"Let America Be America Again"
In 2019, the U.S. is as polarized as it has ever been. The Trump administration actively marginalizes more minorities every day, from stoking chants to “Build the wall!” to its militant enforcement of the Muslim ban. Women’s reproductive rights are under scrutiny again, forty-six years after the victory of Roe v. Wade. An eclectic swarm of Democrats clamor for the nomination in the 2020 race. In this divided climate, Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again” is more relevant than it has ever been. Written in 1934, this poem redefines patriotism as an intersectional pursuit, which is something that our country still desperately needs. Hughes uses repetition, contrasting tones, and rhetorical questions to open the reader’s eyes to an America she may have never seen before.
Hughes uses contrasting voices to juxtapose the truth and the hope of the American dream. The poem is interspersed throughout with a hopeful, idealistic voice sharply cut with an honest, contrary one. It begins idealistically:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be… (America never was America to me.)
The idealism of the first lines is cut by the parenthetical statement that follows. Far from letting the reader dream about an America that is all-inclusive and perfectly fair to every race (and, let’s be honest, this is the nationalistic reverie that Americans want to believe in), Hughes stops that narrative in its tracks. This continuing pattern––the hope of the dream and then the truth of the narrator’s experience––interrupts the readers’ smooth comprehension and gets them thinking about the lived truth of the American dream. Is it really so beautiful if it is not accessible to all? This use of contrast is very intentional: the U.S. is built on paradoxes and contrasting truths, and we need to be able to hold the truth of both sides. This country was built on the ideal of freedom and equality for all, but that has never been the reality in the U.S. The contrasting tones in this poem very clearly call that discrepancy out. The two voices are not discordant in themselves, but they speak of a disconnect between the ideals of America and its realities. Hughes communicates this tension in a tone of hope, not one of aimless fury. He is honest about his experience, but he lives less in blame and more in hope. The contrasting voices illustrate the tension in America both in Hughes’s context and in ours today: there is more than one American reality, and both need to be spoken.
In addition to juxtaposing these competing views of America, Hughes uses repetition to emphasize the power and the salience of his words. He especially repeats the words “I am…” and follows them with different examples of the marginalized.
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.
This repetition allows the speaker of the poem to speak for not only Hughes’s own context but for all those who don’t get a share of American equality, such as poor whites, black people formerly held as slaves, immigrants, and indigenous peoples. This granting of voice and agency is important because the voiceless are a varied and diverse group. Hughes uses this form of repetition to imply that though there are many different marginalized groups, and he wishes to give them all a voice. Not only that, but for America to truly embody its ideals, these voiceless groups need to have an equal say and disrupt the status quo. A country where only rich whites have power stands opposed to Hughes’s ideal America.
This hits a little too close to home in our political climate today. Hughes’s poem speaks prophetic truth into our context, where we have to fight for human rights in a country of hypocrisy. Hughes, in 1934, writes about how this country’s ideals and its realities, especially for people of color and other disenfranchised groups, do not line up with one another. This phenomenon has only become more pressing and heartbreaking in the intervening eighty-five years. Though we have progressed greatly, there is much progress still to be made toward realizing Hughes’s vision of what America could be like.
In “Let America be America Again,” Hughes’s rhetorical questions call the reader of this poem to action: we must sit with these realities and question them alongside Hughes and other people of color who have suffered. How do we reconcile this ideal of the “American Dream” with the millions who will never see it come to fruition? Hughes doesn’t let the reader read his poem without making them think. He asks:
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?
By bringing the millions of people who are not free into the reader’s consciousness, Hughes challenges the normative narrative and asks the reader to go deeper. Today, these disenfranchised look like those refugees turned away by the system, the indigenous peoples who are confined to reservations, the young black and brown people killed by police every day for no reason. Freedom is only truly available for those who can afford it. These questions dig into the reader’s thought process and make her think about what the concept of freedom truly means in this country of double standards.
In “Let America be America Again,” Hughes turns old ideas on their heads and redefines patriotism as intersectional. This approach—pointing out the flaws in the system, but still having hope for the future––is the only productive way to move forward from the ugliness of our past and present reality in the U.S. The final line of the poem reads, “And make America again!” In this line, Hughes wants us to rebuild the U.S. as a place of equality and beauty. The healing image of “remaking” provides an example of what reconciliation in this country truly looks like in practice. This statement stands in stark contrast with President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” Hughes aims to redesign the toxic parts of the U.S. narrative and make it a welcome place for all; the Trump administration consistently reverts America to a less progressive place, erasing all the preciously-bought freedom and equity that America’s people have had to fight so hard to achieve.
We as Americans would do well to listen to Hughes’ prophetic word and look to the hopeful future instead of looking back toward a painful and oppressive past. Let us aim toward his hopeful vision, keeping his raw truth in mind. Hughes does not end his poem on a mournful note but on a hopeful and expectant one. This is the attitude we need to have, too, if we are to help redeem this flawed and broken nation: understanding the state of things, yet optimistic about the future we could have. As Hughes says well,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
About the author: Kate Dieda is a recent graduate from Seattle Pacific University with a degree in English Literature. She is currently building her portfolio as a copy editor and writer.