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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Here, for the 4th of July, a T-Shirt and a Poem

A writer friend, critical of our nation's true history as well as much that is happening in American society today, was asked this question over and over, “Why don’t you love your country?” The person asking seemed incapable of understanding my friend’s answer, which was “I do love my country!” She loves the land, the people, the lofty ideals. My friend simply wants what so many of us want, which is for our country’s policies, foreign and domestic, to reflect our stated ideals and for all our citizens to respect and protect one another.

Perfection, of course, is a moving target, but certainly we can aim to be better and, aiming sincerely, improve. We can make the future brighter than the past has been.

Pictured above is one of my favorite t-shirts. Like so many in what I would not even presume to call a “wardrobe,” this one came from a thrift shop. I couldn’t resist it, and I love to wear it. “When was America ever kind?” the Artist asked the last time he saw me in the shirt.

I told him it’s like the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again,” a poem written 85 years ago during the Great Depression, when Hughes and so many millions in America and around the world were struggling to make ends meet, let alone to realize their dreams. There is sharp poignancy in that word again, since the America that Hughes envisioned, as he makes clear in the poem, “…never has been yet.” 

I have a connection to Langston Hughes, tenuous but important to me. After she graduated from high school, my mother worked for an organization (perhaps the YMCA or YWCA) that sponsored a local reading by the poet, and since she was responsible for putting the event together, my mother was privileged to meet Langston Hughes, who inscribed a copy of his autobiography for her. That treasured book now belongs to me. 

So for July 4, 2020, I want to share my favorite Langston Hughes poem with you who have known it for years as well as you who have perhaps never read it before, because – you know this troubled country of ours? We don’t always act as if we know it, but we truly are all in this together.

Happy 4th, friends! Let freedom ring!

by Langston Hughes 

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." 

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, 

O, yes,
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! 


Chris Verdon said...

Pamela, thank you for your thoughts and for sharing this poem. With what is happening this particular 4th of July weekend it is appropriate that we remind ourselves that this is a pendulum that hopefully will begin to move to normalcy. This can't be the new normal or we won't survive as a nation. We must heal.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you for reading and commenting, Christine. We all need to hold onto our hopes, raise them high, and continue working toward a better tomorrow.

Jeanie Furlan said...

Langston Hughes! Pamela, I read his autobiography because of you, back in the days of MSU. I find his poem so moving and I’m ordering his book - I need to read it again. Also, with the passing of the great John Robert Lewis, his biographer has sited Mr. Lewis’s favorite poem: “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley which Mr. Lewis’s sister says he would recite as a teenager around their house. It is as searing and inspiring as Mr. Hughes’s. Books in English here in São Paulo are available, but now with stores closed, I’m ordering on-line because I love real books. There are audible books that I can appreciate while doing my walks, and Kindle books for those I can’t get, but a real book in my hands is what I love. Thank you for reviewing and giving me insights on your book recommendations. I’ll see about getting some Bonnie Jo Campbell ones! And the “Yes to Life!” By V. Frankl is on my order list! Merci ! Et Obrigada, aussi !

P. J. Grath said...

Jeanie, what joy to "hear your voice," as I do in your words. It takes me back -- but at the same time I feel we are in essence unchanged, though our lives are richer now, in contentment and memories certainly. I had to look up 'obrigada,' of course. Thank YOU, dear friend! And you know that I love your love for books, too!