it never was for him. He urges America to finally live up to its promise of freedom and equality for all groups and forces us to look at our present reality and ask: How deep are the changes that have come? This poem stands as a reminder that America has never been “great” for all people. Native Americans fighting for the right to have water and to protect sacred land. Black people fearful of being killed for minor traffic stops. Immigrants and refugees targeted, kicked out of the country and facing severely discriminatory laws to decrease immigration to the US. Barren towns where poverty has lived too long continue to decay. This is a far cry from a country that proclaims to stand behind the values of equality for all people.

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America needs to live up to the name it has claimed since its birth as a nation. We must see the inherent humanity that resides within all those who live in the shadows of this country. Again, I turn to Hughes’ heartfelt plea, born from the pain and clarity that comes from living on the margins of society:

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.

Perhaps we can begin to make an equal America.

I don’t know when the moments of real life captured by a pen, or a camera lens, or soft brush strokes, become art. At some point, many of these moments were simply a tragedy. Terror suspended in time. Yet somehow, through the transformative power of art, these hard realities take on another life. I hope moving forward that when we tell stories, instead of passing on trauma and more heartache, we’ll show future generations that we decided to learn from our collective past, allowing us to usher in an era of unprecedented healing for our world.

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We’re left to engage with these last foretelling words:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!

 

…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!

Instead of “Making America Great Again” — which is a fallacy we cannot claim — perhaps we can begin to make an equal country for the first time: an America that Hughes believed to be possible; an America that has been the dream of millions of people for centuries; an America that is still a dream today.