As the events of Charlottesville have deeply affected the national psyche — and, truthfully, even before this — as unabashed and emboldened racism has reared its head and proclaimed itself in the wake of the last election — I’ve seen and heard two different and distinct reactions against it. On the one hand are those who cry out that this is not our country, this is not what America is about! And on the other side, among minorities especially, comes the response, “Yeah, actually, it is.” On one hand, the idealist; on the other, the realist. And perhaps both are right.
America is a nation built on the backs and the blood of exploited peoples — built, ironically, by people looking to end their own exploitation at the hands of imperialist oppressors. Slavery and freedom, inextricably intertwined within our national DNA. What is the point of declaring that “All men are created equal” when the men who composed those words actually believed that some men are more equal than others?
And yet, those words have resonated through the centuries as a perfect ideal crafted by imperfect people. It represents something we continue to strive for. Through the history of our country the abolitionists, suffragettes, unionists, beatnicks, peacenicks, and activists, generations of people have worked and fought and died so that someday, somehow, our country might live up to these ideals.
More and more lately, I find myself drawn to the work of the poet Langston Hughes. I was first introduced to the safer, less threatening of his works in elementary school. I don’t think it was even mentioned, then, that the poet who wrote, “Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly” was African-American. I certainly never learned anything about his more provocative (and, to my mind, more interesting) works. Not until I rediscovered him in adulthood did I find his passionate, pointed, sardonic musings on being black in 20th Century America.
But these days there is one particular poem of his that I come back to. Let America Be America Again.
For much of the poem, Hughes plays the Idealist. “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be,” while parenthetically giving voice to the Realist. “(America never was America to me.)” And thus does the poet, both Realist and Idealist, debate himself.
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?
He answers on behalf of all those left in the dust in pursuit of the so-called American Dream — “The millions who have nothing for our pay — / Except the dream that’s almost dead today.” But it doesn’t end there.
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 never has been yet — and yet must be.
America is a work in progress, and we can’t give up on it. We must continue the work, the fight, the struggle to rise above what we have been, what we are, to realize what we can be. We must, as Langston Hughes might say, hold fast to that dream.