In 1935, the brilliant Black poet Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again.” Hughes wasn’t looking back to a nostalgic, idealized fantasy of America’s past. As he says in the refrain: “America never was America to me.” Instead, the poem is about the dream so many people of all colors, backgrounds, faiths, and nationalities have always had of what America should be – the “dream it used to be” of love, opportunity, equality, and freedom for all. That was the “dream so strong, so brave, so true” it drew generations of poor and working-class immigrants here from “dark Ireland’s shore, and Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea” to join the farmers, laborers and factory workers – and slaves and Native Americans – on whose backs America was built. His poem draws a stark contrast between the dream and the reality of America’s long history of economic and racial oppression and exploitation that left it “almost dead.” But it says that American dream must live on:
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.…
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
America will be. My late beloved theologian friend Dr. Vincent Harding, close adviser of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this verse as a challenge to all of us: “We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain – ‘you’ve never been America to me.’ But remember, Langston did not stop there. ‘America, you’ve never been America to me. But I swear this oath – you will be!’ I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children…You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to working for that.” And so must we all in these times.
The last weeks and months have given many of us pause about the viability of America’s dream as every day brings new assaults within and without government on American ideals and the hard earned progress made but still not complete. Many in power seem bent on turning the clock backwards and transforming the dream into a nightmare – closing its doors to those seeking freedom, justice, safety and equal opportunity. America is not America right now to many millions within and without our borders as we cruelly separate children and parents seeking a safe haven from repression and violence in their countries and let 13.2 million children live in poverty. So we must speak up and vote massively and demand leaders who will keep moving us towards America’s true promise.
America must continue to struggle as hard as necessary to live up to the creed enunciated in the Declaration of Independence but not yet a reality for millions of excluded and marginalized children, women and men – especially those of color – still fighting to access America’s promise of equal opportunity and build a safe and just America for themselves and their children and grandchildren. Deep-seated cultural, racial, economic, and gender impediments to a just union challenge us mightily still and must be fought with all our strength. We must remain ever vigilant and never tire of fighting every attempt to turn back the clock of racial and economic progress or allow political and economic self-interest to sully our national dream. We must stand up and fight every new unjust policy that excludes rather than includes all those left behind because they are women, poor, disabled, immigrants seeking a better life in our nation of fellow immigrants, or others seen as without power. It is simply un-American.
Our voices must get louder and our struggle must accelerate and grow into a mighty sustained roar until our political and economic leaders realize that America is not just for the privileged few but for all and that these core values of freedom and justice are under assault. Celebrating another July 4th is hollow if we do not join together to affirm Langston Hughes’s dream and build a nation we are proud of because of our human decency.
America will be – if you and I stand up, speak up and vote to make America’s light shine bright rather than spread darkness across our world.