Let America Be America Again
by Angus Johnston
The mini-brouhaha over Kerry's campaign slogan just got a mini-boost, as Boing Boing's David Pescovitz posted an uncritical link to one of the critical comments that's been made about Kerry's use of Langston Hughes' Let America Be America Again.
The skinny first, and then a couple of thoughts:
Hughes' poem is pretty straightforward, as such things go --- its gist is summed up in three of its lines:
For blacks like himself, Hughes was saying, for Native Americans, for all the nation's "humble, hungry" people, America was never the haven it had promised to be --- but it could be that haven, and if it could, it must.
So far so good, right? Not so fast. Turns out that Hughes, like many American radicals, spent a chunk of the thirties in the orbit of the American Communist Party, and this poem dates from that era. There's nothing in it as cringeworthy as some of Woody Guthrie's lyrics on Stalin, nothing, in fact, explicitly communist at all. It's pretty clear what Hughes is getting at when he refers to "that ancient endless chain ... Of work the men! Of take the pay!" and "those who live like leeches on the people's lives," but then, Abe Lincoln didn't exactly mince words in his 1861 annual message to Congress, and nobody on the right complains when folks quote him.
Let America Be America Again isn't a Stalinist poem, as some have claimed, any more than further documentation of Aaron Copland's alleged CP ties would make Appalachian Spring a piece of Stalinist music. The poem's title isn't "ironic," either. It's a poem written in sympathy with America's poor and downtrodden. It's a patriotic poem, a call for America to --- as Martin Luther King would put it two decades later --- "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed."
Ain't nothing wrong with that.
Angus Johnston lives in Brooklyn. He can be reached at angus @ fecko.com.