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“O, let America be America again…
The land that never was yet—
And yet must be the land where every man is free.”
This line comes from Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again”, first published in Squire in 1936. It’s a long poem (which you can read in full here), which captures the wide range of feelings among members of the underclass pleading with America to keep its declared promises. It was deeply relevant then, and still is today – as Senator Cory Booker testified yesterday quoting the poem in support of Supreme Court nominee Kentaji Brown Jackson on his second day in office. confirmation hearings.
Sen. @CoryBooker to Judge Jackson: “I’m not letting anyone in the Senate rob me of my joy…Don’t worry, sister. Don’t worry. God has you. How do I know? Because you’re here and I know what it took you to sit in that seat.” pic.twitter.com/m7cGjLrftZ
— CSPAN (@cspan) March 23, 2022
The poem is a lucid look at the treatment of Americans by the black, the native, the poor, and who were “tangled up in this old endless chain / Of profit, power, gain, grabbing the land!”
According to Arnold Rampersad’s biography, The life of Langston HughesHughes wrote it after being crushed by the experience of mounting a production of his play, Mulatto. The show’s producer, Martin Jones, significantly altered Hughes’ original work, including adding a rape scene. Critics have criticized the play for its lack of merit and for its treatment of race relations (Rampersad calls it “a harrowing orchestration of Hughes’ prophetic fear that the great house of America will be overthrown by racial bigotry”).
After Hughes was unable to convince Jones to restore his original work or reach his agent, Hughes took a train from New York to Oberlin and began writing.
Rampersad writes that Hughes was “quite sick with unexpressed anger” and “gloomy inside the moving train” he turned to verse to capture his pain.
The poem is angry and frustrated, but not resigned. Hughes writes about country life regardless.
“Of course, call me any ugly name you choose—
Liberty Steel does not stain.
Of those who live like leeches on people’s lives,
We must take back our land,
Booker is not the first politician to use the poem. John Kerry tried it out as a campaign slogan in 2004. But because the poem is so unforgiving, it resists some co-optation. As poet Nikki Finney told NPR in 2012, you can’t just slap the headline on your website and call it a day (or read a short article about it, either). “You have to get into the whole notion of what he’s talking about as a poet,” she said.
“Because the bravery he asks us to wear, the courage he asks us to keep is in every line, every stanza.”