Let America be America again
As an American and Israeli, national days of remembrance are days of mixed feelings for me. I feel joy at having a homeland and nation where I can, theoretically, live freely, move freely, and speak freely. I also know that nationalism, particularly nationalism built on colonialism, comes at a steep price of destruction, obliteration of other memories, and collective forgetting to make room for the construction of something new -- the creation of victorious memories and collective days of remembrance at the important place our nation occupies in the world.
As July 4 approaches, yet another year has passed and many celebrate this day of national spirit, liberation, and independence. Yet it’s also a time to remember that true nationalism is not what the nation proclaims it to be, those few who hold tightly to their interests and power, but what those who live within it experience. The voices on the margins need to be heard, and their experiences need to be known. The American system is one that celebrates majority rule, and numerous voices are overlooked in the celebration of the dominant. The measure of a nation should not be how the “majority,” or much more accurately, the elite minority succeed within it, but how the many voices on the margins live and know another part of it. Democracy is best practiced and celebrated when those who are not in power raise their voices to remind the system that they will not be forgotten.
Since the beginning of critical pedagogy, a teaching system designed to help students identify and challenge domination and oppression, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” has significantly amplified the “voices from below” so that the history of the dominant is not the only history we hear. In many ways, the most true act of national spirit is to know how one’s nation influences others whose voices we rarely hear, and the truest act of liberation and independence is to learn and know and speak lest those in power think they can act with impunity.
As a celebration of America’s democracy this July 4, in this first year of Trump’s ascendancy, instead of celebrating the America that has emerged with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” I suggest we look farther back in our history. Less than 100 years ago, in 1935, the poet Langston Hughes proclaimed, “Let America be America again.”
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!