Let America Be America Again
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9, NRSV)
Recently I’ve found myself recalling my third grade days in the small southern California town where I was a temporary resident, where I stood each morning beside my desk, hand over heart, reciting the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America, “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” I was only eight years old, but I vividly recall the pride of belonging to a country that treated us all as equals as I ran out at recess to play with my classmates—transient residents such as my fellow military brats and the children of migrant farmworkers, and the children of ranchers and others whose families had lived in Oxnard for generations.
These days, equality and justice for all seem under dire threat. But living in Washington, DC in I find myself heartened by my fellow citizens speaking up for justice, gathering in front of the massive stone buildings that stand as monuments to our nation’s power—the Justice Department and Supreme Court, the Senate and House buildings, the White House. The voices of our nation’s poets add to this conversation—Emma Lazarus, certainly, whose gave voice to the Liberty who welcomes immigrants to our shores,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
and, among others, Langston Hughes, DC's original "busboy and poet," and one of America’s great poets (read more about Hughes here.)
In “Let America Be America Again,” he speaks for all Americans--immigrant, native and native-born-- for whom the American dream has not yet been fulfilled; and in so doing tasks the rest of us to hear those voices, to raise our own to help America become the land of freedom, justice and equality that “yet must be” (hear poet Nikki Giovanni read it here):
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!