Poetry Friday: Let America Be America Again
Hundreds of people gathered yesterday at North Central University in Minneapolis for a memorial service for George Floyd. His death, at the hands of a white police officer, has ignited demonstrations all over the country - and the world - against police brutality and systematic racism. KNAU listener Amber Jones has been searching for the right words to describe her profound array of feelings about what is happening in the United States right now, and how that fits into her experience as a woman of color in America. In this week’s Poetry Friday segment, Amber delivers a powerful reading of Langston Hughes’ poem Let America Be America Again, originally published in 1936.
AJ: My name is Amber Jones. I am a longtime Flagstaff resident and a member of the Coconino County African Diaspora Advisory Council.
With everything that’s been going on the last few months, and particularly in the last two weeks since George Floyd’s death, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to respond. I feel like I have more of a responsibility being a woman of color, but I don’t know what to do, what kind of action to do to try and change things. And I feel like I’m not alone in this. There obviously needs to be change, but how do we do that?
So, I’ve been struggling to process my feelings over the last two weeks. And, I found Langston Hughes – one of the most well-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance – I found his poem Let America Be America Again. I feel like this phrase is heard from so many different people at so many different times, “Make America Great Again.” But what does that really mean? It means different things to different groups of people.
As a woman of color, I go through this world very differently from some of my friends, and I see it. I see, like, there’s this level of confidence you can go through, but when I go out, I don’t know what will meet me…directed anger or fear. I just don’t know. I get looks and constant questions of, ‘what are you?’ The constant fight to prove my worth every single day. As a woman and as a woman of color I have to be constantly proving myself.
But back to the poem, and back to Let America Be America Again…what exactly does that mean? It’s difficult, but not everybody has access to that American Dream in the same way. The American Dream, you know, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you work hard enough. You can attain the American Dream of the house, and the two cars, and the whatever…wealth, fame, fortune. But, I don’t have that same right.
It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr. said. I mean, you can’t tell a bootless man to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There are all these external factors that go into it, and influences. It’s so very complicated and so hard. But we have to do something about it, or we’re not going to have equality for all.
Langston Hughes penned it beautifully in 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!
(Music: John Coltrane and Duke Ellington - In a Sentimental Mood)
Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu.