‘Let America be America Again’ by Langston Hughes a summary and analysis
In ‘Let America be America Again’, Langston Hughes contrasts the American reality with the American dream to show what America has become and what it was meant to be. America to him meant freedom and equality but it has become the exact opposite and a story of greed, oppression and inequality. Hughes is one of the most important names associated with Harlem Renaissance. He had gained recognition as an imminent poet at an early age of 24 when Du Bose Heyward highlighted his rising stature in one of his articles for the New York Herald Tribune. However, Hughes mostly attracted criticism during his early career. His ‘Let America be America Again’ came in 1936. This poem is a call to turn back and see where we were destined to go and where we have arrived. The poem starts with the mention of a dream of freedom and equality.
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.)
The poet starts with his wish that he wants America being America again. He wants it to become the same dream once again that it used to be. It is not as free as it was meant to be. The poet wishes it to be a pioneer that knows and values liberty and without that America can never be America. Where freedom is compromised, it cannot be America.
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.)
Here there is a reference to the founding fathers and their dream of free America where passion and love lived and everyone had the same liberty. Where there was no oppression and where the King or the tyrant could not oppress the poor and the weak. However, this dream has not been realized and so America is not America. The lines evoke a feeling of misery and pain.
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.
Rather than false notions of patriotism, let my land be a land where true patriotism and liberty are worshipped. Let it be the land where Liberty itself wears the crown and nothing else is above it. We need free air to breathe, an environment where real opportunities abound and people are treated as equals. Where there are no usurpers and where all have an opportunity to live a free and happy life. These lines evoke some hope and show that America is meant to driven by real values.
(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?
America is known as the land of the free but then for the poet there is no freedom and equality. The homeland of the free does not accord the freedom it once promised. A voice asks who is it speaking and who draws that veil across the stars. (Air’s thin veil makes stars appear twinkling.) The voice asks ‘whose voice is it ringing in the air rising from the dark’?
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.
Not all the whites are rich in America. Many of them have been fooled of their opportunities and pushed apart. Even the Negro still wears the scars of slavery on his face. The red man’s lands were snatched and he was driven from his safe homeland. The immigrants who had come with big hopes of wealth and opportunity too, have met the same fate. The same old stupidity is here too. The greedy and the opportunistic are taking from others and the mighty are still crushing the weak. Oppression and greed are still prevalent in the air and the poet’s America is not America. It has become a distorted and ugly version of the dream it was meant to be. The lines evoke the picture of hunger and starvation brought by the great depression.
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!
Hughes indicates in these lines that while all the hope may not be lost, still there are some chains that have kept people bound for ages and to let oneself loose might not be possible. Poverty and slavery are still a truth and slavery has just acquired a new form. The endless hunger for wealth has kept people bound. Power, profit and hunger for wealth have given birth to lies and more greed. The run for gold is breeding only and only greed. Hughes also remarks in his poem how businesses are in a run to satisfy every need and make more and more money. The workers keep working for hours like bound slaves. The capitalists just want to own everything and will use every means to attain their dream of endless riches.
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.
According to Hughes, America will remain poor till its workers, farmers and craftsmen are poor. The poor farmer has become like bonded labor to his own soil. The worker is married to the machine and his life is caught in its nuts and bolts. The negro is still a slave a servant to all, an inferior to everyone. The people are humble and hungry trying to make do with what has been made available to them. Despite the great American dream, the people still do not have access to the opportunities of growth and they are living a compromised life in their own land. The poor man could never get ahead of the line of poverty and the poor worker is still being bartered as he was through years. Hughes shows how the situation has kept growing tough for the poor and the honest. The reed for wealth has given birth to new devils who will keep feeding on Negro flesh and blood.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dreamIn 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 singsIn every brick and stone, in every furrow turnedThat’s made America the land it has become.O, I’m the man who sailed those early seasIn 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 cameTo build a “homeland of the free.”
America has been created through years of struggle, sacrifices and hard work. Right from the time of the kings and emperors this powerful ream had been taking shape. Those ancient songs are still inscribed in those tombs of brick and stone. Every stone and brick that went into the making of America bears the sign of that ancient and powerful dream. America was not created easily but was a result of years of search and exploration. The reference here is to Columbus the early sailor who found out the Americas. People came from various shores to make it their home from Ireland to Poland and England and America is a culmination of their collective dreams. Blacks having torn away from Africa case to lay the foundation of a land meant to be known as the land of the free.
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 dreamedAnd all the songs we’ve sungAnd all the hopes we’ve heldAnd all the flags we’ve hung,The millions who have nothing for our pay—Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
Hughes again questions the relevance and strength of the dream in this stanza. He cannot think of himself and millions of others like him as free. The millions who never had anything for a pay and were shotdown when they went on strike were never free. For all the dreams they dreamt and songs they sung and for all the hopes they held or the flags they raised, they were never free. Without anything for a pay that dream they cherished is nearly dead. Where has America remained a land of freedom and dreams?
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.
Hughes wants that America again turns into the land he can truly call his. It has never yet been able to become that cherished motherland. The land that belongs to its poor, its Negroes and Indians and to the poet. America belongs to the people who made it with their sweat and blood and their faith and by bearing the pain. It was built by the ironsmiths and the farmers – those who cast the tools and those who harvested the land in rain and sun. The mighty dream needs to rise again and give hope to millions. The poet hopes that the dream like a phoenix will rise from its ashes.
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,America!
If America can ever be gained back, it can be gained back through struggle. Those who are greedy and do not want to give America back to the people to whom it belongs can hate him (the poet), but the steel of freedom does not get stained. People should take America back from the leeches feeding on its blood. People should grab America back from the hands of these bloodsuckers with determination.
O, yes,I say it plain,America never was America to me,And yet I swear this oath—America will be!
The poet in plain and simple works highlights America’s deviation from the path it was expected to take and that it was never America. Yet, with determination he speaks that America will become America again.
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,We, the people, must redeemThe 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!
Lies, crimes and sin have become the truth of America and to redeem the old American pledge is the duty of us Americans. We need to fight to free every stretch of land that is America. From mountains to plains every inch of land and all its states need to be freed from crimes and sin and be made America again.
A Brief Analysis:
The poem is a lot like war cry to redeem the American pledge and the American dream. He notes that it has deviated from what it was meant to be to become an ugly and repulsive state where greed and lies reign. It has changed and the sacred meaning of the great dream has changed. He is speaking about the inequality that prevails in America The poem was published in 1936 and therefore bore the signs of the great depression. The poet laments that this was not meant to happen. Starvation, poverty, lack of opportunities and oppression were never to become the reality of a state whose foundation was laid through years drenched in sweat and blood.
As the poet notes one cannot be free with nothing in the name of pay. As the 1930s began more than 15 million workers were without employment. All this poverty and starvation had resulted from the greed of some to own everything in America. The rush to own gold and every inch of land had driven Indians homeless and in a state of crisis. The Negroes’ status has not changed yet and they are still inferior to all and equal to servants. Instead of being a dream America has become a horror and its wounds are giving a pungent odor.
While the poem mainly discusses the plights of the millions and shattering of their dreams, it also offers a resolution that America must be handed over to the poor farmers and the ironsmiths who had worked to make it America. The mighty dream needs to be awakened again and people need to get hold of it from the rich and the greedy to turn it into America – the land of the free. Rather than being inspired by false notions of patriotism, it must focus upon becoming the nation of free again. Hughes was writing at a time when unemployment and poverty had become the horror of millions in America. He wanted that the race for gold was brought an end and the masses could breathe free and lead a dignified life again.
While there are three or four important themes in the poem, the main theme is still the corruption of the American dream. According to the poet, the reality of America is very different from the dream its foundation was laid upon. The rush for gold and land has turned it into a land of the greedy from the land of the free. Another major theme in the poem is unemployment and starvation. The poem also highlights the rampant unemployment and poverty of the 1930s. Apart from it, slavery, the lost meaning of liberty and false notions of patriotism are also important themes making the poem. Overall, these themes stress the same point that America belongs to its people and not to a corrupt system that encourages the rich and enslaves the poor. The poet highlights the need to take America back from the greedy and the corrupt.