The crackle and thunder of the fireworks is finally beginning to wind down, the traffic jam that’s been creeping past my house for an hour is breaking up, and a pall of smoke hangs over everything. Independence Day 2018 is nearly over. Am I the only one who feels sort of… relieved? Let’s be honest: It’s been a weird one this year.
Our country is a mess. It’s been a mess before, many times, but this mess, this year… this feels different, doesn’t it? The partisan divide is wider than I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime, and that’s saying something given the past 20 years or so. Tensions are high, and I’m willing to bet a dollar that there will be bloodshed before this long hot summer is over. Or at least before election day. Not exactly a celebratory sort of time, is it?
I’d like to share a poem I ran across recently that I think is worth your time and your thought. It’s by a gentleman named Langston Hughes, an African-American writer who was at the forefront of the artistic and social movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote this poem written in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, when the forces of fascism were on the rise in Europe. That world would look familiar to us in some respects and yet also be stunningly removed from our daily experience here in the 21st century. It’s a world 83 years in the rear-view, a time that was closer to the muzzle-loading, pre-industrialized Civil War than it is to our current-day social-media struggle to define the soul of America. Nevertheless, what Hughes is saying here remains true and relevant today: that America is what it has always been… not a tangible thing that we once had and somehow lost, but an ideal to strive for… an ideal we’ve never managed to completely obtain, which has never been shared equally among all our peoples, but which we still promise ourselves is within reach. That comforts me on this long, hot summer night when the air is as thick with tension as it is the smell of gunpowder…
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!