Recently, on a solo trip by car, I stopped in North Adams, Massachusetts, for a visit to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. In that sprawling complex of renovated factory buildings, I saw on the wall of one exhibit these words by the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes:
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.
I jotted down the lines and searched for their source when I returned home. I discovered they are part of a longer poem entitled “Let America Be America Again,” the opening lines of which read:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be.
Written in 1935, the poem speaks, sadly, of a dream unfulfilled for African-Americans in particular and for other oppressed groups in these United States. A recurring theme in the poem is the lament “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” The poet, though despondent, had not given up on the hope that one day the American dream would be fulfilled.
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath- America will be!
Critics have pointed out that the poem is not particularly well-written, and Hughes did not consider it one of his better works. Yet, there is a ring of truth about it for our turbulent times. Former politicians have tried unsuccessfully to appropriate its opening lines for campaign slogans. It is simply not possible for those of us who have never experienced the failure of our systems to deliver the promises of our creeds to understand the pathos and regret of folks who have been systematically abused, misused and disenfranchised. So, in his poem Hughes speaks for the dispossessed: “I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.”
A current illustration of this is recounted in an article in the September 2019 issue of The Atlantic entitled “This Land Was Our Land” (pp. 74-85). In it, author Van R. Newkirk II documents in detail how African American farmers have been systematically deprived of their rightful ownership of land by a combination of government policies and corporate greed. He writes, “Through a variety of means — sometimes legal, often coercive, occasionally violent — farmland owned by black people came into the hands of white people.” Today, Newkirk says, “A war waged by deed of title has dispossessed 98 percent of black agricultural landowners in America.”
This land-grab is but one example of what was taking place throughout the lifetime of Langston Hughes. In spite of his despair, Hughes expressed the optimistic belief that America can do better. I believe that, too. In these next 15 months, we can, if we will, begin to make America America again.
Thomas Reynolds lives in Bridgewater.