Guest poem sent in by Ruthie Coffman
(Poem #1802) 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." 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, America! O, yes, 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!
I thought of this poem almost immediately after reading the submission (and commentary) of Bob Dylan's "God on Our Side", which made me sad, angry, and unsure of how to respond. I think this poem by Hughes does it best. Like Dylan, he is exposing and exploring an American myth - this time, the one concerning equality of opportunity. Perhaps with less irony and sophistication (if you read it after Dylan's song its numerous exclamation points, dashes, and dramatic metaphors seem slightly overbearing), Hughes allows a conversation to expose the inequalities and ironies locked into American history. But in some ways his poem attempts greater coherence than Dylan's, because he uses the myth as a stepping stone towards new demands. This is where the poem, for me, becomes a response to the "indoctrination" of US history. If it is true that US history is cloaked in a mantle of untruths about "democracy," and "God," - and as a student who grew up here and learned American history I could say both a yes and no to that - then, well, why not use those myths to demand a better performance? This is Hughes' conclusion, and something that is constructive -- more of a call to action than a lament. In that, perhaps Hughes is hopelessly optimistic and naïve, or maybe just a bit braver than your average social/political critic. Ruthie [Martin adds] Ruthie's comments on sophistication and the lack thereof reminded me of the observation that a 'sophisticated' poem can be, at best, good - to be *great* a poem has to overreach itself, to abandon the safety of restraint and sophistication and take the risk of falling on its face. Hughes's poem is undeniably dramatic, but not overly or dissonantly so - the overcharged emotion definitely lends it wings rather than tripping it up. And I definitely agree with Ruthie about the bravery necessary to risk looking foolishly optimistic - I'll take that over sophisticated cynicism any day.